Skip Navigation

OU Announces $86 Million Initiative to Benefit Oklahoma Students’ College and Career Readiness

From left to right: OU President Joseph Harroz Jr, Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education Dean Stacy Reeder, OU student Juan de Dios Trujillo Velazquez, K20 Center Managing Director Leslie Williams, and OU Vice President for Online Learning and K20 Center Executive Director Gregg Garn.

OU Announces $86 Million Initiative to Benefit Oklahoma Students’ College and Career Readiness

November 10, 2023

NORMAN, OKLA. – Representatives from the University of Oklahoma hosted a celebration of a new initiative, “GEAR UP for LIFE,” yesterday. The program is a partnership between OU’s K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal and 28 under-resourced schools across 23 primarily rural school districts in Oklahoma to help students and their families prepare for college and workforce training.

OU’s K20 Center, a statewide research and development center, received a $43 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, with equal matching funds from grant partners, including Oklahoma’s Promise program, totaling more than $86 million to implement GEAR UP for LIFE. The “GEAR UP” program, which stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” began through the U.S. Department of Education in 1998. It is one of the largest national programs focused on increasing low-income students' college and career readiness.

“The GEAR UP program empowers students for success in college and beyond, and OU’s K20 Center has a proven track record of building innovative partnerships with Oklahoma schools, teachers and community leaders to improve student outcomes,” said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. “The GEAR UP for LIFE program will enhance our state’s workforce pipeline and fuel economic prosperity, but most importantly, it will have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact that will change the lives of generations of Oklahomans.”

“Programs like GEAR UP and TRIO, which I have been a longtime champion of, ensure Oklahoma’s low-income students and families have access to the education and workforce training that is vital to the economic prosperity of our great state,” said Congressman Tom Cole (OK-04). “I am proud to congratulate OU on this significant grant, which will allow even more Oklahoma students the opportunity to achieve high-paying, high-skill jobs in their home state.”

In this newest program, GEAR UP for LIFE, “LIFE” is short for “Learning and Investigating Future Education.” The program will directly impact 8,258 sixth or seventh-grade Oklahoma students in the participating schools. The program will follow students for seven years, throughout and beyond high school graduation.

OU President Joseph Harroz Jr during the celebration event on Nov. 9, 2023.
K20 Center Managing Director Leslie Williams discusses a work composed of 8,258 colored pencils arranged to create the interlocking OU logo to represent the number of students expected to benefit from the GEAR UP for LIFE program.

“LIFE will support cohort schools and students by increasing students’ behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement in learning; increasing academic preparedness for college; aiding students’ families in understanding postsecondary education options, preparation, and financial aid; and increasing high school graduation and college enrollment,” said Leslie Williams, Ph.D., K20 Center managing director.

The funding will support hiring dozens of educational outreach staff who will create and implement research-based activities that support students’ college and workforce preparedness, such as tutoring, mentoring, college and career readiness events, and interactive game-based learning aids.

 “GEAR UP for LIFE is the largest grant in the nearly 30-year history of OU’s K20 Center,” said Gregg Garn, vice president for online learning and executive director of the K20 Center. “Students benefiting from the grant will be better prepared to help grow the workforce necessary to ensure Oklahoma’s continued economic prosperity.”

GEAR UP for LIFE is the sixth “GEAR UP” program awarded to OU’s K20 Center. In 2018, the K20 Center competed for and was awarded three separate GEAR UP grants sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The “GEAR UP OKC,” “GEAR UP for MY SUCCESS,” and “GEAR UP for the FUTURE” grants are approximately halfway through providing seven years of services to 46 partner schools across Oklahoma. From 2008, when the OU K20 Center received its first GEAR UP grant, to the present, the K20 Center’s first five GEAR UP programs have supported 27,825 students across 161 schools and 7,723 educators.

Juan de Dios Trujillo Velazquez was a seventh-grade student at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City when OU’s K20 Center began implementing the “GEAR UP for the PROMISE” grant in partnership with Oklahoma City Public Schools from 2011-2017. He graduated from U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City in 2017 and was named "The General" as the top male student in his graduating class. Now, Trujillo Velazquez is a first-generation student at OU, in his senior year for a Bachelor of Science in Industrial and Systems Engineering, with a minor in general business and a certificate in engineering leadership.

“As a young student, I didn’t really understand the importance of what GEAR UP was doing at the time. As I got older, I began to truly recognize the value of the services GEAR UP had to offer. As an undocumented immigrant student, I was not sure I could even go to college,” he said. “Now, as an OU student, I was able to provide tutoring and mentoring to other students from my community with similar circumstances. As I’m approaching my graduation from OU, I am grateful for this opportunity to share the impact that the GEAR UP program has had on me and so many of my classmates.”

Belenda Torres was another student impacted by the PROMISE grant. She graduated as class valedictorian from U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City in 2018. The first in her family to attend college, she completed her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at OU in 2022 and is currently working as a registered nurse in the NICU at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital at OU Health. In 2017, she was selected as the National GEAR UP Youth of the Year recipient. In her acceptance speech, she credited the GEAR UP program for preparing her to be successful in college.

“Although I’ve always had an interest in higher education, I never really saw it as a realistic option for me until I was introduced to GEAR UP,” she said. “GEAR UP provided me with the resources that I needed to increase my knowledge of college.”

Learn more about Oklahoma’s GEAR UP programs and the K20 Center at

About the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal

The K20 Center is a statewide education center with a diverse network of school, university and community partners who cultivate innovation, generate research and positively influence education worldwide. K20 advances leadership and learning through collaborative outreach, authentic experiences, educational resources, technology integration, college and career readiness, and community connections that innovate and transform education.

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit