Inspirational night at ‘Students Inspiring Students’

May 13, 2016 / by / 0 Comment

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

You hear it all the time in struggling cities across America. People don’t feel valued. What’s the point, they wonder. Does anyone notice?

The groundbreaking “Students Inspiring Students” scholarship initiative, which celebrated its first 100 recipients Thursday night in Grand Canyon University Arena, aims to transform those feelings. Oh, these achievers have been noticed all right, and so has a program that is the ultimate value proposition for schools in west Phoenix and beyond.

GCU President Brian Mueller addresses the audience.

GCU President Brian Mueller addresses the audience.

“It acknowledges our students in urban education in a way that’s incredibly meaningful,” said Claudio Coria, principal at Alhambra High School. “The scholarship’s great, but it’s really the recognition that they’re valued, that they’re needed, that their leadership is needed, that their talent is very much needed here in this community.”

It does that by giving full-tuition scholarships to students who not only have been successful in school but also have been aided by GCU’s Learning Lounge, which provides free academic support to local students from kindergarten through the 12th grade. The scholarship winners, in turn, pay it forward by serving in the Learning Lounge for 100 hours per academic year.

“The paying-it-forward idea really plays into the leadership commitment that we have, that our students have, that our families have about supporting others in this very difficult process of going through high school and going to a university,” Coria said. “As they become more experienced and talented and develop their passions, they can really help other kids, both at the Learning Lounge and also throughout their lives.

“And that’s what we want, that’s what we need — young people who are very thoughtful about this and dedicated to paying it forward.”

Emotions run deep

The excitement about the new program already was paying dividends Thursday. Those most involved had trouble containing their emotions about what this will mean — no one more than Pahoran Fornes Castillo of Washington High School, who had to stop several times during his talk as he tried to share what it means to him to have a shot at attending college even though he lives here alone, apart from his family in Mexico. The other student talk was by Jane Sabuni of Alhambra, a refugee from Tanzania who came here with her family five years ago.

But there was plenty of other emotion to go around:

● GCU President Brian Mueller: “I’ve been here seven years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited than I am about what’s going to happen this evening.”

Attendees noshed on appetizers before the event and dessert afterward.

Attendees noshed on appetizers before the event and dessert afterward.

● Phoenix vice mayor and District 5 councilman Daniel Valenzuela: “I had some notes that my team pulled together, but I’m going to scrap that because I’m so inspired by what we see in this room. GCU is just an amazing organization that is going a long way to transforming not just west Phoenix but the city of Phoenix, the Valley and eventually the state.”

● John Biera, principal of Central High School: “Anytime you have collaboration with school districts, private schools and universities, it’s always a great thing for students. It’s a win-win — a win-win for the community, a win-win for the families, a win-win for the schools.”

● Kathy Rother, principal of Bourgade Catholic High School: “Many of our families are first-generation college attendees, so it really is lifting their family out of poverty. I think that’s huge for us because they don’t know about college, they don’t know how to do the college thing, and Students Inspiring Students has really shown them the path.”

● Dr. Joe Veres, who manages the Learning Lounge: “Everybody supports what we do. We have the backing of our entire University. People are donating their own time, lending a hand, lending support. It feels like the Learning Lounge has always been a part of GCU.”

Veres finds it hard to believe that it was just three years ago that he was brought to GCU to create the Lounge. So much has been accomplished, he said, “it feels like 15 years.” But amid the amazing growth in such a short time has been an important discovery.

Brenda Batres (right) of Alhambra High School was very emotional last week when she learned that she was getting the scholarship, and she and her mom were still bubbling with excitement Thursday.

Brenda Batres (right) of Alhambra High School was very emotional last week when she learned that she was getting the scholarship, and she and her mom were still bubbling with excitement Thursday.

“As the Lounge grew I began to notice a new pattern: Students would attend the Lounge, but they wanted something more. They wanted to give back. They wanted to become what they were searching for. They wanted to inspire,” he said.

Great resource for schools

The Lounge’s effectiveness has inspired local educators to fully utilize it.

“Grand Canyon doesn’t have to do this. We all know that,” Coria said. “I just see an investment, a vision that they have, to provide a great service of education, a great university, and beyond that, to help invest in the surrounding community, invest in us, and as we are successful so is Grand Canyon, and as Grand Canyon is successful, so are we. It’s a great relationship.”

Rother said Bourgade’s counselors are always talking with students about the Learning Lounge, and the counselors know that if their academic interventions with struggling students don’t work, the Learning Lounge is there to help.

But maybe most telling is where the Bourgade bus stops first each day after school – you guessed it, the Learning Lounge.

“It’s well-known. It’s well understood,” she said. “I was amazed when I got the statistics from the Lounge how many hours our students actually spend here and how many students are here. It’s thousands of hours.

“It has really, really made a difference in terms of their confidence. Sometimes it’s just someone who’s closer to their actual age that makes a difference rather than always having to depend on the teacher to reteach. They can present a different view.

“And it’s a very welcoming environment. That’s the other thing — there’s nothing to be afraid of. They get on a college campus, they feel at home here, and all of that moves them to understanding that college is actually possible for them.”

GCU admissions representative Kyle Speed fist-bumps one of the winners.

GCU admissions representative Kyle Speed (right) fist-bumps one of the winners.

It also makes it clear that going to GCU is possible for them.

“I think for this inner city it’s going to be a tremendous benefit because these kids are conditioned growing up to go to ASU, go to U of A, go to NAU. We’re changing that mindset for them,” said Kyle Speed, a GCU admissions representative who estimates that 30 of the 150 teenagers he worked with got the Students Inspiring Students scholarship.

“Their first consideration will be GCU, which is a game-changer for us. Being in this community, they’re going to graduate and go back home and build up what we’re already trying to do.”

Positive effect on community

That’s a key aspect of the program — getting students to not only give back at the Learning Lounge, but to give back to the community long after they graduate from GCU.

“I can’t wait to see what our community looks like next year and the year after and the year after because of this kind of approach. … I’ve never been more hopeful for my community than I am at this moment,” Valenzuela said.

Mueller is focused on both short-term and longer-term goals. The first mission, he told the students during his talk, is that they all graduate.

“We’re not shooting for a 98 or 99 percent graduation rate; we are shooting for a 100 percent graduation rate,” he said.

The program is about helping students, but it's also all about families.

The program is about helping students, but it’s also all about families.

But while they’re thriving at GCU, he also wants to see Students Inspiring Students thrive throughout the community. He urged the students and families to tell their friends about it, to get their siblings excited and to help it grow as dramatically as the Learning Lounge has.

“It’s this first 100 that will be the start of something big,” he said. “I want you to envision in three or four years when there are 800 kids coming in here with their families and this Arena is full.”

Thursday night, the Arena was full of optimism instead. The Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation raised $350,000 from donors for the initiative on the night it was introduced earlier this year, and GCU matched that with $350,000 of its own. Mueller estimates that it will cost $3 million to $4 million a year to grow it to the level he wants to reach.

“We want to make this the most education-minded community in America,” he said. “We can do it.”

Virtually every media outlet in the Valley (here’s the story published by The Arizona Republic) has turned out to do a piece on the initiative, and it only has just begun. Its value is getting noticed, all right. And it could be a turning point for west Phoenix.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]

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