GCU senior decides to move off campus — and into the lives of refugees

January 01, 2014 / by / 0 Comment
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Story by Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

The dark purplish tattoos on Jesse Villegas’ body appear as crisp and clean as the flat brims of the baseball caps he usually wears backward.

On the 25-year-old’s right forearm, a blindfolded Lady Justice clutches a sword in one hand, her truth-telling scales in the other. A world map on the underside of his arm includes the phrase “Pray for the Nations” in Spanish, Swahili, Arabic and Portuguese. It’s a constant reminder to ignore boundaries and borders in the name of God.

Jesse Villegas faces a busy Camelback Road from the Serrano Village Apartments, the refugee housing complex where he elected to live during his senior year at GCU.

Jesse Villegas faces a busy Camelback Road from the Serrano Village Apartments, the refugee housing complex where he elected to live during his senior year at GCU.

Earlier this year, the Grand Canyon University social-psychology senior felt called to a leap of faith in the spirit of serving the nations. Villegas turned down a $10,000 scholarship for a third year in GCU’s prestigious Servant Scholars program. Rather than using guaranteed money to live among friends in the comfy confines of GCU’s residence halls, he leased a ground-level studio apartment at the nearby Serrano Village Apartments.

The low-income complex, just a few blocks east of the University on Camelback Road, is home to refugee families from 23 countries. Most residents are so new to the United States that they speak little to no English and need help navigating daily life in America.

Villegas, a first-generation Guatemalan-American, wanted to live among the Iraqis, Burmese, Nepalis and other immigrants he felt called to serve. Now dozens of GCU students assist him with weekly tutoring and mentorship of Serrano youths through after-school programs.

“I’m not saying what I’m doing (at Serrano) I couldn’t do here living on campus, but … I feel it,” Villegas said. “When you eat, sleep and breathe it — it becomes you.”

Traveling to Thailand over the summer with a GCU mission trip solidified Villegas’ decision to move to Serrano. The trip was his first outside of the United States. The exposure to Thai culture revealed to him that God has a heart for everyone, regardless of social status or geography.

“I get that feeling, I get that yearning here at Serrano, because I see the nations,” said Villegas, who lives next door to an Iraqi. Around the corner, in the community courtyard, groups of Bhutanese men play cards on an Aladdin-like carpet as African women cook in an apartment overhead.

“I see people from all over the world, so I see (God’s) Kingdom there,” he said.

Children of the nations

On Wednesday afternoons, GCU students volunteer to help children with their homework at a cramped meeting room at Serrano’s leasing office.

While older refugee children ponder the difference between speed and velocity, or how to articulate their responses in English, others fail to understand how to pronounce basic words such as “cat” or “dog.” Unlike their American classmates, they are unable to turn to a parent or sibling for help.

Villegas organized after-school programs at Serrano Village to help refugee children from countries such as Mynamar and Bhutan assimilate to life in America.

Villegas organized after-school programs at Serrano to help refugee children from countries like Mynamar and Bhutan assimilate to life in America.

“It has a lot of potential. If Jesse’s able to get a few more students to come a few times each week, you’re going to start seeing the kids flourish — and in their schools, too,” said Anna Sepic, a Phoenix refugee advocate whose family owns and manages Serrano.

“The fact that Jesse is bringing in students and working that commitment is filling a huge void,” Sepic said.

Thursday afternoons are a little looser at Serrano. GCU students make it a weekly routine to play games with refugee kids and organize activities to make them feel connected to their American neighbors.

Edgar Toledo, 20, a sophomore who grew up in Tucson after emigrating from Mexico with his family when he was 7, said he volunteered at Serrano to help make a positive impact in the lives of children.

“It’s all about doing the right thing … just being friendly and nice to them, getting to know them a little bit more,” Toledo said.

Like many GCU students, Villegas was inspired by learning about the struggles of Serrano residents. The stories of escaping civil wars and religious persecution, of surviving refugee camps, seemed even more compelling than those of at-risk Americans he ministers to in other programs.

Dr. Tim Larkin, a GCU sociology professor whose course first introduced Villegas to Serrano, described the complex as a “port of entry” into the country for refugees. It offers students a glimpse into global justice issues and provides opportunity for meaningful volunteerism.

“When a student moves from knowledge to social responsibility, that’s exciting to me,” Larkin said. “This (campus) can be our lab. Community life spills over into it. We have an amazing community around us, and I think we’re just figuring out how to interact with it.

“We’re not in a bubble (at GCU), which is the case with some Christian universities. We have a lot of ‘real world’ here.”

Going beyond handouts

Jacob Page, who oversees GCU’s local and global outreach, says Villegas has one of the more remarkable faith stories on campus.

Villegas, a longtime Young Life leader, decided about three years ago to focus more on his love for Jesus than his desire to emulate neighborhood friends caught up in gangs in his native Phoenix. He saw people arrested and watched his stepfather sentenced to prison for trafficking drugs.

After arriving at GCU three years ago, Villegas emerged as a leader — not only in Spiritual Life efforts, but on campus in general. He is active in intramural sports and won the coveted title of “Mr. GCU” in a popular all-male pageant last spring.

Page says he was initially apprehensive when Villegas suggested leaving Servant Scholars to live at Serrano. He supported the idea once he discovered how God had put it on Villegas’ heart.

“I hope it will be an inspiration to other students, to see that there are opportunities to serve through GCU in the community — not only to serve, but to be leaders,” Page said.

Villegas said the programs he spearheaded at Serrano are “not a handout, not an event, not a one-day workshop” and are designed “to really invest in the potential that’s there” to help residents become more self-sufficient.

“I think people are more receptive to what you have to say and to take what you have to offer when they know it’s genuine,” he said.

It’s a matter of being consistent and remaining present in the lives of Serrano’s residents.

Now he’s just a few doors down. He’s a familiar face. An American they can trust.

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or michael.ferraresi@gcu.edu.


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  1. Jeanie James

    I remember meeting Jack and his mom while volunteering for the race a few years ago, when my own daughter was just a few months ahead of Jack in her leukemia treatment. As Jack stood before my booth, I could see the fight in his eyes! Tiny but Tough, Cold but Courageous, and Bald but Bold!!
    Congratulations Jack! Way to Fight2Win!

    The James Family

    Feb.03.2014 at 11:15 am
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