Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Anastacie Sakina has one goal – to be somebody. Her parents and six siblings didn’t have it easy in their native in Congo, and they escaped African refugee camps and fled to the United States.
Fast forward 4 1/2 years to a celebratory Tuesday evening at Grand Canyon University, when Sakina was one of the final 50 recipients of the University’s Students Inspiring Students full-tuition scholarships.
Now in its third year, the program is as simple as it is life-changing for both students and their families: The GCU Learning Lounge has provided free tutoring and mentoring for more than 1,700 neighborhood students from kindergarten through 12th grade since it opened in 2013, and now those inner-city students can earn scholarships, then pay it forward by serving in the Learning Lounge to help the next generation of students behind them.
“When we got here my parents didn’t have permanent jobs, so they sold bananas in the street to put food on the table and to pay all of my school expenses. It was not easy, but I thank God we got through it,” said Sakina, now a senior at Central High School.
Despite her family’s struggles, she played soccer, worked hard to keep her grades up and attended church. It was while attending a youth group camp during her sophomore year when a friend told her about the Learning Lounge. At first, she was apprehensive.
“I had to check it out for myself, and I filled out an application and asked for more information,” she recalled. “After soccer practice I came straight to GCU.”
Now, Sakina said, her dreams are starting to become a reality.
“It’s impossible to describe this night because it is so amazing,” she said. “I want to have a career and I want to be able to look at myself and say, ‘Yes. I did that.’”
Each year, the University awards 100 full-tuition scholarships to students from inner-city schools who meet academic criteria and demonstrate financial need. The average GPA of the final 50 SIS scholarship recipients, who come from 19 different high schools, is over 3.9.
It started in 2013 when Alhambra Principal Claudio Coria, now Executive Director of Leadership for the Phoenix Union High School District, met with 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. That meeting led to the birth of the Learning Lounge, where top-tier GCU students called learning advocates (LEADs) lend academic assistance.
Tuesday, there was plenty of emotion to go around. Parents were also surprised and crying tears of joy.
Sakina’s mother, Marie Wamukika, said she felt “Happy. Very, very happy.”
“It is unimaginable,” she said. “We came from Africa with no money, no friends, and today everybody here found opportunity.”
Roxanna Mendoza of Washington High School was still shaking and sweating minutes after she received the news. Her mother, Socorro Mendoza, was in tears.
“It’s good to be able to take charge of my own education,” Roxanna said. “I quit my job, and every day after school I came directly to GCU to finish homework or study and it was really worth it. Now there’s a scholarship that’s worth four years.”
Roxanna is the first in her family to go to a four-year university. She hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
“I know I will achieve that dream,” she said.
Her mother added, “It’s a huge achievement and a dream come true. My daughter deserves this.”
The emcees of the night were Jellsy Gonzalez, a 2017 SIS scholarship recipient, and Adrian Rodriguez, a LEAD in the Learning Lounge.
The stories of the scholarship recipients epitomize the value of hard work, said Gonzalez, who continues to contribute hours at the Lounge.
She recalled the day she received the news about her scholarship:
“I remember crying and all of the emotions in the room. To be here tonight to welcome a new group of students is exciting because it’s 100 students coming from west Phoenix, a not-so-good area, as people would say, receiving a full-ride scholarship. They now get to say that they are going to a good college, and that makes me proud of our community.”
She talked about how she, too, faced her own struggles after coming from Mexico and growing up in a single-parent household.
“This is why we came here – to make our dreams come true – and I know that a lot of our recipients come from similar backgrounds because I’ve heard their stories and I know how hard they have worked to get where they are now,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a scholarship, but it’s also an opportunity for kids to get help and to be with people who want to help them. All of our LEADs grow an enormous bond with the students they help, and you make new friends along the way. There are so many good things going on at GCU, and I am so happy about the lives we’re reaching.”
Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President of Student Development and Outreach, said at the end of the night that he felt humbled.
“I think this continues to show the vision of President Mueller and his pure desire of social responsibility and giving back to our community. These are incredible students and, really, this is a time to celebrate their drive and motivation they have to go to college and be successful. This continues to be one of the most memorable nights each time at GCU,” Veres said.
The celebration is scheduled to continue in April with a special banquet, where recipients will get to walk across the GCU Arena stage and receive an official certificate – a prelude to them walking across the stage several years from now.
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.