SIS scholarships provide hope to more families
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Dah Htoo lived in a refugee camp in Thailand without electricity or education until her determined parents led her to America for a chance at a new life.
On Tuesday night, her parents were at her side for that chance.
“With everything my parents did for me,” she said, “I’m doing this to repay them.”
Htoo studied hard at Cesar Chavez High School to earn a Students Inspiring Students Scholarship from Grand Canyon University. She was one of 26 high-achieving students from the low-income neighborhoods near GCU to be awarded full-tuition scholarships during surprise announcements on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
The 20 most academically accomplished of the group, including Htoo, were deemed the first Parsons Scholars, named after a $500,000 gift this year from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation.
Bob Parsons said in a video message to recipients that he “grew up with absolutely nothing” and worked in a steel mill before he was educated and founded PXG: “America is the land of dreams.”
“You are pretty special,” he told them, vowing to follow their progress. “We love you.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Htoo’s parents, Paw Htoo and Ta Moo, who suffered through unrest in Burma before moving to a refugee camp and then to America.
“We are so grateful for this scholarship,” said Paw Htoo. “We also thank God for this opportunity. I wish everyone could be so blessed.”
His daughter said she wants to study toward a career as a pharmacist.
“I also have a daughter who is 2 years old,” Dah Htoo said, “and I get to give this example to her.”
The emotional evening was orchestrated after GCU student and SIS recipient Luis Peńa Espinoza had an idea for a safe, physically distant way to surprise applicants.
He loves pizza, so he dreamed up the idea to take recipients on separate tours of campus, thinking they were doing a final interview, only to be met in the Student Union by an employee holding a pizza box who asked them if they wanted a slice.
When the box was opened, colorful decorations popped out along with a note telling them they had won the scholarship.
To Espinoza it epitomized everything about his own life-altering opportunity at GCU: “Life is full of surprises,” he said.
Applicants came to campus in a bundle of nerves, hoping they would one day be able to attend college, and left in tears of happiness after the box was opened.
“Congratulations!” yelled Brianna Castro, an SIS recipient three years ago who played the part of the pizza employee. “You did it!”
Said recipient Jose Pacheco Lopez: “At first my dad thought it was congratulations for getting the interview to move forward in the process, but then when we read that I actually got the scholarship my mom started crying, realizing the gift we received.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The pandemic had nearly ruined his father’s photography business, PbStudio 3, which thrives on taking photos of big events, nearly all canceled for the past nine months.
He didn’t think there was any way he could go to college after studying so hard at Washington High School.
Now he wants to study Digital Design, “and I would like to continue my dad’s company and help it grow.”
His dad, Jose Pacheco, said: “It means everything to him, given how the economy is going and our whole situation, that he managed to receive this on merit and hard work.”
In fact, the recipients’ combined grade point average is 4.2, all while working through the tough COVID-19 era.
“Everybody needs this right now,” said SIS and External Scholarships Director Megan Serafini. “It’s all about giving.”
The SIS Scholarship Program, a public-private partnership with GCU, local businesses and donors, has had a significant impact on education in the diverse inner-city community, in five years awarding 386 full-tuition scholarships to high-achieving, low-income students in the neighborhood.
“You can see the relief on their faces because they didn’t know how they would pay for college,” Serafini said.
Xitlaly Valdez of Independence High School felt so good that she yelled out in surprise when the pizza box was opened. She wants to be a physician’s assistant.
“This will help my community. They have been so important to me, giving me this opportunity to have knowledge,” she said.
Keerthana Krishnakumar Juttu, whose parents moved to the U.S. from India five years ago, wants to use her studies toward a degree in Digital Design with an Emphasis in Animation to inspire young people.
She got hers from the movie “Inside Out,” the animated Disney film about a young person overcoming the fears of a big move to a new city, something that happened in her own life.
“These expressions have a message that can change someone,” she said.
Parents said their children worked hard to overcome obstacles. Several of the recipients are Dreamers whose undocumented parents came to the U.S. for a better life.
They heard a video message of advice from previous SIS recipients who were in the same boat. Many of you, they said, came from other countries, from families with little money or a constant fear of deportation, but keep pushing through the obstacles. “We share your dreams. We are going to make yours come true, we promise.”
One of those recipients is Adriana Vasquez. She was with her little sister and mother, whom she looked to with love and said, “They brought us here to be educated and be someone in life.”
She wants to be a social worker to help others.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
GCU Magazine: Parsons scholarship, like recipients, will have impact