Student With Heart for Refugees Earns First GCU Community Service Award
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
As a member of Grand Canyon University’s Servant Scholars program, Jesse Villegas dedicated himself to community outreach.
But he knew he could do more to help the less-fortunate. Ever since Villegas first visited Serrano Village Apartments with a sociology class nearly two years ago, he recognized the pull to minister to refugee residents of the low-income housing complex east of GCU’s campus on Camelback Road.Villegas, a 25-year-old senior majoring in sociology with a psychology emphasis, prayed to God for guidance before surprising some of his peers and opting out of GCU’s Servant Scholars program. He turned down a $10,000 scholarship to live in the cozy confines of GCU residence halls, a requirement for Servant Scholars, instead renting a humble, ground-level studio apartment to live among the refugees he aimed to minister to.
This week, Villegas helped launch a pair of new programs to mentor Serrano children, many of whom came to Phoenix through refugee resettlement organizations with their families. Residents include people who have evaded imprisonment, religious persecution, civil wars and poverty in more than 20 countries — including Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Bhutan.
GCU has named Villegas its inaugural Community Service Award recipient. The University established the monthly award to honor students who innovate and lead community outreach through a passion for serving the Lord.
Villegas, who overcame the lure of neighborhood street gangs to find his way to GCU, said Serrano residents inspired him since they are so foreign to the United States. Many are unable to earn jobs or find their way through basic daily chores because of vast cultural differences.
“This world is just so new, so novel to them,” Villegas said. “I just felt like I needed to be a small part of the plan that was already going on there.”
Serrano hosts regular English language training classes at a converted apartment in the complex. GCU and Serrano have worked for years on various programs to join students with residents. Some Serrano children have gone on to attend GCU to become the first members of their families to work toward college degrees.
Villegas wanted to serve the youth of Serrano. Like other GCU students, he volunteers regularly to coach immigrants in English classes. However, he plans to spend the rest of the school year organizing GCU students to mentor Serrano youths through after-school programs aimed to build their confidence with English and American culture. The effort ties into GCU’s overall commitment to partnering with the neighboring apartment complex, which is known in west Phoenix as a colorful melting pot of international cultures.
“What I like is that we’re all like-minded … all our efforts there are about empowering the (Serrano) community,” Villegas said.
Villegas, whose many tattoos include a world map etched with “pray for peace” in multiple languages, said a GCU mission trip to Thailand last summer solidified his decision to move to Serrano. The trip marked the first time he had traveled outside the United States and experienced living like a foreigner.
When he returned home, Villegas faced the difficult decision of turning down the Servant Scholars program, which provides a $10,000 one-year scholarship to students who demonstrate outstanding spiritual leadership in the community.
Villegas enjoyed the program and felt a responsibility to maintain his role. But he also felt the strong pull toward serving Serrano specifically.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to ignore this anymore, I’m going to act on this,’” said Villegas, whose mother emigrated from Guatemala before he was born.
Jacob Page, who oversees GCU outreach efforts and global missions, supported the decision to serve Serrano. He prayed with Villegas and understood that God “put on his heart” a warm compassion toward refugees.
“It’s that relationship with Jesus that compels (Villegas) to love others,” Page said. “He’s also been through a lot in life, ups and downs. He has quite a testimony about the things he was involved in. I think that’s molded him that since he now knows Jesus, to not be complacent.
“He wants to make sure people are cared for, loved, and that he wants to do his part to impact the community.”
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.