They’re graduating, and that truly says it all
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
They carried a heavy weight of expectations, but they did it. The first full class of Students Inspiring Students scholarship recipients is set to graduate from Grand Canyon University, a remarkable moment for 50 neighborhood families.
“My dad was a homeless kid at age 9 and never set foot in a school. My mom only went to sixth grade,” said Blanca Santillan, who will graduate with a degree in Justice Studies. “It will be emotional for all of us and will be a huge change for my family since we are first-generation Americans.”
They were groundbreakers, ushering in GCU’s initiative to build up the neighborhood by helping its children. SIS grants a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to inner-city students who have at least a 3.5 grade point average, met financial-needs requirements and received at least 100 hours of assistance at GCU’s Learning Lounge, an after-school tutoring program.
“My mom was a single mom for a really long time, and she knew she wanted me to do better than she did. She was always pushing me,” said Sara Rojas. “I’d be doing a project late at night and crying and she would stay up and help me.”
Her mom, Diana Dugger, jumped for joy the day of the announcement. Her daughter was introverted and stuck by her side as a child, but in the four years that followed she has watched Sara’s transformation.
“It was refreshing to see the change in her eyes,” Dugger said. “She is coming out of her shell.”
But something this life-changing was not without challenges.
“No one in my family had gone to college. It was good but there was pressure. I have to be perfect there or otherwise it’s a big waste,” Rojas said.
On the first day of college, she realized she needed a personal computer. She sat at an empty desk. On the second day, she brought her mom’s old, huge laptop and strained her back carrying it. She said she passed other students with nice clothes and felt as if she didn’t fit in.
She was not alone.
“I was new with technology and overwhelmed with how to use the laptop; I didn’t know where to click. And I went to the wrong class,” said Jazmine Miguel. “I went to the Student Union and cried. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want my parents to see me cry. They are very proud of me and think I have everything figured out.”
They found their way, eventually, with the help of others at GCU.
Miguel found the Honors College and the Latino Student Union and made connections. Santillan found the Students Inspiring Students Club, where she became president of an organization that helps commuting SIS students discover campus life.
They worked with high school students in the Learning Lounge, fulfilling their 100 hours of giving back, which also led to a sense of community where they once felt out of place.
“Because I came here in high school, I get to walk around and see little ‘mini-me’s’ that were in my spot four years ago. I was wondering what they are wondering now,” Rojas said.
Santiago Nunez first sat in the back of the class, eyes ahead and not talking, until he connected with others in the same boat.
“I talk to high school students who come here and I tell them I don’t feel lost here,” he said. “It reminds me of a place I came from. People aren’t that different from me.”
It wasn’t easy. Nothing worth it is.
Santillan’s grades fell, and for a time she hid them. “I was devastated. I thought I would lose my scholarship,” she said, until she told her parents and they encouraged taking summer classes. “But I’m still here. I survived.”
The students have beaten the odds, said Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President of Student Success. College wasn’t even on the radar for many of them before they took to the campus with determination.
“This is a program that isn’t all talk. It’s working,” he said of the more than 250 scholarships awarded thus far. “The amount of work ethic they have is amazing.”
GCU isn’t just there to teach them through math or English. The University’s role in lifting the community also means helping the program’s graduates land a job.
“Now they are not only the first to have a college education but the first to have a professional career,” Veres said. “These families are trusting GCU to educate their child. Now they get a job back in the community and help support their family. What happens is you get a true middle class, if not higher, and you have an educated community.”
For the past four years, Rojas’ family members bragged about her work at GCU, “and now everyone is compared to you,” she said. “I’m nervous they are going to hold me on this pedestal to be like president or something.”
Facing that pressure, they have laid out an example for others. Nunez shares a room at home with his little brother, who often rolled over at 3 a.m. and saw his brother still studying. “Now that I’ve been doing it, he has to try to go above it,” Nunez said.
Along the way, people were there to help at GCU.
Miguel once was told by a mentor that when a student earns a college degree, the journey has just begun. “That calms me down. I used to feel anxious but now I feel amazing,” she said.
She was told by a life coach at a business fair on campus that she should talk with her parents about her fear of disappointing them.
“That same night I did, and they were supportive of everything. It felt amazing. I am starting my own business. I am going to be broke, but money has never been an issue for my family. We have always been poor, and we have always survived.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.