Can you tell us a bit about your history and your personal experience applying to and attending college?

I was a low income, first generation college student and was the first of my cousins to attend college. My experience with applications was very limited; I only filled out one. When my mom found out that each one was going to cost $50, she told me that I should just apply to my first choice since I was pretty set on going there. When I got to college, I did very average for my first two years. Like many students, I was much more focused on the social aspects versus the academic aspects. Once I was mostly taking courses within my major, I did much better and finished with a 3.25 cumulative GPA. I also “learned how the game was played” in terms of understanding how to prioritize the important aspects of a class as it relates to your grade. I got over my aversion to asking questions and seeking out my instructors during office hours or after class.

The biggest challenges I had were financial. I remember realizing that I wouldn't have enough money to pay for the second semester during my junior year and began trying to figure out alternatives to dropping out. I was strongly considering sleeping in the back of my truck, showering at the P.E. center, and eating meals on-campus. I had myself convinced that I might do better in school because I would be spending all my waking hours on-campus. I don't know how I would have done sleeping in the back of my truck during wintertime, but was fortunate enough to have an uncle who loaned me money, so I could stay in school. There were also times when I couldn't do things with friends because I didn't have enough money. They would want to go out to eat or go on a ski trip and I would have to pass.

What advice would you give to students from a remote area who are looking to apply to college?

Look at all your options. I think there are often stigmas associated with two year colleges, but you might be well suited to a two year or certificate program that will allow you to move into your career quicker. Many two year degrees will get you a good paying job that's in demand, and you'll have less college debt. You might also consider starting your four year degree at a two year college if there's one in your community or region. You can transfer after a year or two and it will usually save you money.

A lot of my struggles my first two years were due to being in huge classes and being afraid to ask questions. In high school, I thought that anything that wasn't a major university wasn't for me. Knowing what I know now, I would have considered some smaller campuses. Your professors don't even know who you are and won't reach out to help you if you're struggling at a large university. Think about what you really need in a college and look for the campus that you think will provide it.

Do you find that coming from a rural area typically impacts the university size you are seeing students applied to?

I think many students from rural backgrounds want to be on a larger campus and in a bigger community that has more to offer. Data from Montana GEAR UP's College Application Week initiative shows that most students are using their fee deferred or waived application to apply to one of our two flagships. This is very much in line with my perceptions of college as referenced above. It was sort of like, anyone who was anyone was going to a flagship, either in or out of state.

Is this something that is important for students from rural areas to consider during their college application process?

I think it is and I think we are still trying to shift the paradigm of what is legitimately college in the minds of students. Students should be thinking about everything from community college to a major university when they're considering college. When I worked directly with students in the TRIO Upward Bound Program, I tried to impress upon students the importance of finding the campus where you would feel comfortable and can achieve your full potential. Even if that campus is located farther from home or is in a small town like your own, it's important to remember that it's a means to an end. Four years seems like a long time to a high school student, but it's really a very short period of your life and will go quickly.

Do the students you work with typically visit colleges before applying?

Our program does offer campus visits to students in grades 7-12. This is one of the more impactful things that we do. In addition to allowing students to get a sense of which campuses might be the best fit for them, it helps them understand the multitude of college options and to envision themselves on a college campus. Campuses offer so many academic and social activities. When rural students get a glimpse of this, I think it makes them more seriously consider college and see themselves as college material.

Does this influence their college decision?

I believe it does. However, I think too many low-income students make college choices based on financial or personal circumstances rather than what's going to work best for them. Unfortunately, the culture of poverty lends itself to making decisions based upon immediate versus long term needs.

Where would you suggest students from a rural area who may not have access to an organization like GEAR Up turn for help?

This is a tough one because rural schools are so limited in their capacity to provide services and interventions without supplemental funding. I would suggest that students work to build a positive relationship with at least one faculty or staff member at their school. This person may not necessarily be a career counselor, but students should talk to them about their college and career goals. A nurturing adult can provide advice and support as well as steer students to the appropriate resources that might be available. Also, simply having a positive relationship with at least one adult in their school greatly increases a student's chances of being successful.

Do a large percentage of the communities Gear Up works in attend college?

In our most recent Annual Performance Report, we reported a 68% college enrollment rate for our most recent cohort of graduating seniors. This is 16% higher than our state college enrollment rate for the same cohort. Considering that we are working primarily with low-income first-generation students, we are proud of this enrollment rate. Obviously, we would love to see it go even higher.

In what ways does this impact the views and perceptions of a student attending college?

Hopefully, when students see their upperclassmen peers attending college, it helps them see this as a reality for themselves. One of the challenges we have in our GEAR UP communities is a lack of college going role models. Students do not see many adults who have attended college outside of their teachers. Each time a student from one of our communities attends and is successful in college, they blaze a trail for those behind them.

What are some ways GEAR Up works with the community to increase knowledge of postsecondary education options?

Our schools primarily engage parents and community members through GEAR UP supported family nights. Typically, a dinner will be provided, and the school or other staff will provide information about college and careers and/or financial aid information. We also offer FAFSA assistance to students and parents. While it doesn't happen often enough, some schools are able to recruit parents to help chaperone campus visits. We also support school year kick-off events to get students and families excited about school and engaged in meaningful conversations with school staff.

For several years, we partnered with our Office of Public Instruction to implement a program called Graduation Matters Montana in our schools. The goal of that program was to elevate community expectations of graduation and college enrollment. We wanted students to understand these expectations went beyond their school and were shared by community and business leaders.

