Miles College freshman Marshun Burgess shows project coordinator Shamira Freeman a video of his cheerleading at a check-in for students from the GEAR UP college readiness program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. GEAR UP begins academic counseling and a support system for underserved students as early as 6th grade.

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College freshmen reflect on GEAR UP program

During high school, Diamond Jones lived out of her car for several weeks after her mother died and her father was in jail.

She eventually spent her senior year living with a foster family.

Marshun Burgess struggled in high school due to a reading disability. He grew up with his mom and his sister, who has special needs.

He is the first in his family to get a scholarship to go to college.

Jones and Burgess are the exact types of students that GEAR UP, a grant-funded U.S. Department of Education program, aims to help.

GEAR UP, offered at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, takes a cohort of students in middle school, typically at Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone schools, and follows them through high school, providing resources and support to help them get to college.

More Info

*Number of students served by GEAR UP

  • 1999-2006 cohort: 1,653
  • 2000-2007 cohort: 2,028
  • 2006-2013 cohort: 979
  • 2011-2018 cohort: 817

** In 2006, the Department of Education changed the guidelines for what students were served, reflecting the dramatic change in cohort sizes.

"These students run into a lot of obstacles and hurdles," said Hunter Huckabay, director of GEAR UP. "We are evaluated based on if we are getting students ready for college and if they are successful once they get there."


The program focuses on students from some of Hamilton County's most underserved communities. Research shows that most of those students do not have parents or family members who have college degrees, and therefore are at a disadvantage when navigating things such as college applications or financial aid.

For many of those students, just getting to school and being ready to learn is an achievement.

"College is not tangible for these students," said Stanley Young, an AdviseTN college adviser at Brainerd High School and a former GEAR UP program coordinator. "School is a very small part of their life."


That's where GEAR UP comes in, providing after-school programs, summer camps, college visits and mentors for the students, many of whom participate for years, from the time they are in sixth grade until high school graduation.

Jones and Burgess are some of the lucky ones. Recently, they returned home to Chattanooga on break from college. They are both freshmen. Jones is attending the University of Memphis and majoring in social work. Burgess is a student at Miles College in Fairfield, Ala.

Jones, who graduated as salutatorian of her class at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, had a myriad of support groups during her struggles. From GEAR UP to Girls Inc. and her mentors through both programs and at school, Jones went on to receive a national Girls Inc. scholarship providing a full ride to the University of Memphis.

She served as her class president, completed a senior project focused on raising awareness about breastfeeding and got to meet Hillary Clinton at a Girls Inc. scholarship event last year in New York City.


"It was a bumpy road," Jones said. In her scholarship essay, Jones compared her life to the Titanic. But she credits her support system for getting her through.

"I loved all my GEAR UP counselors because I could really connect with them," Jones said. "They made you feel like you had a family."

Some of Jones' favorite memories were at the annual summer camp held at the Tennessee National Guard training site in Tunnel Hill, Ga.

"When you get there, you finally got to be a kid," Jones said. 'They know some of us, we are at home taking care of little brothers and sisters and other things, we didn't always get to be a child or have fun."

That was exactly the hook that has kept Michelle Oliver, a GEAR UP program coordinator, at the organization for 15-plus years.

"The first thing that hooked me," Oliver said, was a camper who told her that while at camp, it was the first time he didn't have to share a bed. He didn't want to go home.


"They can't help where they live. You don't know what their homes are like," Oliver said.

Students such as Burgess are her shining stars. Not only is Burgess a full-time student at Miles College, but he is on the school's cheerleading team, a professional cheer team and is a cheer instructor.

"He's making it," Oliver said. "He's making it happen for himself."

As GEAR UP students graduate, they go on to college, but research shows that many don't complete degrees. That is one area where the organization hopes to help. Last month, former students were invited to UTC to share their experiences as college freshmen, talking about what was going well, what wasn't, and what they weren't prepared for.

GEAR UP has operated in the Chattanooga area since its first cohort was selected in 1999. Now, the program is at the end of its current grant cycle.

Huckabay said there is some concern over whether the grant will be renewed, as cuts have been made to federal education funding.

"A lot is on the line this year in terms of services to these Opportunity Zone schools," he said. Huckabay hopes the program will continue, and he credits community partners with its success.

"We like to think we've played a huge part, but [with] the community-wide focus [on education], everyone seems really dialed in," Huckabay said.

According to self-reported data from last year's graduates, 81 percent of GEAR UP participants are enrolled in some type of post-secondary education program.

GEAR UP will find out later this year if the program will be able to serve a new cohort.

As for Jones and Burgess, their futures are open to them.

Burgess hopes to own his own cheer gym one day. He is studying biology and exercise science.

Jones wants to be a social worker.

"I'm doing social work because of what I went through. Case workers don't always know what [you're] actually trying to go through," she said. She's still visiting college campuses — this time trying to pick out a future graduate school.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.