GEAR UP helps student reach college dream

(12-05-2012)

Felipe Gonzalez didn't learn English until he came to Alamosa at age 13.

He lived with an older brother for several years, but left because of physical abuse. He was actually homeless for two winter months during his senior year of high school, wrapping himself in blankets at night, huddled in a garage or shed.

Eventually, Felipe was able to rent a room for $100 a month, about one-quarter of the wages he earned working at McDonald's. Raised in Mexico in three different orphanages, and intermittently by family members and friends, Felipe did have one thing in his favor: he was a legal U.S. citizen, born in El Paso, Texas.

Despite the challenges, Felipe persisted through middle and high school, graduated, and is completing his first semester at Adams State University. He takes morning classes at Adams State, then works about seven hours each day at Rustic Log Furniture.

Felipe and Erica Gonzalez will alternate attending classes and caring for their daughter, Estrella.

"I liked school a lot. It was my escape," he said. He believes furthering his education will help him create a different kind of life for himself, his wife, and baby daughter.

Erica, his wife, will begin college at Adams State University in January, majoring in early childhood education.

Both Felipe and Erica benefited from the guidance provided by GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a U.S. Department of Education program for low-income students.

His pre-collegiate counselor at Alamosa High School was Liz Tabeling-Garcia, who said, "Felipe was a great student, especially considering what he was dealing with. In high school his GPA was a 3.0. It never ceased to amaze me how positive Felipe was."

"I kept things to myself," he said, so only a close friend knew his situation, knew he once bathed in the lawn sprinklers at Cole Park.

GEAR UP not only supports students in becoming academically prepared for college, but assists in the process of applying for admission and financial aid.

"Liz was always helping us. I was able to apply for scholarships," he said. Now he hopes to become a high school science teacher.

"School was the most fun thing I had," Gonzalez said. "I always thought I wanted to do more. It relaxes me somehow - I like learning."

Tabeling-Garcia added, "He worked hard in every class and was liked by everyone. When we were working on letters of recommendation from his teachers, every single one said what a pleasant and positive student he was. He is a hard-working, good natured, and an intelligent human being."

Those qualities are helping him balance school, work, and family life.

By Julie Waechter