With a beautiful smile and personality to match, Scott Community College student Monifah Ponton has a way of making those around her feel at ease. Within minutes of meeting two things are clear:

1) Ponton cares deeply about helping other people.

2) Under that bright smile is a fierce determination to do something great.

For Ponton, who graduated from high school during one of our country’s most intense years (yes, 2020!), the definition of greatness has evolved over time shaping and reshaping her hopes and dreams.

“I used to want to be a fashion designer or singer,” she said. “Then one day after a speaker came to my high school, it really hit me what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people.”

“I’m not saying Beyonce can’t save the world, but how many Beyonces can we have?” she smiled.

The way Ponton sees it, greatness comes in many forms and what the world really needs right now is people who can lift up and help the most vulnerable, like scientists, doctors, nurses, social workers and mental health providers.

“There are so many people suffering with mental health problems who have no one else to talk to, young children living in poverty, so many homeless individuals. If you don’t have those professionals to help what do we do? We are failing our own people.”

That’s exactly why Ponton has set her sights on becoming a therapist or social worker. It’s a dream born with the words of one motivational speaker but in part being carried out thanks to Iowa’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, better known as GEAR UP. Ponton has been involved with GEAR UP since seventh grade. Having struggled with depression for years, Ponton attributes the people she’s connected with through GEAR UP for helping her cope.

“With GEAR UP, I realized I can’t always be strong. There is nothing wrong with recognizing you need a break. The support I’ve received has helped assure me to feel okay about my feelings,” she said.

“The program also makes you realize what you truly have to do to reach your goals. Without GEAR UP I honestly don’t know where I’d be.”

Administered by Iowa College Aid, GEAR UP Iowa is a federal grant that prepares students from low-income school districts to enter and do well in college. The 22 million dollar grant serves more than 8,000 students in 12 Iowa districts, including Clinton, Columbus Junction and Davenport. More than 200 GEAR UP Iowa students are enrolled at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. Following students from seventh grade through their first year in college, the program provides academic support, college/career exposure, skill development, and most importantly, inspiration.

“GEAR UP has helped motivate me. I learned I could actually go to college and for less debt,” Ponton said. “The support I’ve received from EICC’s GEAR UP Coordinator, Brittany Beard, has also been crucial. I can talk to her no matter the time of day, even on weekends. If she doesn’t know the answer she will find out.”

Navigating the first year of college is never easy for any student, but for the class of 2020 there have been an unprecedented number of unique challenges. Ponton could not have predicted how important the extra support would become. In the midst of college classes, homework, and juggling two jobs, has been the ever present heaviness of a global pandemic.

“It’s hard to turn your bedroom into your education space. Very hard,” Ponton said. “This year has probably been one of the toughest things I’ve had to deal with and depression makes it a lot harder,” she said.

“Inspirational quotes or advice are uploaded on the Canvas App (the college’s online platform) all the time. It’s those little things that can make a difference, even when you have to reread them over and over they are definitely there,” she said. “As hard as it’s been, I’m grateful I still went to college.”

If anything, the experience of beginning her college journey in 2020 and being a part of the GEAR UP program has reinforced her passion to pursue a career helping others and shown how small acts of care, compassion and kindness can go a long way.

“It’s helped me grow as a person,” she said. “I want to be that person people can talk to, and help them reach their best potential.”

In other words…a Monifah.

Watch a News Story about GEAR UP here.

Learn more about the program at gearupiowa.gov.