ATLANTIC CITY — Michael Wright has come a long way from the student he was just a few years ago.
Previously struggling in the classroom, the ACIT senior has since been a member of Stockton University’s GOALS Gear Up, a college prep program that has provided Pleasantville and Atlantic City-based students with resources and mentoring to guide them to their next level of education.
Wright will attend Rowan University as a musical engineering major. He, along with six other Gear Up seniors, made his college announcement Saturday at Stockton’s Atlantic City campus.
“I think it was very beneficial because before, I didn’t know where I wanted to go,” Wright, an Atlantic City resident, said of the program. “It also helped academically. I was terrible in school, but now I’m doing well.”
The program, started in 2019 with funding from the New Jersey Office of Higher Education, serves students from seventh grade to their first year of college. It offers workshops ranging from career and major exploration to studying and note taking habits.
Program director Destiny Talley wrote the grant for the program, which is funded by the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. She said it’s already proven to be “incredibly” important for the community.
“Our primary goal is to make sure our students know that they have that additional support in the village,” Talley, of Camden, said. “Any student who wants to go to college or has a plan after high school, they should be able to have that plan written down for them and they should be able to have an additional resource that they can go to, to help them create and map that plan out.”
In 2019 and early 2020, students would come to Stockton two Saturdays a month for various workshops. Though the pandemic forced the students and mentors to make the adjustment to virtual instruction, it actually allowed Gear Up to expand its services.
Roxana Perez Nieves, the Lead Academic and Career Counselor of the program, said she opened up her availability for students to reach out at any point during the week. She also helped them find scholarships, complete college applications and FAFSA applications.
“If I would learn about different things that they were eligible for, I would make sure that I would inform our students,” said Perez Nieves, an Atlantic City resident. “We send them weekly newsletters via email and via social media.”
The counselor added that using the state’s funding, they were also able to provide computers for any students without one at home.
Most of the seniors in the program are going to be first-generation college students in their families, including right. That reality was also on the mind of Atlantic City High School senior Asma Homayra, who will attend Stockton as a psychology major.
“It’s overwhelming because I don’t know what to do,” Homayra, 18, said. “But now that (the application process) is all behind me, it’s relieving.”
About 50 students are part of the program. Adim Oxha, a Stockton senior and the mentor of eighth-graders in Gear Up, said he got involved to inspire hope for the next generation. Originally from Paterson, he identified similar struggles in Atlantic City and knew how difficult it can be for young people in the community to get into college.
“I’ve learned that these scholars are our next leaders,” Oxha, 22, said. “These are the people that are being left feeling inferior. They’re in communities where they’re not valued, and their education isn’t valued, and we’re here giving them that opportunity to feel wanted, to feel heard, to feel seen and many more things.”
Starting this year, Gear Up will also offer a six-week paid summer program for Atlantic City students.
Contact Ahmad Austin: