By Rick Vacek
As their car turned onto Camelback Road toward Grand Canyon University on that fateful day in 2014, Bethany Egeler and her parents quickly formed strong opinions about the campus they were about to visit for the first time.
Strongly opposite opinions.
Her parents were thinking about the family’s recent visit to another Christian university, one in far more bucolic surroundings, with rolling hills and a postcard-perfect town nearby.
Her father’s overwhelming thought about GCU, he told her later, was, “There’s no way she’s going to like this place. It’s so sketchy around here. This place stands no chance.”
But Bethany felt overwhelmed in a vastly different way.
“I remember seeing the freeway sign for Bethany Home Road (one mile north of GCU) and I thought, ‘You know, that sounds about right for some reason – Bethany’s home,’” she said. “I didn’t feel scared or pushed away or anything. It made me feel at home. I was like, ‘These people need somebody to help change their lives. They need a chance to change their futures.’ ”
Then she got a look at the campus.
She went to a Chapel service, at which the speaker, Terry Crist, talked about “warrior women.” “My parents just kept looking at me, and I was like, ‘Gosh, he’s talking to ME right now. God wants me to come here and be this warrior woman and do amazing things here,’ ” she remembers. “That message hit me really hard in the heart.”
She met with administrators who told her about GCU’s passion for the community and suggested ways she could get involved – a head start on the mission work she hopes to someday do in the Third World. “My heartstrings were just being super tugged,” she said.
When they returned to their Colorado Springs, Colo., home, Bethany had a shocking announcement for her parents: She was canceling their trips to two other universities. She was saying no to that prominent college back east. She was going to GCU.
Now she’s set to graduate after just three years, and she is incredulous about what has happened to her.
She manages the Thunder Vision program, which brings third-through eighth-grade students to campus to walk the facilities, talk to GCU students and learn how college can increase their future opportunities.
She has worked with sex-trafficking victims in the Dream Center, not far from campus.
She chose Hillsong Church Phoenix, mainly because she was so impressed with the sermons. She couldn’t put her finger on why they sounded so familiar, but then she realized it: The pastor is Terry Crist.
And she’s now Bethany Huffman, her husband, Noah, having moved down from Colorado Springs to join her here as a GCU student.
She wonders how all this could be. She can come to only one conclusion: God’s hands are all over it. It was meant to be.
Most students come to GCU under far less dramatic circumstances, of course. The affordable Christian education and the vibrant campus are big lures, but you don’t have to look far – like, just outside the fences of campus – to see that community outreach is a major factor, too.
But even more important is what they do with the opportunity once they get here. This story is about four of them who got here against all odds and have made the most of it. It is a story that should resonate with incoming freshmen, prospective students, graduating seniors and current campus residents – and all of their parents, too. It is life at GCU wrapped up in all its many facets and yet with many recurring themes.
But, this time, we’re getting out of the way and just letting the students talk. Compiled from one-on-one interviews, the next four passages feature their takes on the GCU experience … in their own words. As you’ll see, they have a lot to say.
MAJOR: CHRISTIAN STUDIES
“You’re not forced to do anything here — it’s all up to you.”
I was born in Quito, Ecuador, and was raised there for a part of my life as a missionary kid. And so I definitely have a heart for the nations and Third World countries. I’d love to move to one one day.
When I visited GCU, I kept thinking, “What better opportunity to do mission work and live out my calling for the Lord than actually living in it?” I got so excited, being in a different culture. I was super excited to be around somewhere that’s completely different.
I got set up to meet with Tacy Ashby (GCU’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Educational Alliances) and Lorin Marchese (SEA’s Administrative Coordinator). They took me under their wing even though they hardly even knew me and I was this punk rock high school kid. I remember them saying, “If you come here, we’re going to get you involved in this and this, we’re going to help you do this.” They helped me change my major when I got there. They did so much for me.
I felt that hospitality around campus, not just through them. I felt like anybody I connected with here for my visit had an attitude of, “Welcome to GCU, I’m so glad to have you here and I’m going to go above and beyond to make sure you feel at home here.” That environment drew me in so much.
When I started doing Thunder Vision, I got to lead the program and do two presentations a day to 200 seventh- and eighth-graders. I didn’t have a lot of experience with public speaking, so it was intimidating, but I knew it would be rewarding. I was able to pour into their lives, love on them. Just hearing them out, their worries and their fears, I got to tell them, “You have a chance to change the world.”
