The U.S. Department of Education has awarded The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley $21.2 million over the next seven years, to operate the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).

As part of the grant, UTRGV, Valley school districts and community partners will match the U.S. Department of Education’s funding, providing more than $42 million to benefit students in the Rio Grande Valley.

The grant was announced Sunday, Oct. 1, on the UTRGV Edinburg Campus, as the university kicked off its 16th annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey called the grant “the icing on the cake” for the university, as it celebrates its success in exposing more students to higher education and careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Bailey said the grant would not have been possible without the support of the Valley’s congressional leaders, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15) and Filemón Vela (TX-34).

This is the second-largest grant amount awarded to a UT System school, Bailey said. UT Austin received the largest grant within the UT System.

GEAR UP is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are well-prepared for postsecondary education. For this grant, called College in ACTion, UTRGV is forming a partnership with the Brownsville Independent School District, La Joya Independent School District and Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District to provide support services to about 3,900 seventh-grade students and their teachers.

Support services for students include tutoring, mentoring, offering dual enrollment classes and college tours.

Services for teachers include professional development opportunities and other resources.

The grant will follow these students through their first year of college.

Dr. Sylvia Leal, associate vice president for Student Educational Outreach at UTRGV and the grant’s principal investigator, said the selected schools include some of the most at-risk, high-need students in the Valley. She said parents and students understand the benefits of college, but they and the schools that serve them sometimes lack the resources to help students achieve that goal.

“We believe that the GEAR UP College in ACTion grant will provide a comprehensive, systemic approach to assist these 3,900 students to prepare, enter and succeed in postsecondary education,” Leal said.