By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Bianca Giorgi didn’t cross the stage for her high school graduation. The international exchange student from Italy discovered when she was a senior that, because of a rule change, her high school would not award diplomas to exchange students.
So her heart sank when the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak dashed her hopes of walking the stage at Grand Canyon University’s spring Commencement.
“I never graduated high school, and I can’t even walk this year, which is a little sad. I’ll never get to experience that,” said Giorgi, a mechanical engineering major who, like her fellow Lopes, is finishing her studies online.
The University postponed its spring ceremonies until later this year, when Giorgi plans to be back home in Italy.
It was at April’s Commencement that she was to take her place behind the podium and address her fellow graduates as the College of Science, Engineering and Technology’s chosen student speaker – an honor that surprised her.
“I didn’t even know it was a thing,” said Giorgi. “I was nominated by a lot of the faculty in the engineering program, which caught me by surprise. When I was telling my classmates, they were like, ‘Wait. Why you? You don’t even have the highest GPA.’ I thought, well, maybe there’s more to it.”
And there was.
“Bianca was chosen because of her heart to serve others, her dedication and hard work, and her infectious attitude. I don’t think she is capable of discouraging others, and she is always helpful and engaged. God has big things carved out for her, and she’s up to the challenge,” CSET instructor Dr. Kyle Staggs said of Giorgi, who not only is a woman in STEM and an immigrant but is the first in her family to graduate from college.
Not to mention, she speaks three languages proficiently – Italian, English and French – and three others with some proficiency (German, Japanese and Latin).
She also is a multilingual academic mentor for student-athletes; has been a learning advocate in math, physics and engineering in the Academic and Career Excellence Centers; is an Honors College student; served as the Marketing Committee leader for the University’s Office of Welcome Programs; presented her research project, “Radiation From the Stars” and founded a campus astronomy club when she first arrived at GCU; and developed bath accommodations for people with disabilities, a project inspired by her mother, for her senior capstone project.
Giorgi moved to the United States when she was just 17, eager to leave behind the bullying she experienced. She wanted to go somewhere new, where she would be accepted.
“It was really, really bad. It was to the extreme, to the point where the instructors couldn’t even help much,” she said.
When she applied to be an international exchange student, she was one of 45 students vying for only 32 spots. They went through months of preparation to make sure they were mentally prepared to live in a different country without their parents. Students were ranked, and whoever the evaluators chose for the top of the list were guaranteed to go to their first-choice place in the world to study.
“I will definitely get stuck with some random little town,” Giorgi said with a laugh. She off-the-cuff picked Arizona (for the good weather) as her first choice, not thinking she would ever get to go to California or New York. “When they were announcing who was going where … I remember seeing my name next to Arizona. I thought, whatever, you know, it’s cool.”
Then she found out she was No. 1 on the list: “You could have gone anywhere,” said the program director, who congratulated her.
But Arizona turned out to be the best choice she could have made.
It led her to GCU.
It was a journey, however, mired by its share of bumps in the road.
Although Giorgi, a varsity soccer player in high school, was not able to receive her high school diploma, Paradise Valley Community College worked with her to get her enrolled before she transferred to GCU in 2017.
It wasn’t a university that was on her radar, but then after a Discover GCU trip, “I absolutely fell in love with the school. I was just amazed at everything that was going on and how they were reaching the community and I was standing behind the same values. I was like, this is fantastic,” she said.
Then there was this: “Oh, you have such good grades. Here’s a scholarship. Oh my goodness, you’re a woman in STEM. Here’s another scholarship,” Giorgi said. “GCU was amazing.”
As was Giorgi, who didn’t hesitate on becoming involved. In everything.
She would have been among those in GCU’s first engineering class to graduate from the University, but a hiccup in transferring credits delayed her.
One of the many things she has done at GCU in her 2½ years on campus that she speaks passionately about is working for the Student-Athlete Development Center, where she would help athletes, many of them international students, who needed tutoring assistance and other support.
As a former student-athlete, she knows the demands of performing both academically and as an athletic competitor.
“I have students that I work with in baseball or swimming who are in engineering, which is ridiculous to me,” she said.
She also speaks passionately about her senior capstone project, which had to be put aside with the closure of the campus and conversion to distance learning – a project she had been working on for a year.
“My mom has multiple sclerosis and she lost strength in her entire right leg. Because of that, they had to go through a very expensive bathroom renovation for the step-over height for the shower,” Giorgi said. “The bathtub was going to be way too expensive.”
So she worked on retrofitting an existing bathtub so that people don’t have to buy or renovate the entire bathroom. She worked on creating a universal unit that could be used on fiberglass tubs to lower the threshold so that people with disabilities, like her mother, could have easier access to the tub.
Not being able to finish and present the project, she said, is something that she’s still trying to process, “but everybody is feeling the same way,” she said.
She’s also trying to process what’s happening back home in Milan, Italy, a hot zone for the coronavirus outbreak. It remains on lockdown and surpassed more than 10,000 deaths over the weekend.
“It’s been really difficult,” Giorgi said. “I was hearing the news weeks before it even hit the United States. But my family is healthy; they’re safe,” she said.
Italy is where she’s planning to return after graduation. It was difficult for Giorgi as an international student to land an internship or a job in the United States — many of them require U.S. citizenship — “which has been really sad and hard to accept,” she said, though she also says she’s excited to see her family after six years of being away.
She’s just not sure, in the midst of COVID-19, what the next few months will hold or what GCU Commencement later this year will look like for her.
“It’s difficult to make plans or even stick to the plans set in place to travel back,” she said.
So for now, amid all the uncertainty, she is just embracing the time she’s had with her fellow Lopes and her professors. And she’s taking it day by day, sharing the few weeks left in the semester with her classmates and professors online.
“I created really good bonds,” she said of the relationships she developed with her professors, classmates and the rest of the GCU community. “I got to meet a lot of great people.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at email@example.com or at 602-639-7902.