Parsons scholarship, like recipients, will have impact
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the November 2020 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
By Rick Vacek
When Megan Serafini told her student workers about the donation, it got emotional.
“I think one of them actually cried,” Serafini said.
When Flor Varelas Martinez heard the news, it made her that much more determined to fulfill her goal to become a maxillofacial surgeon.
“They’re giving back to the community in a way that I hope I can one day,” she said. “They’re investing in me, and they’re investing in future applicants. They’re telling me by donating that they believe in this scholarship and they believe in my future.
“The rest is up to me.”
Serafini is Program Manager for Students Inspiring Students (SIS), the groundbreaking Grand Canyon University program that provides full-tuition scholarships to high achieving students from inner-city schools.
Varelas is one of those students, many of whom would have had no chance of attending college without the SIS scholarship. She also is President of the SIS Club.
The donation is $500,000 over five years from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation. Bob and Renee Parsons are best known these days for the success of Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), which in just six years has had an equally dramatic impact on golf club manufacturing.
It is by far the largest grant in the SIS program’s four-year history and will fund the creation of “Parsons Scholars,” high school seniors who are the most academically gifted recipients.
But, more than anything, it will fund hope.
“Education can be a game-changer,” said Renee Parsons, President and Executive Creative Director of PXG Apparel. “It opens doors, unlocks opportunity and brings hope to students who are working hard to break the cycle of poverty and create a better life for themselves and their families.”
Students like junior Luis Peña Espinoza.
Right around the time PXG started selling golf clubs, Peña couldn’t envision his college dreams getting off the first tee. His mother obtained a visa and brought him to the U.S. when he was 3 months old, but most scholarships were unavailable to him because he is not a U.S. citizen.
“I started thinking maybe I shouldn’t even go,” he said. “I thought, ‘What’s the point if there are so many barriers in front of me stopping me from trying to achieve this?’”
He grew up in a neighborhood ravaged by violence and gangs. Many of his friends didn’t finish high school – if they even started it. But then he got the SIS scholarship.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I was like, ‘Is this real?’ Everything that I went through, all the situations I had to overcome, all the barriers in front of me, and just like that, one scholarship really changed my mindset, my attitude and, quite frankly, my whole life.
“Now that I’m here, I realize that anything’s possible as long as you work hard and are surrounded by the right people.”
And has he ever worked hard. Another scholarship gave him the money to live on campus, a valuable part of the GCU experience. Now the computer science major is a resident assistant in Camelback Hall and is Vice President of Content Creation for TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity, the annual night of inspirational talks organized by students.
He also valued working as a learning advocate (LEAD) in the new Learning Lounge at the Milwaukee Brewers’ training complex in Maryvale. There, GCU students provide academic assistance to youngsters who someday might follow the same path to college.
“When they have that ‘aha’ moment, it’s everything,” Peña said.
In a way, the Parsons donation is a bit of an ‘aha’ moment, too. Dr. Kale Gober, Vice President of Advancement for GCU, hopes it will green-light other prominent donors to help SIS add to its list of 361 recipients since 2016, more than 50 of whom have graduated.
“This raises the baseline and the ceiling for us,” he said. “It is a bat symbol for others to see that you can give transformational-size gifts to this program.
“Our hope is that others will see that and say, ‘Why is the Parsons Foundation giving GCU a half-million dollars?’ If you get to know this program and get to know the leadership here, you’ll see why.”
The donation already is having an effect. By mid-October, Serafini had been contacted by 150 students interested in the SIS scholarship. In other years, she remembers, that number was about 10.
Dr. Joe Veres, Vice President of Student Success, noted the evolution of the program in another way.
“Four years ago, they started coming and we got to interact with them, and they were high school students,” he said. “And now they’re super geniuses pursuing med school, prelaw, engineering. There’s the computer savvy of our computer science kids. It’s really, really cool to see them come into their own.”
Varelas is the perfect example. She was inspired to become a facial surgeon because her sister was born with a cleft palate, but that dream seemed unattainable as she helped her mother clean offices in the afternoon and evening, then stayed up until midnight doing homework.
The stress made her angry, but then she realized that the custodial job was the only way her mother could provide for the family. “I had to help her,” Varelas said.
She found a stress reliever in basketball. When her coach at nearby Washington High School, Breauna Russell (a GCU doctoral learner), told her how much she admired her effort, it inspired Varelas to keep trying in all facets of her life – and then she heard about the SIS program from LEADs visiting the school. She completed the required 100 hours of Learning Lounge work in just six weeks and, to her shock, got the scholarship.
The best part of all was going home to tell her mother.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].