Alhambra students earn 25 full-tuition scholarships
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Claudio Coria never could have envisioned this five years ago when he became principal of Alhambra High School. The stage of the west Phoenix school’s auditorium was filled with students being honored for their academic excellence as a big crowd of families — and Coria — cheered.
“I would have said, ‘Nah, I don’t see it,’” he said later, estimating that a similar celebration early in his tenure would have drawn only a handful of honorees. “We were just very disorganized here and not focused on the right things. Now it’s the opposite – I deal with high-class problems.”
There already had been plenty of applause Wednesday night for these high-class achievements, but the best was yet to come. The lives of 25 students — and 25 families — were about to be transformed, just like that.
The surprise add-on to the celebration was the awarding of full-tuition scholarships to Grand Canyon University as part of the new Students Inspiring Students initiative, a collaboration of GCU, the GCU Scholarship Foundation, schools and business and philanthropic leaders.
Under the terms of the scholarship, recipients receive academic assistance at GCU’s Learning Lounge, its free after-school tutoring program, while in high school, then pay it forward by putting in 100 hours a year of mentoring and academic support at a Learning Lounge site while at the University.
Angel Ruelas certainly didn’t envision that his daughter, Esperanza, was on board for the full ride. He knew she was being honored with smaller grants, but little did he know that she would be one of the Top 25.
Once he found out, there was no end to his appreciation. In a smaller ceremony afterward in a lecture hall, Ruelas was by far the most demonstrative parent, holding up his hands in the “Lopes up!” gesture and saying, “Don’t say no to the Lopes!”
“I’m just blown away by this whole thing,” he said later. “My life is changed tonight, big time. I love what they did for the kids — awesome. They helped out 25 kids from here.”
That’s the whole idea of the program. Not only do students help other students; the scholarship pays back their parents, too.
“My family didn’t get to finish their education, so me doing this shows that there’s a meaning why they gave up so much for me and my sisters,” said Esperanza Ruelas, who wants to become a physical therapist.
Brenda Batres, who was right there with Angel Ruelas on the excitement meter (“I wanted to cry — I was screaming with joy”), said she was “totally, definitely” going to go to college, scholarship or no scholarship, “but I was so afraid how I was going to pay for it because it’s so expensive.”
Jane Sabuni, a refugee who was born in Tanzania and has been in the United States for five years, said she probably would have had to settle for going to junior college if she hadn’t gotten the full-tuition scholarship to GCU. Instead, she will become the first member of her family to attend college, and now she wants to serve as an inspiration to her sister, Lilian, to aspire to the same goal. Students Inspiring Students, meet Sisters Inspiring Sisters.
“My parents don’t have that kind of financial support,” said Sabuni, who wants to study entrepreneurship and eventually go to law school. “This means that I’ve made it and I’ve made my parents proud. Opportunities like this don’t come frequently in my life.”
Stories like that are typical in the inner city, and Coria is determined to prevent lack of money from being the main reason his students can’t attend college.
“Survey after survey after survey, kids tell us that the biggest barrier, whether perceived or real, is the issue of money,” he said. “When that barrier is removed, our talented young people can take the next step.”
And yet, despite the obvious challenges, it’s no surprise that Alhambra, at the forefront of GCU’s effort to assist west Phoenix schools, got more of the 100 scholarships than any other school.
Located right down the street from GCU, Alhambra has gone from being rated a “D” by the Arizona Department of Education to nine points shy of a “B” in that short span, and its seniors earned $2.7 million in scholarships in 2015, up from $1.2 million the year before.
That figure no doubt will go up dramatically this year, but to Coria it’s just a start.
“I’m not satisfied with 25. I wanted 50,” he said. “So that’s a high-class problem. Next year we’re going to work hard and make sure every kid gets a scholarship.”
It’s not hard to see where that vision is taking his school. Just look at what happened Wednesday night.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]