Gabriel Maldonado is a college junior from Kansas City, KS majoring in secondary education at Park University. Before attending Park University, Gabriel was a University of Kansas GEAR UP student in Kansas City Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS). KU GEAR UP is a seven-year cohort program that follows and supports students from 6th and 7th grade through their senior year or first year of postsecondary education. For Gabriel, KU GEAR UP provided him supplemental college access services in his middle and high school years to ensure he was academically and financially prepared to persist to college.
Gabriel’s life is a life of firsts: he is the first in his family to graduate high school and the first in his family to enroll in college. Though Gabriel’s family was serious about education while he was growing up, being the first in many respects meant that he had to work harder to get past life’s obstacles. When he first got involved with KU GEAR UP in 7th grade, Gabriel began to see a college education as a possibility. As he recalls, “College was never in the back of my mind until I met with GEAR UP staff and heard about the opportunities that I have in this life.”
When he got to J.C. Harmon High School, Gabriel continued his participation in KU GEAR UP. Though he recalls that there was “never a dull moment,” Gabriel cites his attendance at the KU GEAR UP Youth Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. as one of the most valuable experiences of his educational career. For Gabriel, the Summit “helped me network with new people from across the U.S., including directors and future potential mentors.” In addition, Gabriel fondly recalls the foundation of support he received from KU GEAR UP staff as instrumental to his educational development. “GEAR UP staff members took care of me like I was one of their own.” Specifically, Gabriel remembers developing close relationships with his KU GEAR UP advisors and warmly refers to them as surrogate mothers in his “second family.” With the help of his KU GEAR UP family, Gabriel is thriving in college: he is a member of the Park University’s soccer team and a mentor in the First-year Experience program.
Looking forward, Gabriel plans to continue developing his passion for using his skills and experiences to “find ways to better myself as a future educator and to affect students’ lives.” One example is within Gabriel’s family where he knows younger siblings and cousins are looking up to him as the first to attend college and hopes they will “follow an even better path than I did.” Similarly, Gabriel sees a particular power in KU GEAR UP completers like himself returning to support the next generation of KU GEAR UP participants.
“GEAR UP to me is not only a college awareness program, to me it became a family.” For this, after he is the first in his family to graduate college, Gabriel would like to go back to work for KCKPS. He feels students will be able to relate to him since he’s a KCKPS graduate and understands their context in a very personal way. In ten years, Gabriel hopes to be an educator who has changed the system so that it prioritizes opportunities for KCKPS students by increasing resources available to urban schools. For the moment, Gabriel adheres to a hopeful mantra: “I might not be able to change the world but I can change the world for at least one student.”