I wanted to go into counseling, especially with sex-trafficking victims, so my freshman year I got involved with the Dream Center. It was such a humbling experience to be around sex-trafficking victims and realize, “That could be me. These girls are just like me.”
Definitely one of the big things at GCU, one of the driving factors, is helping the community. That was something that completely pulled me in. Everybody wants to make a difference here and do some kind of change.
It’s moved mountains in Phoenix and this community because these students have this heart. I think it’s partly the school, but most of it, it’s the students. Without the students driving all the community service, it wouldn’t be happening. The students have the heart for it. The school pushes it, but we take it with open arms.
The options here to be involved in the Christian lifestyle and ministry are really cool. That’s another thing I love about it. You’re not forced to do anything here – it’s all up to you. If you want to go to Chapel, if you want to go to The Gathering, if you want to be involved in anything on campus, volunteer-wise, you have to make that decision to do it. That shows that the people here really have the heart for it because so many people actually do volunteer, so many people actually do go to Chapel and The Gathering.
God has blessed my time here tenfold. I know that God blessed my decision to come here. I don’t think I’d have the cool stories anywhere else.
I’m a completely different person than I was three years ago in the best way possible. It’s prepared me for life, for relationships, for marriage, for a future career, personally, emotionally, spiritually, my friendships. It’s monumental how much I’ve grown. I know that people say that you have to change in college, but I don’t think they mean this. It’s been life-changing, and I think it’s been really inspiring for my parents to watch, too.
“GCU has transformed me as a person.”
I didn’t even know that GCU existed, and then in my senior year of high school a GCU representative came and offered a day to tour the campus. For the fun of it, I signed up – I had never been to a college campus and was pretty positive I could never go to a university.
I was considered a ward of the state. I hadn’t done very well in school, I had terrible attendance and I had gone to four different high schools. I hadn’t taken my SAT and ACT. I had never seen anyone in my family go to college. I didn’t even know what that was supposed to look like.
But as my friends and I were walking around campus, I had this really strong intuition that this was the place I needed to be. I take my gut feelings pretty seriously, and this feeling was so overwhelming.
My GCU advisor heard my story and did everything in his power to help me. When I was accepted, he and another person on the board came to my school and personally told me how excited they were for me to come in. I have my essay and acceptance letter still saved.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but in the moment I was so excited and I didn’t care about the money. I was ready to take out as many loans as I needed because I knew that going to college was going to break a cycle in my family. I was scared, but for the first time in my life, it was a happy scared. I wanted to show God that I deserved this blessing He had given me.
I haven’t had support in a lot of my life, but GCU gave me a sense of community. Automatically, I was embraced with open arms and I knew I had made the right choice. Being around so many kids who had had a lot of opportunities gave me a lot of drive. I felt blessed to be around them because it pushed me to work harder.
I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I randomly picked marketing. At the beginning of my sophomore year, GCU opened the hospitality program, and I made the switch immediately. I realized that’s what I needed to do. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I’m not extremely smart. I don’t play instruments. I don’t play sports. The only thing I’m good at is people, and so hospitality was the perfect fit for me.
Since then, I’ve grown exponentially. I really found what I love, and the support I’ve gotten from my professors is unmatched. They saw potential in me that I hadn’t even seen in myself, and I gained a lot of confidence, a lot of direction. I do volunteer work and I am a happier person since I came to GCU.
GCU has transformed me as a person and that’s why I work hard for the University. I feel like GCU has done so much for me, and I’d like to give it back. I tell everybody how much I love my school.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. All of a sudden, I have a commercial, I work for GCU Hotel, I’m speaking at the hospitality classes and it just became so much bigger. It still shocks me. When I say I love GCU, I mean it.
MAJOR: BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION
“One of the things I love about GCU is that there’s a lot of diversity.”
It makes me sad to see people I grew up with who have lost their dreams. They had so much ambition in high school, but I think part of it is that they didn’t have the atmosphere around them to push them toward that.
I’m grateful that I was able to go to a place that allowed me to follow my dreams but was affordable, too. When I first visited GCU, I immediately felt a vibe of innovation, both on the campus and in Phoenix as a whole. I thought, “Man, people DID follow their dreams in places like this!”
I didn’t have any family to plug into here, so it’s like you have to find yourself. I love new chapters, but it takes time to get your feet underneath you, to see the atmosphere and what to do. But then sophomore year I got plugged into this ecosystem of taking your passions and building them into something sustainable. That’s been the reason why I really loved GCU.
