Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Gerardo Ortega Sanchez was so happy. “This scholarship means everything to me because I am an immigrant,” he said, smiling.
The Washington High School senior recalled his journey to the United States from Mexico at just 5 years old, not knowing English at the time.
“I still remember a lot of scenes – it was not a pleasant experience,” the now 17-year-old said. “The only things we had with us were the clothes we were wearing, a backpack with a couple of documents and as much water we could carry. I remember being out in the desert close to dehydration.”
Sanchez was one of 22 high school students who received a full-tuition scholarship to Grand Canyon University on Tuesday night as part of Students Inspiring Students, a collaboration of the University, the GCU Scholarship Foundation, schools and businesses and philanthropic leaders.
At its core, the scholarship program is about students helping students and the impact it can have at inner-city schools in Arizona. Each year, the University awards 100 full-tuition scholarships to students from inner-city schools who meet academic criteria and demonstrate financial need.
Their stories epitomize the journey of life’s hurdles and successes and, ultimately, the importance of perseverance.
Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President of Student Development and Outreach, said the recipients were hard-working children of ambitious parents who wanted to work and support their children.
“They have over a 3.8 GPA, and they’ve put in hundreds of hours for this scholarship,” he said. “Their families, teachers, principals and staff have devoted a lot of time and energy to make this possible.”
Sanchez, who lives in the U.S. as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, showed gratitude for his parents as well as their decision to enroll him in Orangewood Elementary, just down the street from his high school.
“They knew I had to go to school, and that was my beginning,” Sanchez said.
He said of his father, “My dad worked in construction and took on rigorous jobs to make less than minimum wage. He sacrificed himself just to put food on the table.”
After receiving his award, Sanchez was crying as he darted forward to hug his parents and older sister.
For Amy Aguilar, a Glendale High School senior, there was no hiding the excitement.
As her name was called, Aguilar danced her way to the front.
“This means that I now have the ability to have a career,” she said, her tears streaming. “It is a struggle and I am so blessed to have this right now.”
She added, “It also means creating a positive outcome for myself and contributing to society as much as I can.”
Aguilar has lived in Glendale all of her life. She said although she comes from a middle-class family, she remembers her parents making every effort to get her older sister through college.
She, too, expressed appreciation for her parents. “They’ve always tried their hardest to give us what we want,” Aguilar said. “My dad worked two jobs to give us a better life than what he had in Mexico.”
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.
Aguilar hopes to be an early childhood education teacher.
Sanchez said the journey has been “amazing,” and his goal is to keep moving forward.
Having had a strong interest in arts, crafts and Legos as a child and seeing how his father worked fixing cars, Sanchez said he hopes to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Both said their ultimate dream is to give others a chance to live the American dream.
“There are opportunities and your hard work does matter,” Sanchez said.
His mother, Maria Sanchez, added, “It’s a relief. These days have been so tense for us trying to figure it all out, but we can breathe now.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.