GCU family embraces first-generation students

September 03, 2021 / by / 0 Comment
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First-generation student Bazwell Mwale (right) mixes with other GCU students at a social Thursday in the Student Union.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

Bazwell Mwale’s parents died when he was a small child, and he was placed in an orphanage in southeast Africa. Good people from a church in Kansas brought him to the U.S., where he finished high school and went to a year of community college.

He thought of his family often.

“My dream is to become a doctor so I can go back to Malawi. I have seen a lot of family pass away because of medical issues, including my parents,” he said.

He is a first-generation college student at Grand Canyon University, where 1 in 5 new students this year are the first person in their immediate family of origin to attend college. They face hurdles without family members who can guide them through the financial and logistical steps of higher education and often have intense pressure to be the family’s new guiding star.

“I have a brother and sister, and they didn’t have the opportunities I had. So they are looking to me. ‘How is he going to do?’ How am I going to help them?” said Mwale, only a couple days after arrival at GCU to begin study in biology. “There is a pressure. I don’t want to let them down.”

Connecting first-generation students to resources and to a community that can guide and ease their path was part of the reason for Thursday’s first-generation social during Welcome Week, hosted by the Associated Students of Grand Canyon University.

Daniela Chavira (left), a student body senator, is also a first-generation student.

ASGCU President Darion Padilla and Vice President Ben Claypool have made them a priority this year because first-generation students often have no one to call on to ask questions about college. For the first time, ASGCU has a student government senator — Daniela Chavira — whose specific duties are to first-generation students.

Chavira knows what they are going through. She had been translating for her Spanish-speaking, Mexico-native parents since she was a child. “You are 8 and expected to translate legal documents,” she said.

Her parents knew little of the college experience when she arrived at GCU with them last year for Welcome Week as a first-generation student.

“It was powerful to me, seeing my parents in front me, a part of me. … But someone is here to help. I am not alone anymore,” Chavira said.

GCU embraced her not only as a child of immigrant parents. “I was something more than that. I was a human being,” she said.

While GCU helped her through the financial complexities and education options, Chavira’s parents could offer this:

Ponte las pilas.”

Keep going.

“Their words of encouragement and prayers were a real blessing. I can’t rely on them financially, but I can rely on their prayers,” Chavira said.

The mechanical engineering major wants to encourage other first-generation students to keep going.

“I always think of the quote by Martin Luther King: ‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.’

Ponte las pilas.

Often, it takes more than determination.

Around 50 first-generation students joined the social in the Student Union during Welcome Week.

First-generation students are more likely to come from families with financial challenges, yet a college degree will help ease those challenges.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the 2019 median weekly salary was $1,340 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $746 for those with only a high school diploma.

“It’s so important and aligns with President Brian Mueller’s focus on education being the great equalizer,” said Marette Hahn, Academic Support Director at GCU’s Academic and Career Excellence Center. “If we can support first-gen students in achieving a bachelor’s degree, we can help play a pivotal role in ending the cycle of poverty.”

First, they must learn the resources available to them.

“I have to do everything alone. No one knows about college because I am the first child, the oldest of six. My dad has a roofing company, and my mom works at a cookie store,” Julia Sanchez said.

She began to realize she was in good company at the social, where about 50 students circulated between tables in the Student Union with refreshments and games. There was proof all around her of the value in tapping into the GCU community.

Junior Edgar Moreno, a ASGCU senator, said he almost dropped out as a freshman because he couldn’t afford college, but once he got involved in GCU Speech and Debate, Director of Forensics Michael Dvorak guided him toward a speech scholarship that helped him stay in college.

There was inspiration, too, just to be amid the determination of budding scholars.

Elizabeth Frias has worked as a phlebotomist for 12 years to save money and finally made it to GCU this week to soon begin study in biology.

Armando Velasco is eager to begin college study as the first in his family to do it.

They are not alone, even just starting their college careers this week.

“I didn’t know what to do about classes. I didn’t even know what classes were,” Armando Velasco said. “I don’t know any tips, any hacks. You don’t get that from your family. You are left to figure it out yourself.”

But with GCU’s help and a Students Inspiring Students scholarship, he’s already figuring it out. He wants to study psychology to help those suffering families.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a father figure in my life. I do wish to be that father figure for others. I want to be there for them,” he said. “I want to help people out.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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Related content:

GCU Today: Project L: Welcome Week’s love letter to diversity

GCU Today: Sophomores carry high hopes for an eventful year

GCU Today: Pinning ceremony stirs emotion in parents, students


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