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Yadira Cerda Luis Flores (courtesy photo)

Local High-School Students Complete First College Class Through ‘GEAR UP’ Program

Oceanside CA— Fifty-nine high-school students from El Camino and Oceanside High schools gave their final speech last Thursday to conclude a 4-week-long college public speaking course presented by the MiraCosta College GEAR UP Program.

Two of the students are incoming high school juniors, Luis Flores and Yadira Cerda, whose parents never had a chance to experience college.

At the age of three, Flores moved from Mexico to California with his family in search of a better life. His mother, who had him at the young age of 16, had no high school education. His father, a migrant worker, picked strawberries for a living. The family struggled to make ends meet—at one point they were so poor that they could not afford a house with decent plumbing and were forced to take showers in the river.

Today, Flores, 16, lives in an apartment in Oceanside with five people and admits that life is sometimes still very hard.

“My parents are away most of the time because they need to work a lot to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table,” said Flores.

Like Flores, 16 year-old Cerda’s life in the United States began when her father crossed the Mexico border at the age of 16.

“My dad didn’t finish the eighth grade,” said Cerda. “He worked the fields and lived off of rice and beans. He would tell me the only way for a better life is to get an education.”

Because of their difficult experiences growing up, both Flores and Cerda have committed themselves to finishing high school and attending college.

“My parents’ life experiences motivated me to get a great education,” said Flores. “One day I want to give back to them for all the hard work they put into raising me.”

These two incoming high school juniors have big ambitions. Flores plans on double majoring in art and aerospace engineering while Cerda wants to major in psychology or ministry and become a pastor.

This summer, both Flores and Cerda are closer to achieving these goals thanks to MiraCosta College’s GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) Program, which aims to increase college readiness in students.

MiraCosta College and Oceanside Unified High School District started GEAR UP in 2011 after receiving more than $7 million in federal grants. The GEAR UP Program began with two cohorts of sixth and seventh graders at Jefferson and Chavez middle schools. This fall, these students will enter their sophomore and junior years at El Camino (ECHS) and Oceanside (OHS) high schools.

This summer, the program expanded in a unique way. Eligible high school students had a chance to enroll in GEAR UP for College, a summer session college class, free of charge at MiraCosta.

“We chose to offer Communication 101: Public Speaking, because the course empowers students to speak publicly,” said Julie Johnson, GEAR UP director.  “It is also a course that will transfer to all the UCs and Cal State Universities.”

The 4-week program includes free transportation, food and textbooks, and is being offered to 59 students (31 from OHS and 28 from ECHS).

The program began this month and is already having a positive impact.

“The best part so far is how the students have created a supportive community amongst themselves,” said Sinclair Tirona, GEAR UP summer support staff. “They are very involved in class, are respectful of one another, and give each other constructive feedback and encouragement.”

Despite only being 15 or 16 years old, the students are treated no differently than college students and course content is exactly the same as offered to traditional college-aged students. The outcome, so far, is impressive.

“I knew nothing about communication and was terrified because it’s a college-level course,” said Flores. “Now, I realize it’s really not that difficult, especially if we use all the resources available to us like academic support. I feel by the end of this I will have better communication skills, which will help me in the future.”

As for Cerda, the program has not only made her parents proud, but it has also helped her grow academically and personally.

“I am even more comfortable in front of an audience and have learned many new ways I can enhance my public speaking skills,” said Cerda. “I’ve also met a lot of people I can network with, which makes me happy.”

This year’s students may choose to continue in the GEAR UP Program and earn college credit in summer 2016 and 2017.

“We are so very proud of this seven-year grant effort and are looking forward to 2017 when the original cohort of middle school students begin college!” said Sunny Cooke, MiraCosta superintendent/president.

“Most of these students never even thought about college, yet here they are excelling in the classes and learning skills they can use far beyond the classroom,” said Johnson. “It really is a dream come true to attend college for most of the students.”

 GEAR UP recently received the Innovator Award from the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce (OCC). “GEAR UP is such an exciting program,” said David Nydegger, president and CEO of the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce. “My team and I thought GEAR UP is well deserving of the award for its ability to think outside of the box and provide needed programs that positively shape young students’ future.”

The Innovator Award is given every year to honor a deserving local business. The award will be given on July 15, 2015 during the annual OCC awards and recognition luncheon.

For more information on GEAR UP, visit  or call Julie Johnson at 760.795.6803.