It was the people who got me going. Luke Amargo was my resident assistant my freshman year, and we became really close friends because of the Writing Club. Then he brought me on for this business idea, Storage Together, that eventually won the Canyon Challenge. That really kickstarted it for me.
I also helped bring TEDx to GCU, and now I’m involved in a project for the Admissions department – telling the stories of people on campus. The coolest thing about our campus is the people. People look at it and say, “I want to be in a place with those kinds of people.”
Last September, we launched Thoreson Watches, which we want to use to raise money for tutoring and mentoring of refugee children – a $60 watch equals 60 minutes of tutoring. It doesn’t just read time, it gives time.
I’ve been a resident assistant the last two years. The cool thing about that is that it ties together a lot of my passions. To me, it’s not necessarily a job. It’s a good excuse to go in somebody’s room and just say, “Hey, how’s it going?” It’s given me a sweet platform to reach out to people.
Recently, a guy came to me because he’s converting from Islam to Christianity and is preparing to get shunned by his family. It’s just wild to see someone who saw me and said, “I want advice from that guy.” It’s cool to see that people see Jesus through me and see the blessings I’ve had.
One of the things I love about GCU is that there’s a lot of diversity. There are Christians, there are non-Christians, there are people who don’t care about Christianity. There’s not really a Christian bubble, and that’s a good thing. My dad’s a pastor and I come from a Christian high school – to be able to plug into the Christian atmosphere but also interact every day with people who aren’t Christians, that’s been amazing.
I would tell incoming students to be prepared to listen. Listen more. Listen to people. Listen to people that you know you disagree with. And don’t listen to them out of contempt. Listen to them with sincerity, actually trying to see what the world looks like through their eyes.
Listen to people whether they’re homeless right outside our gates, whether they’re refugees down the road, whether they’re classmates, whether they’re teachers. Talk less and listen more. That’s been the best thing in my life. I’ve learned the most from that. I’ve grown the most from that. I feel like most of my ideas have come from that.
MAJOR: PUBLIC POLICY
“I’m a Latina woman, and I found my place here.”
When I was 12 years old, my biological mom passed away. I was placed in a home with my biological father, but he was very abusive. I got to get out of the home and was placed in foster care, and then I lived in three or four different homes in Stockton, Calif., where I grew up.
It was really overwhelming. As a young girl, I felt like I had no future, like this is my reality and there’s no one who’s going to advocate for me or be there for me. I was very alone. I was very depressed. It was very hard. I remember praying, “God, please just give me a normal family, a normal life.”
Then shortly after that came what was like a miracle: When I was 16 I was adopted by a Christian family — my maternal mom’s sister, whom I had not known.
My senior year of high school I came to Discover GCU. I thought GCU was so fun. I was just blown away. But then I just felt really scared as a foster youth, living that far away from my family, and decided to go to a California university instead.
After one semester there, though, I felt like I couldn’t find any place for me, I couldn’t find my purpose and I couldn’t find any sense of community. A friend from Stockton was a GCU student, and when I came to visit her I already knew that I liked GCU because it was really nice. But just coming here again, it was reassuring that maybe this was the place I was supposed to be. I figured I was already going to a school five hours from home, so I was like, “What’s another five?” I felt like God was telling me that GCU was where I was meant to be.
When I first got here, I was overwhelmed. I was a sophomore living in the freshman dorm. But I was able to find two close friends and find a little bit of community on campus, and then it was a lot better for me.
Now I’m a senior leader and am on track to graduate in 2019. I’m also working with the New Business Development Center as a research analyst. I’m in pre-law, so most of what I do is research laws and assist the center in the initiatives they want to pursue.
I’m volunteering with Arizonans for Children. They pair me with a foster youth who lives in a group home and comes from crazy circumstances. I would like foster youth to know that they can come to college, too. I’m also a member of the Latino Student Union and work part-time as a server at Paradise Valley Country Club.
I’m a very extroverted person, so I just will say hi to whomever I see. I made a lot of friends through Welcome Week as a volunteer, and this year I’ll actually be in charge of the Welcome Week volunteers.
When I drove down to GCU for my first experience with Welcome Week, it was so crazy and exciting. At my other college, you have to carry your stuff to your room, and I lived on the third floor — there were no volunteers. I came here, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, they’re so nice!” I would tell incoming students that there’s a place for everyone at GCU. I’m a Latina woman, and I found my place here. I just feel like GCU has open arms for all students. I can’t believe that I’m part of something so special.
Jeannette Cruz contributed to this story.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or email@example.com.