When 23-year-old Trey Riley crossed the stage to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree from Louisiana State University, on May 10, 2019, he says it was like a dream.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate,” Riley said. “It’s an honor … it’s unreal.”
He says he always knew college was in his future; His family preached to him about how important it was for him to receive more than a high school diploma.
“I just didn’t know how to make it a reality. No one in my family could tell me ‘this is what you need to do’ because they didn’t know.”
He says in high school (he attended Broadmoor High School, in Baton Rouge and graduated in 2014) he had a 3.0 grade point average but the first time he took the ACT, he scored a 14.
“I started hearing about [Louisiana] GEAR UP and how they were giving students a peek at what college was and how to get there,” he said. “They took us to tour different college campuses and guest speakers would come in and talk with us.”
Louisiana GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is an outreach program under the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), supported by the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, Louisiana GEAR UP serves more than 11,000 middle and high school students in more than 60 school districts around the state. Those students receive experiential learning opportunities through Louisiana GEAR UP, including dual enrollment, integrated business and industry visits,
tutoring, mentoring, financial literacy workshops, and visits to college campuses.
The program seeks to increase academic performance, increase the number of students who graduate from high school and enroll at a post-secondary institution, and enhance student’s academic preparation, leadership and career awareness.
“I was so fortunate to have that opportunity. But even when my friends were deciding where they were going – they were getting accepted by so many schools and getting scholarships, I still didn’t know where I was going.”
Riley says his challenge of getting accepted into college was due to his ACT score.
Through mentoring sessions and financial aid workshops with Louisiana GEAR UP, he says he felt encouraged to keep trying and retook the ACT.
His score did increase a few points and an acceptance letter from an out-of-state university came, but leaving Louisiana was not an option.
“I didn’t have any scholarships or anyone giving me money for school, so I started looking at community colleges and had to take out loans.”
Riley says it was at that point he realized there was nothing wrong with attending a two-year institution – he was still in college, and enrolled at LSU-Eunice.
“Telling my story may let someone in the same position know there are people out there to help you. Had it not been for [Louisiana] GEAR UP, I wouldn’t even know there was a place for me,” said Riley.
After two years of studying journalism at LSU-E, Riley transferred to LSU and was accepted to the Manship School of Mass Communication in 2016, where he focused on public relations.
He says LSU came with a larger price tag.
“Eventually, I got some scholarships and grants, but I didn’t have my parents to pay for anything.” Riley’s mother died in 2006 and he does not know his father. “I had to borrow books from people, I lived at the library, and I had to work. Everything I have, I earned it.”
Now, he encourages high school students to use the resources in and around their schools, programs like Louisiana GEAR UP that offer ACT prep courses and college campus visits.
“I know what it’s like, to not know what questions to ask or who to talk to, but I had faith. Don’t give up. Don’t let someone tell you what you can or can’t do. The struggles are there, but the end result is amazing.”
Riley says he plans to pursue his masters – his family is pushing for his doctorate.