Back to Episode # 7

Intro  00:00
Life After Now.


Liz Bolsoni  00:09
Hello and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host Liz Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now. You'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have firsthand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. Today, I'll be speaking with the director of GEAR UP program at Minneapolis Public Schools, Jeremiah Harris. Thank you so much for joining me today.


Jeremiah Harris  00:42
Thank you, Liz, great to be here.


Liz Bolsoni  00:44
Can you take a moment and just introduce yourself for our audience?


Jeremiah Harris  00:47
For sure, for sure. Well, hello, everyone. My name is Jeremiah Harris. I'm the manager of GEAR UP, Minneapolis Public Schools. Been in education for around eight to nine years now. Background has been in both k12 and higher ed. But ultimately, I'm a brother to four brothers, three sisters. I'm a son to my my loving mother. I'm a husband to my endearing wife. But I'm a I'm a brother, I'm a Black man living in this world today. So a little bit about me.


Liz Bolsoni  01:18
Thank you for the introduction and appreciate your time with us today. So I do have a fun icebreaker so that our audience can get to know you a little bit more. If you were to give your high school self a piece of advice or some words of affirmation, what would you say?


Jeremiah Harris  01:35
High school self. High school, Jeremiah was a totally different individual who took opportunities to advance myself but also cut corners. You know, I was a three-sport athlete, I was a guy who showed up to practice a few days a week because I didn't think I had to take that amount of time out of my schedule to work on my skill sets. And in the long run, some of those habits are still there. If I would give my high school self any advice, it would be to not cut corners, make sure that you are preparing for those opportunities ahead and taking advantage of every moment to grow to expound your knowledge on various topics. And to be confident.


Liz Bolsoni  02:23
So you were the director of GEAR UP in Minneapolis Public Schools. I think a lot of our listeners might be curious to know what that is, or might not be familiar with it. So could you explain a little bit about the type of work you do?


Jeremiah Harris  02:34
Sure. So just in case you're wondering about what GEAR UP even means. It's, GEAR UP is, essentially the GEAR UP portion of it is Gaining Earlier Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. You know, we're a Title One federally funded program started back in 2015, with a cohort around 2500 students in sixth and seventh grade, young people who are, or were, attending schools that had a 50% or more free reduced lunch population. Some of those schools are lower income schools coming from underrepresented areas. So our goal has been and still is to provide college and career access opportunities, having them have those experiential exposure, opportunities for them to see themselves on campuses to start early in creating that pathway to postsecondary success. So we've had, you know, a number of counselors and coordinators in our buildings working alongside of our students and the CCC, and the counseling department to be that chosen individual in the lives of the young people we've served.


Liz Bolsoni  03:47
Yeah, and now that we know a little bit about your career and what you do now, I'd love to dig in a little bit to your high school and college experience, especially as our audience is looking to apply to college, you had a pretty unique admission story. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?


Jeremiah Harris  04:03
Yeah, you know, again, I was that, I was a three-sport athlete who thought for sure that I was gonna get a full ride somewhere and wrestle. Unfortunately, my junior year of high school, I was in math class -- one of my least favorite subjects, but you know, we made it happen -- I was in math class, was experiencing hot and cold symptoms. And before you know it, I blacked out ended up in the ER. And the next day I was told I had to give up sports because of my heart condition. So that kind of derailed my college search process for me. Not being able to compete was very difficult. And unfortunately, because I didn't academically prepare myself -- I was reding on my athletic abilities to provide opportunity for me -- my options were limited.


Liz Bolsoni  04:58
So how has your admissions experience affected how you support young people today?


Jeremiah Harris  05:04
You know, with my, my own personal story with the admissions process, and then having worked in admissions for a number of years as well, specifically recruiting, you know, BIPOC students, it's definitely impacted how I work with young people today. You know, when we talk about opportunities, I'm making sure when I'm speaking with my team, that when we discuss anything around admissions, college or any career there after high school, making sure that we center our students and not place our own assumptions as to where they should be and where they should go, based off a few interactions. So truly, you know, taking the time to get to know those students, identify what their needs are, what they're looking for, what fits them, instead of always thinking that we know exactly where our students want to go out and where they should be. Because they can be totally opposite, right, of what we determine or identify as a potential fit for them. So, and supporting young people, you know, be open to that admissions process with them is what I tell my staff. Ask those difficult questions earlier on, give them all of the knowledge, information that they need to make a decision. So that it's one decision and they're not having to transition into college, identify this was not, this wasn't a good fit, wasn't the right fit for you, and end up having to go through their process all over again. So center the student, don't make assumptions. And make sure you're well versed. Do your own homework, do your research, so that when the students come to you, you can provide that information needed for them to make that next step in this process.


Liz Bolsoni  06:44
As we've talked about a lot on this podcast, the past year has been challenging for students, especially in Minneapolis, and Minnesota, existing through not only COVID and distance learning, but police brutality, the murder of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Winston Smith, and more. So how has that affected your students? Like what are you seeing, and how, maybe, what changes in engagement have you seen?


Jeremiah Harris  07:12
The timeliness of the question as we look at where we are, school year is just about wrapped up. And I think about the impact of not only our students, but our staff, our communities that we reside in, neighborhoods who are continuously impacted by the trauma of experiencing loss after loss after loss. I'm so proud of our students. Because they showed up and they provided the opportunity for us to connect with them as adults, right. They engage up to to up to their own individual capacity. And sometimes that's students showing up for one period. Sometimes that's two days a week, three days a week. But I think there was a common understanding, specifically within GEAR UP, is that we're centering student well being, not only students, but their families as well. And because of that, again, having that trusted individual whose students go reach out to and now that our first question is not going to be "Hey, did you complete your FAFSA? "Or "What's your college application process looking like?" It's more so, "Thank you for taking the time to connect with me. How can we be able support? What do you need? How can we provide opportunities for you to have space outside of your home?" You know, a lot of our students live in on the north and south side. I mean, the amount of trauma today are still enduring, and trying to process you know, how could you be in a space where you think students are going to show up and ready to go when all hell as you know, erupted in our own backyard. So our kids, they are, they're one of a kind, they persevere, and they made it to the end of the year. When I'm in spaces, and we're talking about, you know, achievement gaps, we're talking about the decrease in college applications, all of these things, and I pause and I say, "Wait a minute, let's focus in on the things, the positive things, the small wins -- not small -- the victories, the wins that came out of this year, because our students are still here, and they showed up and they provided opportunities for them to still see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our students are amazing. And now that, you know, it's funny that you asked that question because of just maybe the other day we were talking about college applications, celebrating our students graduations just last week. And the excitement that our students had for simply being able to walk this year, to have an in-person graduation. It was dope, like, there was just another level of excitement. There was no, you know, please make sure you don't applaud or scream or yell your child's name when they walked across the stage. It was truly a celebration. So to see and hear and witness that, that just provided the joy that I haven't felt in a while.


Liz Bolsoni  10:16
Yeah, and you had mentioned earlier, students' well-being being a priority. And, you know, I think of like reactive mental health versus proactive mental health measures. And so are there any changes or, or things that you've implemented in the past year out of necessity that now you will bring into the future to be proactive and keep students safe and happy and ready to learn?


Jeremiah Harris  10:44
Well, you know, for for GEAR UP, we were going to change our hours, so that we're not just going to be available during the school day hours. It's more so being more creative. And if we're truly going to say we're making arts as accessible to all of our students, knowing that the dynamics in the home may alter home to home, and the availability to have those discussions and connect may not be the same. So the hours will shift. But ultimately, you know, we're going to make sure that we build those connections, relationships, right away, centering the student, making sure that we have the resources at hand. So if anything arises, we can, in that moment, connect students to who they need to be connected with. But we are also as a team, you know, my main focus for this next grant cycle is to make sure we're bringing on individuals. I've had an amazing team, you know, this first grant cycle, who have moved on to different endeavors. But my goal of bringing in a new team is making sure that we have representation from our students, and also, that our students can see themselves in the staff, that we'll be working with them. So right, that representation does really matter. And that's an opportunity for connection to happen, sometime instantaneously, knowing that you have someone in the building who you can connect with, who looks like you, who understand you. So centering a student's well-being, of course, is always going to be how we start our conversations, build that trust for our students. And when we talk about college and career access and preparation, all of that is a part of their relationship. So if that isn't there, then the work won't be done. And then making sure that we support the families too. You know, we, we talked a lot about students, but in the same breath, you know that the parents, guardians, grandmothers, uncles, nieces, cousins, aunts, are also supporting these young people as well. So how do we support the whole student, right? And their family is a sub portion of that. So we want to make sure we do better about providing opportunities to also educate the parents and make sure that they're in a good space to support their young kings and queens.


Liz Bolsoni  13:02
Yeah, and I think the past year has maybe actually made students consider a lot of different options for postsecondary education. Like it's opened up students to opportunities that aren't seen as traditional. So if you could speak a little bit to the versatility of a postsecondary education, separate, you know, separate from a four-year traditional private school experience,


