Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Washington High School senior Juan Ballez, on the cusp of graduating and looking to the big, wide world and all of its possibilities, longs to help his father, whose knuckle was injured in an accident. Although doctors have done what they can, his father still can’t move his hand very well.
That’s why Ballez is incredibly determined — staunchly determined — to become a biomedical engineer.
“I want to find a way for him to control his hand — to have full motion,” said Ballez on Tuesday evening on the patio overlooking Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark.
Ballez was one of 43 students from 15 high schools in Phoenix and Glendale Union high school districts, Bourgade Catholic High School and Glenview College Preparatory High School who were asked to come to campus for what administrators called a mandatory Students Inspiring Students scholarship information meeting. Instead, they found out they weren’t there for a boring scholarship information meeting at all.
“We lied to you, and we’re really sorry about that … sort of,” said Shari Stagner, GCU’s Director of K-12 Outreach. “We know you think you’re here to get information on a Students Inspiring Students scholarship, but really, you’re here because you ARE a scholarship recipient for 2019.”
Ballez’s mother, Veronica, started crying as Juan’s name was called and he was welcomed into the Lopes family.
“I’m going to cry,” said Veronica, who couldn’t speak through her tears as she thought about all the hard work that led to this moment. “He accomplished a lot. He tried and tried and tried for the sake of his parents.”
Some of his accomplishments: He’s a National Honor Society member and is an officer with a volunteer community service organization called the Interact Club.
“He strives to get A’s; when he gets a B, he gets upset,” said Juan’s girlfriend, Malique Valle.
“It feels like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Juan, smiling a light-up-the-world smile, after receiving the scholarship, which covers four years of tuition and books. “… I was determined. I was like, I can’t have my parents pay for it (college). I don’t want that burden on them.”
Seven high school seniors previously received the SIS Scholarship, bringing the total number of recipients for the incoming 2019-20 freshman class to 50.
This is the fourth year of the Students Inspiring Students Initiative, a collaboration among GCU, the Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation, local high schools and business philanthropic leaders to improve K-12 education.
The initiative’s roots reach back to 2013, when then-Alhambra High School principal Claudio Coria and GCU President Brian Mueller batted around ideas after taking a hard look at the school’s challenges — a high refugee population and staggering poverty level among them.
That conversation sparked the birth of the Learning Lounge, opened to provide free tutoring and mentoring to Alhambra students at the outset, though it has been expanded to serve more than 130 K-12 schools in the community.
Then there are the SIS scholarships: four-year, full-tuition scholarships awarded to inner-city students who meet academic criteria of a 3.5 grade point average, meet a financial need and receive 100 hours of academic assistance at the Learning Lounge.
Those who receive the scholarship pay it forward by providing academic support and mentoring in the Learning Lounge for the K-12 students who will follow them.
The goal is to lift up the neighborhood GCU calls home by creating an education-minded, inner-city community. The hope is that, once they graduate from GCU, the scholarship recipients will return to the community and continue to lift it up.
“We’re investing in human capital,” said Stagner of the SIS initiative, adding how this night — when the scholarships are awarded — is one of her favorite nights of the year.
“I love surprising the families. They’re so proud of their children. … They’ve supported their children for so long. This is a nice celebration for them. They want more for their children than they had.”
Jose and Socorro Monarrez want more for their son, Andres, a senior at Carl Hayden Community High School.
“We moved here from Mexico, so it was always them telling me to keep up my grades,” said Andres, who has spent much of that time doing exactly what his parents told him.
“I have had to keep my grades up since freshman year — no mistakes,” said Andres, who is the student body vice president at his school and has maintained a 4.6 GPA (the average GPA for Tuesday’s scholarship recipients is 4.1).
He plans to study biology with a pre-med emphasis and then continue his studies to become a general surgeon. Like Ballez, he is looking to the big, wide world, all its possibilities and its promises of a better future.
“It’s a relief to know my education has been paid for,” he said.
And he isn’t the only one in the family whose education is being paid for by the SIS initiative. Andres’ brother, Jose, was a scholarship recipient the year before and now is a sophomore engineering major in addition to being a LEAD – a learning advocate – in the Learning Lounge.
Like Ballez and Monarrez, Apollo High School’s Jake Mahoney knows exactly what he wants to do with his life.
Jake has his sights set on a degree in entrepreneurial studies, banking on the Colangelo College of Business and SIS to help get him there. It was after he heard about a couple of other GCU student-entrepreneurs – Nathan Cooper and Levi Conlow – and their company, Lectric Longboards, that he decided GCU was the right place for him.
Cooper and Conlow soaked up entrepreneurial advice from their professors — their mentors — in building their business, a motorized skateboard company, and were encouraged to use not only GCU’s intellectual resources but their labs and other facilities, as well.
GCU was integral to Lectric Longboards’ success, and Jake is looking forward to the same kind of support.
“I’m going to make electric scooters,” he said and hasn’t rested on his laurels in high school, starting his own electric scooter company, Fried Scoot. “I also have my own clothing brand.”
Jake’s dad, Michael, appreciates GCU’s intellectual property stance and that students can develop their entrepreneurial skills and start their own businesses.
Jake said receiving the SIS scholarship “means a ton” to him and his family.
“It’s going to let me put more focus on my business rather than focus on how to pay for my education,” he said.
Fairfax High School’s upbeat, well-spoken Mario Barron didn’t have it easy getting to this point in his life, but landing the SIS scholarship seems to have smoothed those challenges.
He works about 22 hours a week after school to help his struggling family – his dad works a full-time job and his mom, three jobs. As a lot associate, he often loaded concrete.
“It was rough,” he said of the physical labor.
Since elementary school, Barron wanted to excel in school.
“I knew my family did not have the income to pay for college. I knew I had to do it on my own,” he said, though he did not know how realistic it was to hope for a scholarship. Barron had to somehow find time over the past three months, around work and school, to reach the 100 hours of Learning Lounge time required to be considered for the SIS scholarship.
He’s the first in his family to receive a scholarship and has a lofty goal – he hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
As the sun started to set on the GCU campus, Barron, with a big smile, was ready to start the next chapter in his life.
“I can’t wait,” he said.
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.
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