Diploma honors memory of grandfather for SIS grad
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Mathew McGraw
GCU News Bureau
Carla Ceja will step onto the Grand Canyon University Arena stage for her diploma Friday with the guiding hand of family history.
Her Mexican grandfather journeyed to the U.S. to work intermittently so he could provide for his family. He was selfless, Ceja said, and adored by grandchildren who would watch his beloved soccer at his side.
She didn’t understand yet the changes that began in him.
The last time she saw her grandfather, he didn’t recognize her.
“I was really scared,” Ceja said after father Jose decided to move the family to Phoenix for a better life when she was in first grade. “I didn’t know English at all.”
It wasn’t until fifth grade that she broke through. A teacher asked for a paper on what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“My grandpa had Alzheimer’s disease,” Ceja said. “I asked the teacher, ‘What can I be to help those with Alzheimer’s or those with mental illness?’ And she told me a psychologist, psychiatrist, a doctor.
“So, I wrote my paper on that. Ever since, I’ve had the idea I wanted to become a psychologist.”
The English started to come easier. She studied harder, like her parents had advised.
They taught her to do her best. “That way when you are older,” her father said, “you don’t have to have a hard time in life.”
By the time she was a senior at North High School in Phoenix, her stay-at-home mom, Margarita Gonzalez, and dad, who worked in shipping and receiving, had witnessed a strong-willed daughter work through a rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
But college was destined to leave her in debt and far away from family and new baby sister Nathaly.
Then one day in English class, she got a surprise call to the office. In the room were officials from GCU, the college right in her West Valley neighborhood.
“They had goody bags. In them was a full-tuition scholarship,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Ceja was in the initial class of Students Inspiring Students scholarship recipients in 2016. And now she is among the first large group from that class to graduate – nine who had only distant dreams of college. They are following in the footsteps of the first two SIS graduates, Sean Oliver and Yenni Sanchez Perez, to walk the GCU Arena stage and receive their degrees in April.
“This is such a proud day for these remarkable students and their families,” said Shari Stagner, director of K-12 Outreach. “We hope they continue to always shine and do great things with their lives. Given their start four years ago, I feel quite certain this moment is only one of many great moments in store for them.”
The SIS scholarship is a collaboration among GCU, the Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation, local high schools and philanthropic leaders to grant four-year, full-tuition scholarships to inner-city students who have at least a 3.5 grade point average, meet financial-need requirements and have received 100 hours of academic assistance at the Learning Lounge.
Ceja remembered going to the Learning Lounge at GCU, designed to help area children with school work, mentor them or just be there to listen.
“The people we met really impacted me. They told us their stories,” she said. “It also was their kindness and how they cared so much for us every time we went in. They asked, ‘Did you guys eat? Do you guys need help with anything?’ Even the simplest questions they would answer.”
The first thing she noticed when she got on GCU’s campus as a student was that everyone opened the door for her.
Ceja began volunteering in the Learning Lounge for 50 hours a semester to give back to students who were in her shoes, “telling them my story, letting them know it is possible to go to college, even if they don’t come from the best background.”
During her time at GCU, her grandfather Eleazar died after years of living with Alzheimer’s.
She poured herself into studies of the disease in GCU courses, such as Cognitive Neuroscience, Health Psychology and Abnormal Psychology.
Her path hadn’t changed since fifth grade but now it was a reality.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “The brain is one of the organs we know the least about. And psychology goes in depth on learning about the brain. I found that fascinating, learning about the mind and human behavior.”
She will begin working in the field to earn money for a year with a goal to enroll in graduate school and become a neuropsychologist.
“The Students Inspiring Students scholarship allowed Carla to experience higher education, which she wasn’t sure was possible,” said Megan Serafini, Program Manager of K-12 Outreach. “Now, Carla sees the value in continuing her educational journey, which speaks to her experience at GCU these past few years.”
First, she will stand before her family with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology.
“She is like my role model,” said sister Wendy, a high school sophomore who hopes to follow her footsteps to GCU. “She is very independent and tries her hardest. She is striving to obtain her goal.”
Ceja’s parents will be proud that her hard work got her through college – and debt free.
“Ever since I was little,” Ceja said, “my parents ingrained in me: ‘Do good and that way you have good opportunities.’”
Do good, and someday she may be able to help others battling Alzheimer’s like her grandfather.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
SIS RECIPIENTS GRADUATING FRIDAY: Carla Ceja, Analy Orduno, Debora Bautista, Dulce Alvarez Sanchez, Elva Martinez, John Nguyen, Karime Salas, Lucy Men, Paulina Aguilar Valenzuela.