Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
Two sisters shared their gratitude Tuesday night in a touching ceremony at Grand Canyon University.
“Carla, I want to thank you for being the best sister anyone can ask for,” said Wendy Ceja Gonzalez, a freshman among 94 welcomed at the Students Inspiring Students Scholarship Reception. “You have paved the way for your little sister to go to college.
“I can only dream of being like you. You are such a strong and independent woman. All of your hard work never went unnoticed.”
Carla Ceja, a GCU alumna, employee and graduate student, spoke before her sister in front of donors, faculty, staff, fellow SIS students and graduates and, most importantly, parents Margarita Gonzalez and Jose Ceja, immigrants from Mexico.
“This wouldn’t be possible without the support of my parents,” Carla said. “It is because of them that I have the opportunity to better myself and can now provide a better future for my future children.”
Carla worked hard to get the full-ride SIS scholarship to GCU for students of families in need from the surrounding neighborhoods. Wendy watched her be welcomed in 2016 and walk the very stage she spoke on at graduation in 2019.
“She is my role model,” said Wendy, standing beside her sister afterward.
Wendy told the audience of her struggle as a "dreamer," the name to describe children of parents who moved to the U.S. but aren’t U.S. citizens, denied opportunities for aid offered to others.
“Many doors were closed to me. There were many moments I felt like giving up pursuing my dream. In moments like these,” said Wendy, her voice breaking. “Hijas, échenle muchas ganas para que ustedes puedan vivir una vida mejor.”
It’s what her parents told them -- put in their best effort to have a better life.
“That stuck with me. I was determined to go to college and make a dream for myself.”
It could be a credo of the many first-generation students in the Arena.
GCU Provost Dr. Randy Gibb said the 643 scholarships since the SIS program began in 2016 have so far led to 161 graduates who are living out their faith by serving others in new jobs.
“Love one another,” Gibb told them, “We are changing the world.”
It doesn’t happen overnight. Carla was nervous in 2016 when she arrived at GCU, she told the audience.
“I am also the eldest of three daughters, and I felt the pressure to be a role model for them. It’s a big campus, there were many classes, I didn’t have many friends and I was a minority,” she said. “But I didn’t let fear get in the way.”
She made it through the highs and lows and is grateful that she found friends for life and is today pursuing a master’s in business.
“Scholars, I want to tell you that you will be OK. You will break generational cycles,” she said. “I want to see you in four years walking across the stage and feeling even more proud of yourselves.”
She will be cheering on Wendy and cried as Wendy spoke, as did SIS and External Scholarships Director Megan Serafini, who said the outpouring of family love never gets old.
“When I heard about SIS from Carla,” Wendy continued, “I was amazed how it changed the lives of the recipients and my sister and now all of us here today.”
The recipients also heard Senior Vice President of Student Success Dr. Joe Veres describe the evening as one of the most emotional at GCU – and a worthy tribute.
“The average GPA of our incoming SIS students is a 4.1,” he said. “Academic success, strong work ethic and hundreds and hundreds of hours of service to others is why they have this full-tuition scholarship.”
Students could meet and thank many SIS donors from the community, people who they learned are often like them.
Manny and Lori Horn Bustamante were surrounded by a group of SIS freshman before the ceremony and listened to their hopes and dreams. They are donors with Canyon Institute, a nonprofit that funds scholarships to Christian schools, including GCU’s SIS recipients.
“I was the first to go to college and my parents the first to graduate from high school,” Manny said. “Both my grandfathers only went through the first grade in Mexico, and now my son is at Notre Dame. We are the American dream. So it’s special when you see these students’ passion and excitement. It’s a game changer to see them be able to chase the dream with bright futures ahead.”
The evidence was all around the Arena in the tears of parents watching their children walk the stage to be welcomed into the program.
Susana Hernandez Vega’s parents couldn’t have been prouder.
“She has only good grades, all the time. She loves school and to help all the people within the community,” said Susana’s mother, Reina. “I told her God is with you. That is why you decide on this university.”
Her dad, Jesus, couldn’t contain his big smile: “She has a spark. She pushes everybody. Everybody. The whole family.”
Susana is studying biomedical engineering.
Wendy Ceja studies computer science and finished her speech Tuesday with a personal plea.
“We must continue to move forward with resilience,” she said. “We are beating the odds.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
GCU News: SIS scholars out to prove mentors right