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WINOOSKI — Cody Paiva knows the value of sticking to an education plan — even when the odds seem insurmountable. And thanks to a new assignment, he hopes to make it easier for future generations of learners to overcome the kinds of challenges he faced growing up.
A former participant in the federal GEAR UP program administered by Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), the young Montpelier man is one of only 30 individuals nationwide chosen for the first GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy.
During a June retreat in Washington, D.C., Paiva will receive training in leadership skills, grassroots and social media advocacy, and storytelling. Back in Vermont, he will spend the next year educating policymakers and the public about the benefit of programs like GEAR UP.
GEAR UP — which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs —was established in the 1990s, the brainchild of former U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
It provides low-income and first-generation college-bound students with the support they need to prepare for and succeed in college. Either directly or via partnerships, VSAC serves nearly 8,000 students annually through the program.
Paiva — a graduate of Blue Mountain Union High School (BMU) in Wells River, and, this month, the University of Vermont (UVM) — traveled a winding road to his degree.
“I grew up in so many places,” Paiva recalled. “My family lived in New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before settling in Vermont. Even then, we moved more than 12 times between second grade and the year I entered BMU as a sophomore.”
When his parents decided to move again, Paiva feared it would derail his education and career plans. So he secured their permission to become an emancipated minor, enabling him to live with another family while completing his studies at BMU.
His decision was wise: In his junior year, he placed top of his class, which entitled him to attend UVM tuition-free through a coveted Green & Gold Scholarship. His success at UVM, in turn, has motivated him to pursue one or more graduate degrees in a few years.
Dianne Griggs, formerly a counselor with VSAC’s GEAR UP program and now its manager, said that when she started working with Paiva at BMU, he had a lot of ground to cover to become college-ready. But he threw himself into the task, and set the UVM scholarship as his goal.
“I knew immediately that he was an exceptional young man,” said Griggs. “Through a combination of faculty support and independent study, he overcame all that he was lacking. He even skipped study hall so he could take extra courses.
“Once he got to UVM, he quickly settled in and challenged himself at every turn: academically, in part-time work, and through his involvement in student affairs. Cody has proven time and again that he has what it takes to reach his goals.”
Paiva will graduate with a major in microbiology and a minor in molecular genetics. He already has a job lined up doing cancer research at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and looks forward to pursuing a career in medicine, molecular biology, and/or public health.
“I’m currently leaning toward medical school with the goal of opening a general practice somewhere in Vermont,” he said. “I’ve also considered the wild idea of going for an MD/PhD or an MD/MPH. I really am interested in providing access to basic health care in rural areas.”
Paiva said he hopes to use his time at Dartmouth to clarify his goals: “I’m open to many possibilities, and my academic advisor has told me that I could do whatever I want. I’m going to use the next two years to get a little more experience in both research and medicine so that I can make a solid decision.”
In most respects, his unusual family odyssey is now behind him. But as he begins his role as a GEAR UP alumni leader, he will be able to share his own story and encourage public support for students coping with the same kinds of challenges he encountered.
The GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy is sponsored by the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, which provides the federal GEAR UP program with training and technical assistance. The alumni academy is funded by a generous grant from the Kresge Foundation.