How do you see a lack of resources in rural areas affecting a student's pursuit of higher education?

Most rural schools are strapped for resources and faculty and staff wear many hats. They don't have the capacity to provide college and career readiness services in their schools. Larger schools have college and career counselors who can provide more information and guidance to students as well as other resources. Counselors in smaller schools simply don't have time. Limited funding forces schools to focus on the programs and services deemed most essential. Oftentimes, college and career awareness activities don't make the cut.

What are some positive ways you see high schools in rural areas supporting students who want to apply to college?

I think that many counselors do go the extra mile to ensure that their students get the most information, guidance, and support possible. Additionally, rural teachers try to stress the importance of college, provide information, and encourage students to apply. Unfortunately, this is often the only place these conversations are happening with students.

What is one thing you would like to see them adopt?

If every school could ensure that each student visited at least three or four campuses while in grades 7-11, that would be great.

How can colleges and universities better serve students in remote communities?

Doing more outreach and fostering opportunities to collaborate with schools helps a lot. Some of our campuses have traveling STEM and educational exhibits and activities that really help students see relevance in their coursework and raise their college awareness and expectations. I wish more did so. Perhaps more important would be to better train and inform faculty of how to better serve rural students and students who have aversive childhood experiences or historical trauma issues. These things often overlap. Many students don't make it in college because the campus doesn't have the resources or supports in place to help them navigate a new environment and overcome their challenges.

There is a general acceptance in higher education that faculty teach, and students learn. This hasn't served rural and low-income, first generation students well; everyone should be learning together.

Are there any issues that the students you advise commonly experience once they start school? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to experience?

Low-income and first-generation students often don't know or understand how campuses work, the roles of the various departments, or where they can get their questions answered. It is generally assumed that they can navigate the college process with little guidance or support. Parents can often help students understand if they themselves have college experience, but most of our students don't have that historical knowledge in their families. One of our partners that provides services to some of our college freshmen even provides basic information about the community (bus route information, places where you can get free wi-fi, upcoming community events and activities, etc.…). Many students also struggle with homesickness, but are five or more hours from home.

For our Native American students, attachment to family and community is much stronger, making campus life extremely challenging. It can be hard to prioritize college if you know that a family member is sick or that your parents are struggling to make ends meet. There is a strong desire to be there for support. These types of issues can be more of a factor in a student's decision to drop out than academic issues.

Can you tell us about some of the work you do to support GEAR Up college freshman with their transition to and retention in college?

Montana GEAR UP supports students and their families to attend one of their campus's orientation sessions over the summer or immediately prior to the start of fall semester. We also work with existing offices that provide support services and either notify them of the students we've sent to their campus who are likely eligible for their services or support a position in their office that supports freshmen from GEAR UP high schools. We've implemented a texting platform that allows one of our state staff members to provide text alerts and notifications to students; these can be tailored to specific campuses.

Some of our schools put together care packages from family, friends, and community members that include goodies, items of cultural significance, and words of encouragement. Usually, the GEAR UP liaison drives across the state to the various campuses and delivers them. As a part of the trip, they try to meet with students either individually or in small groups on-campus and have a meal. This also provides them an opportunity to visit with the students and provide advice and encouragement.

Why is this important for rural students?

Rural students who attend college are often far from home, family, and friends. To overcome homesickness and be successful, they and their families need to be comfortable with the campus environment and understand how it works. As referenced above, it can be hard to navigate the campus environment and know where to get support and questions answered. Providing these either remotely, or through proactive efforts with campus offices helps.

It's hard to return home to a small town after dropping out of college as well. Everyone knows you and knows you were in college, but aren't anymore. When your teachers and community members see you around town, they ask you why you're not in college or what happened. Inherently, you know they're disappointed. Getting care packages from many of those same people is a good way to shift the conversation from “why did you drop out?” to “we care about you and believe in you”.

Any final thoughts for us?

Rural America is becoming a place of increased poverty. Schools are seeing declining enrollment while the needs of their students increase. They are forced to do more with less each day. Meanwhile college costs go up and students and families are forced to take on more debt to finance college. These are all disturbing trends. The need for schools, parents, communities, partners, and stakeholders to work together in addressing the college access issues our rural students face has never been more important.

Zach Hawkins

Director, Montana GEAR UP

Zach Hawkins is the director of the Montana GEAR UP Program, a Federal grant program that provides college and career readiness and awareness services to 7-12 grade students in low income communities. Many of these communities are located on or near an American Indian reservation. He began his career teaching middle and high school social studies in two Native American communities in north central Montana. In addition to teaching, some of his fondest memories of those years are interacting with community members and elders, taking students to Washington D.C. for a government study program, and coaching his football team to their first win in 5 years. Eventually, he moved into college access where he has worked for the past 11 years both directly with students and as a program administrator. Zach graduated from high school in Troy, Montana and attended Montana State University, earning a degree in history and government teaching. He has a unique array of life experiences, which include attending a one room school for 8 years, volunteering with Americorps in the Montana Conservation Corps., working for the U.S. Forest Service for 15 summers, and driving the world famous red jammer buses in Glacier National Park. Zach and his wife Roni have 2 boys: Andrew, 9 and Elijah, 5. Zach enjoys sharing a meal, telling stories, and getting to know new people. He enjoys the outdoors and is especially fond of camping, hunting, and taking walks with his family.