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Gear Up fuels North Country student’s interest in attending college

Written by
Stephen Mease

December 7, 2022


Aero Brunell, VSAC Spotlight

One summer day a little over two years ago, a small backpack was delivered to Aero Brunell’s house in Newport. When the rising seventh grader went to get the mail, she was excited to find that the mystery bag had her name on it, and she was even more intrigued when she discovered what was inside.

“It had all these brochures about careers and scholarships and college planning,” she recalls – and as someone who had aspired to go to college since about the fifth grade, it was definitely something she could dig into.

The care package came compliments of GEAR UP, a federally funded grant program that offers college and career counseling services to lower- and middle-income students to help them go on to college. VSAC administers the program at qualifying middle and high schools throughout Vermont, and VSAC’s longtime GEAR UP counselor, Norma Gregory, had lots of engaging follow-up activities at the ready when Aero started seventh grade that fall at North Country Junior High School. 

“Norma talked to us about college, what you have to do to get in, and what kinds of classes you should look to take in high school in order to prepare,” Aero recalls. It was a message that certainly sunk in with the highly motivated student, now a freshman at North Country High School; she is currently taking Geometry, Honors English, Honors History, and Honors Science.

Aero and her seventh and eighth-grade classmates also completed career and personality quizzes to get them thinking about what kinds of jobs might be a good match for their interests. In Aero’s case, her results suggested a career in aerospace – and not just because of her name.

“I’ve always really liked math. I like that there’s a right and a wrong answer, so you can know what the answer is, and if you get it wrong, you can figure out how to fix it,” says the 14-year-old, now a member of the high school’s STEM Club.

As for her future career path, Aero says she would be thrilled to do “something with space,” though she also acknowledges it’s a highly competitive field. She’d also consider putting her mathematical skills and interests to work within the financial sector. Either way, she has her eye on a college degree in math or science, possibly somewhere within the state college systems of UMass or UMaine, since she has family in both states.

While she still has a few years to go before she has to start submitting college applications, Aero and many of her friends have already had experience summarizing themselves on paper. “In seventh grade, my GEAR UP group did a practice college application,” she recalls. “That definitely made it less scary to think about. It helped me feel like, ‘you know what? I got this.’”

GEAR UP also helped her feel more comfortable with the move up to high school. While Aero had been inside the high school auditorium to see plays and performances, her field trip to the North Country High School campus with her GEAR UP group was the first time she’d explored the entire building. “That definitely, definitely helped,” she says. “In the junior high, we knew where everything was, but the high school seemed like a maze. That tour gave me an idea of where things were, and it made it a lot easier academically for me, not to be so nervous the first few weeks of school.”

For Aero, who has been active in choral groups since the fourth grade, learning her way around a new campus is like learning a new song – which she also has to do a lot of this time of year, between holiday concerts and festival auditions. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“I like the community it forms,” she says of her singing groups. “And I like the fact that I can be doing something I enjoy while also getting credit.”

Aero is an Alto Tenor with her school’s Select Chorus, which is an honors-level group where the songs are sung at a faster pace and the members direct themselves for performances. Students have to audition to get in. Having qualified for this advanced group as a high school freshman, Aero is looking forward to participating in the Madrigal Festival in Burlington, where students from high schools throughout the state come together to sing a selection of Renaissance-style choral music. “I’ve heard a lot about it over the years, and I’m super excited,” she says with a grin; the event has been on hiatus for the last couple of years due to the pandemic. Finally, her musical calendar is also marked with upcoming auditions for the Northeast, All-State, and New England Festivals in November, December, and January.

Her North Country guidance counselors speak highly of Aero as an excellent and highly motivated student who isn’t afraid to sing her own tune. “She’s confident, smart, kind, and funny, as well as being very comfortable in her own skin,” says Pat Gelo, Guidance Counselor at NCUJHS. And VSAC’s Norma Gregory describes her as a “zealous knowledge seeker” who is always an active and thoughtful participant in group activities, where she works to lead and encourage others as well.  

Aero herself sees a clear connection between her academic performance and her future, and she’s grateful to the GEAR UP program for showing her the ropes. “I have the drive to do well in life, and I tie that a lot to my academics and education,” she says. “But if not for GEAR UP, I wouldn’t be so sure of myself in what I’m doing or what I want to do for college. It really helped me be more confident.”

This story is produced by Vermont Student Assistance Corp., created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 as a public nonprofit agency, to advocate for Vermont students and their families to ensure that they achieve their education goals. Our vision is to create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them. We begin by helping families save for education with Vermont’s state-sponsored 529 savings program. To help Vermonters plan and pay for college or career training, our counselors work with students in nearly every Vermont middle school and high school, and again as adults. Our grant and scholarship programs attract national recognition, and our loan programs and loan forgiveness programs are saving Vermont families thousands of dollars in interest. Visit to learn more.