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5 students, 1 story: "GEAR UP helped us!"

Written by
Emily Stetson

June 8, 2023


Blue Mountain Union High School seniors (left to right) Sera Brooks, Jada Longmoore, Avery Nelson, Gabby Houghton and Lauren Joy.

Blue Mountain Union High School seniors (left to right) Sera Brooks, Jada Longmoore, Avery Nelson, Gabby Houghton and Lauren Joy.


“If it wasn’t for Kassidy, I would be going to a school I didn’t love, because I didn’t realize how little UVM was going to cost me.”

“If Kassidy hadn’t convinced me to go to Husson’s accepted students’ day, I’d be going to another school, for, like, a million dollars. Instead, I’m going to Husson for a free ride.”

“If it wasn’t for Kassidy, I probably wouldn’t even be going to college!”

So say Lauren Joy, Jada Longmoore and Gabby Houghton, three members of the Class of 2023 at Blue Mountain Union High School, when asked where they might be today without the help and support of their GEAR UP college and career counselor, Kassidy Moore. Kassidy has worked with nine students this year from Blue Mountain Union’s graduating class, in her first year as a VSAC outreach counselor for GEAR UP, a federal program that helps high school students of modest means go on to college and career training programs. 

Lauren, Jada and Gabby, along with their good friends Sera Brooks and Avery Nelson, have attended Blue Mountain Union, a school of about 430 students from pre-K through the 12th grade, since kindergarten. They’re set to graduate on June 17 with the other 17 members of their small, tight-knit class.

Lauren will move on to the University of Vermont in the fall, where she plans to study nursing. Jada – the student who will attend Husson University tuition-free – will study elementary education. Gabby hopes to study English and is contemplating a career in writing and editing, and will likely begin her college career at St. Michael’s College. Sera plans to study studio art at CCV, and Avery is looking to study theatre at the University of Southern Maine.

The five friends have very different plans for their futures, but what they have in common, says Kassidy Moore, is the fact that they are all motivated, hardworking, and appreciative of the importance of continuing their education. They’re also passionate members of the GEAR UP community at BMU, often telling underclassmen about the benefits of the program that was so helpful on their college journeys.

Support for first-generation students

Two of the students, Jada and Lauren, are the first in their families to go to college.

“I never had any conversations about college when I was growing up, and I didn’t think I could get in,” says Jada. “I started thinking about it this year and I applied just in case, and I got in everywhere. Also, once I was in GEAR UP, I felt like maybe I could afford it.”

While Lauren’s parents always wanted her to continue her education, her family didn’t have any experience with applying and paying for college. “And I’m a big planner,” Lauren laughs, so she depended on Kassidy to talk her through the process. The one thing she did know was that she wanted to be in the medical field, and specifically nursing, after working for two years at the Grafton County Nursing Home.

Kassidy says she draws on her own experience as a first-generation student to support her mentees. “I know exactly what they’re going through, because I went through it too,” she says.

Filling in the gap

Sera and Avery were contemplating taking a gap year after graduation. Their participation in GEAR UP, however, changed their minds – a decision that makes them significantly more likely to earn their degree in the long run. 

According to a VSAC research study that looked at long-term college enrollment and completion rates among members of the high school class of 2012, only about one-quarter of the students who had planned to take a gap year actually went to college, as they had planned, in the fall of 2013. When the final survey of that class was conducted in 2018, almost half of the “gap-year” students – 48% – still had not enrolled.

“I thought college would be too expensive, and I started thinking maybe I didn’t want to go,” says Avery. “But I realized that I wanted to learn new things and expand my horizons beyond a small rural town in Vermont.”

Thinking through possible career paths

Avery also benefited from Kassidy’s support and encouragement when it came to career planning. “Freshman and sophomore year, I had no clue what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “Then, my junior year, I went to River Bend for their culinary arts program, and I was set on doing that – until I realized I really didn’t like it. Kassidy made it easy for me to think outside the box, and I felt like I could choose what I loved. Theatre has always been something I’ve loved to do. I like performances that change people, and I want to be able to do that for an audience.”

Sera had a similar experience, as GEAR UP’s college exploration activities helped her broaden her career goal. “I thought that I would go to cosmetology school. But I went on a college trip this past November and visited the Maine College of Art and Design,” says Sera, who now hopes to work in the fashion or art industry.

For Gabby, whose career goals have evolved a lot over the years, meeting with Kassidy helped her become more comfortable with a “possible path,” leaving open the option of changing her major down the road. “Kassidy and I have talked a lot about my future,” she says, most recently during a long bus ride to Boston for a college visit. 

Help with “the money thing” and finding the right fit

When the students received their financial aid packages and scholarship awards, it wasn’t immediately clear which school was offering the best deal, and Lauren and Jada were ready to make enrollment decisions based on an incorrect understanding of what they would have to pay. Kassidy made each student a spreadsheet to help them compare their financial offers, as well as their own ratings, where they assigned a number value to how much they liked the school.

“It was really helpful. I probably looked at that spreadsheet seven times a day,” says Jada.

“When we made my spreadsheet, I was set on going to a school close to me, because I thought it was my least expensive option,” says Lauren, who really preferred to be a little farther from home. When she found out, with Kassidy’s help, that UVM was actually the best deal, she felt better about choosing the college she really wanted. “I could get onto the [college application] portal to see the information, but I didn’t know what to do with it. First-gen, you know,” she says with a smile.

An “A-plus” experience

Sera says the most helpful part of GEAR UP was “the constant contact with someone experienced in college-related questions and experiences. If the program hadn’t been available, I think I would have taken a gap year, or decided not to go to college in general,” she says.

Gabby agrees. “Kassidy gets an A-plus,” she says.

“Honestly, I’m not sure how I got here,” laughs Jada, “but I had a conversation with Kassidy one day, and suddenly I was here every Monday, and now I’m going to college. And I’m paying nothing because of all the scholarships I’ve gotten. So that’s pretty ‘swag.’”

For information on college and career planning and help with financial aid, go to and check out our online workshops and events. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and online at