Jeremiah Harris  13:25
The thing that I think we always need to focus on, especially when talking about postsecondary, anything, we need to also look at the job markets. Like where are the jobs, where, where are we lacking as a country with employment opportunities. So when I look at postsecondary options, of course, I think it's just a norm that we, right away go to a four year college or university, right? It's like, that's the next step we should all take. That's such an outdated way of thinking, I'll say that, right. So our students, you know, they, they're so talented. And in some cases have four- or two-year degree is not needed for them to go off and achieve their goals and their dreams that they've set for themselves. But we want to make sure that they're continuing their education in some way, shape, or form. So looking at apprenticeships, right? We've got some great programs in the Twin Cities where students can go get internships right away, make a really good wage right out of high school, to set themselves up so that if they do decide to go and get a two- or four-year degree later, then they can and there's no financial burden there. So they can just keep progressing forward. We talk a lot about just everyday jobs, right. So I remember when I was a counselor and I had a student who said he wanted to be a mechanic and his previous counselor told him, "Oh, why do you want to do that? There are so many other opportunities." But how dare us kill a student's dream who wanted to be a mechanic, right? So really paying attention to what the students need, what their, what they aspire to be, and then take that moment and blow that up. It's like, "Okay, you want to be a mechanic, then, how can we set you up with mechanic? Have you had any shadow experiences, things of that nature." And then also, you know, transition programming. A lot of our students -- we talked about the financial burden, you know, on families and students. There's a handful of students who just can't afford to go to a four-year school right away. So taking advantage of those two-year colleges who may have a transfer program. Specifically looking at you know, Minneapolis College, or as a transfer program with the University of Minnesota. Go to Minneapolis College, get some some credits acquired. And then when you're in a position to take that next step, then the guidance and assistance is still there, because you're connected. So that's kind of you know, where we're at, when we're looking at opportunities for students, we still have a lot of students going into four-years, which is great. But we also try to make sure that it's what they want to do. Right? We understand that parents, guardians, they have a say, so for sure. And we want them to be at the table for us when we made a decision. But I love being able to say well, as soon as and just ask them, "What are your hopes, dreams, desires? Where would that land you?" And then having that conversation around how do we make this possible, or if it's a feasible option. Part of that possibility element is definitely financial aid and cost. So if you could speak a little bit about the post-secondary planning and financial aid events that you do at schools. What are they like? And are they usually successful? Or how do those go? Again, this is the conversation that I had with some colleagues a few weeks ago, we were talking about financial aid events, things of that nature. And I think many educators or college access kind of career folks have similar experiences. You put on a ton of different events, and the attendance lacks. You don't have that return on time and investment, for many reasons. But it comes down to the reality of, you know, looking at the population of students, demographics, the students that we're serving, knowing that we have many of our students who are coming from homes where English is not the first language. And we ask our students to come to these events. And we don't provide accurate translation opportunities. We put the onus on the student to be that individual to translate to their parent or guardian, which puts the parent or guardian in a hot seat, make's them uncomfortable, I'm sure, because they're not able to understand the language and the messaging sometimes can get lost. So we've done, we've done the cafeteria workshops. We've done the after school workshops. We've done one-on-ones. We've had someone from OHE actually come in and do a workshop in Spanish for us. But what what's worked for us this year is the one-on-ones, meeting with students individually, identifying what they need, sometimes even spending three, four hours in a Zoom call or a Google Meet with a student and walking him through line-by-line completing the FAFSA or GMAC application. So we're going to continue to do that moving forward. But one thing with the potential new GEAR UP grant cycle, is that I'm going to make sure that I hire staff who can be available for all events, to ensure that those opportunities for translation are there, both verbally and within the our advertising documents as well. So that when parents and students get the information, they understand information, and they know that there will be support, accurate support there to help them to, you know, those applications.


Liz Bolsoni  19:18
So to wrap up, I want to kind of go back to our conversation about the challenges that students are facing now and that they will face in the future. And if you could give any advice or parting words to especially students who are looking to apply to college and want to look forward to their futures, what would you say?


Jeremiah Harris  19:36
Well, first, I would say you know, looking at challenges, our students got through the worst few years of their lives probably. So if you can come through this un -- not unscathed, but on top -- this was just preparation for maybe what's to come. So in the back of your mind knowing that this is just short term, if you're in a challenge, you're going through a hard time, this is something that won't last forever. And that you have the ability to push forward, move forward and still accomplish your goals. So, future, you know, college students out their, future apprentices, future service personnel, there's nothing that you can't do if you set your mind to it. There's nothing that you can't do. If you avoid cutting corners. There's nothing that you can do if you wholeheartedly believe that you're called to be in a space and do whatever it is that you have dreamt about doing for the betterment of not only you, but for your family, your friends, and for us as a people. So we all have, we have, we all have a role to play. And I think if you play that role, and if you utilize the services provided to you to help you accomplish your goals, then the future's bright.


Liz Bolsoni  21:07
but a great way to end. So thank you so much, Jeremiah, for sharing a little bit about the work that you do and your efforts in keeping students engaged. So it was wonderful speaking with you. Thank you.

Jeremiah Harris  21:18
You too, Liz.


Liz Bolsoni  21:20
Before we end here, I just want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. This podcast was brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at Make sure to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, everyone I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.

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