Students Inspiring Students celebrates another 100 full-tuition scholarships
By Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
If given a chance, K-12 students are west Phoenix’s best hope for becoming an education-minded community.
The Students Inspiring Students initiative at Grand Canyon University, which celebrated its second 100 recipients Wednesday night, told that story – a story of 100 local achievers who have studied their hearts out, despite their less than ideal circumstances, to conceive a brighter future.
Matthew Casian of Alhambra High School stepped onto the stage to share an emotional story about how hope was a metaphorical seed planted by his late grandmother, Nena. That seed sprouted into the full-tuition scholarship he received to study engineering at GCU.
“Her motto was always, ‘Why step so low when you are destined to go so high?’” Casian said. “She called me her ‘chiquito’ (little one) and bragged about how I would be the one to find a cure for cancer.
“She always saw the potential in me and believed in me when I didn’t, and on the day I called her to tell her I was awarded the Students Inspiring Students scholarship, she said, ‘I told you so.’”
It was the last conversation Casian and Nena had. She passed away Saturday.
Looking back at the stage where he accepted his scholarship award and smiling with tears in his eyes, Casian said the achievement is a feat for two.
“This is for us, not just for me,” he said.
New hope for the future
Filled with optimism, Casian shared a list of goals he already had created for himself as a student at GCU, some of which include joining the Associated Students of GCU and Canyon Kids.
“I just want to prove that anything is possible,” Casian said. “Latinos from my community don’t go to a university. I especially want to create a positive image for them.”
Under the terms of the Students Inspiring Students scholarship, recipients receive academic assistance at GCU’s Learning Lounge, its free after-school tutoring program, while in high school. As part of their full-tuition scholarship, students 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 to the next group of K-12 students behind them.
Dr. Joe Veres, who manages the Learning Lounge, finds it hard to explain everything the Lounge has accomplished in just four years.
“I remember in one of my first interviews with the news media, I was very quick to say that this was a model that could nationally be replicated because I knew the benefits of a college working with local schools and the impact on students, teachers and the community,” he said. “However, now, I realize that while it can be replicated, the missing piece would be the purpose of students that is unique at GCU. They want to serve, they have an obligation for social responsibility and they have a great heart for the Lord — that’s hard to find.”
It started in 2013, when Alhambra principal Claudio Coria, now executive director of leadership for the Phoenix Union High School District, met with GCU President Brian Mueller to discuss the challenges at the high school, where 82 percent of the student body is Hispanic and more than 90 percent fall below the federal poverty level.
From that conversation, the Learning Lounge on GCU’s campus was opened to provide free tutoring and mentoring to any Alhambra student who seeks academic assistance. Today, students from 55 inner-city K-12 schools receive help in the Learning Lounge from more than 1,200 GCU student LEADs (learning advocates).
“When they get here, they are greeted by a college student, and the first (thing to) tackle is obviously academics,” Veres said. “But then as this high school student begins talking to the college student about how they’re not sure if they want to go to college they realize they have faced similar experiences.”
Luz Arreola, a 2016 scholarship recipient and first-generation college student, shared what the scholarship has meant for her family.
“I am a role model to my younger siblings, and now, if you ask my younger sister if she will attend college, she will say ‘to GCU,’” Arreola said. “I have told my dad that I will manage his dream business once I graduate, and I am very dedicated to do it.”
The other student to give a speech at the event was Jellsy Gonzalez of North High School.
While a key aspect of Students Inspiring Students is students giving at the Learning Lounge, Mueller is focused on both short-term and longer-term goals.
In his talk, he said to the new scholarship recipients, “I want you to know that people have invested in you. They think that you are worth investing in, that you are going to deliver, graduate and stay in these neighborhoods as teachers, nurses, doctors and business people. This is a big night for us, and we hope that this is just the beginning.”
He urged students to graduate and then go back to their high schools to inspire even more students.
“I want you to envision when there are 800 (full-tuition scholarship recipients) coming in here,” Mueller said of GCU’s inner-city neighborhood. “We want to create the most education-minded community in America where all students believe they can have a chance to go to college.”
Alhambra’s current principal, Karen Cardenas, said Students Inspiring Students is “a testament of how collaborating, communicating and sharing a vision pays off.”
Located right down the street from GCU, Alhambra went from a D-minus school to a B rating. It recently celebrated becoming one of seven Arizona schools to receive a Beat the Odds Gold Award.
“We have seen how partnerships are essential in educating our community and empowering our neighborhood and families,” Cardenas added. “I know that Students Inspiring Students will break the cycle of poverty and build a new family culture of pursuing higher education.”
Michelle and Edward Greenfield could not contain their pride in their daughter, Kiara, and their gratitude for the Lounge.
“For me this means everything,” Edward said. “I just want to see my daughter live up to her potential, and I think that she can do that here.”
Michelle had to pause a few times to gather herself as she shared what it means to be able to send her daughter off to college.
“It’s a blessing,” she said. “I’m very grateful of GCU and the students and staff at the Learning Lounge.”
To wrap up the ceremony, Mueller asked the newcomers to raise their hands in “Lopes Up.” In that moment, it was evident that the Arena was full of optimism, too.
Tami Strege, principal at Washington High School, laughed at the sight and added, “It’s permanent now – that’s awesome. We’re changing generations of people’s lives. It’s a miracle. It’s a gift. I know they will make us all proud.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.