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VSAC celebrates graduation readiness with GEAR UP week

Written by
VSAC Staff

September 27, 2023


Halley Riley-Elliott: from diesel shop to pageant stage

GEAR UP helped Halley Riley-Elliott of Mt. Holly pursue her passions—from diesel shop to pageant stage

Every September, VSAC celebrates National GEAR UP Week to make more Vermont families aware of the resources offered through the Vermont GEAR UP program. This federally funded program, which VSAC has administered in Vermont for the last 24 years, helps spark interest in students from modest-income backgrounds to prepare for post-secondary education and training.

GEAR UP: Supporting the Many Paths of Post-Secondary Training

While economic data show that continued training beyond high school is critical to prepare young Vermonters for good-paying jobs and careers, the planning and the cost for such programs can be daunting for many families, and many students simply need some extra mentoring to help them find their path.

One such student was Halley Riley-Elliott, who recalls feeling pretty uncertain about her future when she started at Black River High School in Mt. Holly back in 2015.

“I was that kid who never wanted to go to college. I thought it was too expensive,” says Halley, now 22. But once she was introduced to the possibility of going to technical school, rather than four years of college, she started to reconsider. The financial and logistical support she received through GEAR UP made post-secondary training much more accessible for her and her family.

“The application process was pretty unfamiliar,” says Halley, noting that because of her family’s age dynamic—with a spread of almost 20 years between herself, as the youngest of 6, and her older siblings—there wasn’t anyone in her household who could take her under their wing by the time she was a teenager. “Even though my mom went to college, it was a long time ago. She did her best to help, but things had changed.”

GEAR UP, she says, helped fill in the gaps. “Just having a person to talk to, to make everything a smooth transition, and make sure I met all the deadlines, was super helpful.”

Changing Programs, Following Passions: “Why not apply?”

At first, Halley thought she would specialize in nursing, and she earned her LNA certification through Stafford Tech Center as a high school student. While a nursing job at Springfield Hospital helped put her through her 2-year program at Vermont Technical College (now Vermont State University—Randolph), Halley realized toward the end of her high school career that her true passion was in mechanical work.

“During my junior year of high school, I bought a Jeep Wrangler that needed work, and I fell in love with working on cars,” she says. Helping some friends out as they repaired an excavator solidified her interest in heavy equipment. “So I decided on tech school, and I chose VTC because their shop setup was the most realistic, like what you would see at a dealership.”

After persisting through what turned out to be a mostly-online program, thanks to COVID—and seeking out additional hands-on learning opportunities through a local internship—Halley graduated from VTC’s Diesel Power Technology program in 2021. She is now the Vehicle Maintenance Manager for the snowcat fleet at Killington Resort.

Halley’s swift ascent from entry level to leadership required equal parts talent, confidence, and opportunity. “The shop had no manager when I started, and when they posted the position at the start of this year, I figured, why not apply?” She got the job, and now, as Vehicle Maintenance Manager, Halley supervises a team of 12.

The same “why not?” outlook led Halley to go after a dream she’d had as a child—to compete in the Miss Vermont pageant—which she realized in 2020.

“I had always wanted to do a pageant when I was younger, but it was super expensive. A couple summers ago, I started talking with a former contestant, and I decided to go for it. So in late 2020, I entered Miss Vermont USA. It was a fantastic experience.”

While Halley got lots of questions from colleagues and competitors on both sides as to how she could be a diesel mechanic and a beauty contestant at the same time, for her, it was simple: “I like to do both.”

Not Just College: Looking to Certifications and Technical Programs

Now, as a member of VSAC’s inaugural GEAR UP Alumni Council, Halley hopes to encourage other young Vermonters to pursue their dreams, and to make sure the support is there for the full gamut of opportunities.

“We need to talk more about certifications and technical programs, not just college, and make sure that those requirements and application deadlines get worked into the calendars and the conversations in the high-school counseling offices,” she says.

“I know, for me, it felt hard to get started when I realized I wanted to do mechanics. I was totally new to everything, and I needed to figure out the best plan for my future—which ended up being tech school,” she says. “But that process would have been a lot more challenging without GEAR UP. For starters, I wouldn’t have known that there were as many financial resources as there are,” she says, noting that, thanks to scholarships, most of her bills at VTC were paid for.

Halley hopes that talking about her experience, and offering feedback to leaders at VSAC, will help make the GEAR UP program—which was a difference-maker for her—even more useful for future participants.

“I’d like more students to know that there are a lot of other things you can do after high school that aren’t the traditional college experience, and that you can benefit from those just as much,” she says. “I’m living proof.”

GEAR UP serves more than 250,000 students throughout the country. Here in Vermont, VSAC's GEAR UP services are available to eligible students in 37 schools. A full list of those GEAR UP schools can be found at

For information from VSAC on college and career planning and help with financial aid, see these events and resources. You can also email us or give us a call at 800-642-3177.