Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
A lot of construction workers, landscapers and other hard-working families filled the room, many of them immigrants who looked expectant, hopeful. A lot of high school seniors sat aside parents who brought them to a new country, remembering how they once didn’t know a word of English but studied hard, earned good grades and landed here, at Grand Canyon University, on a Friday night.
To hear this surprise announcement:
“How does it feel to be a recipient of the Students Inspiring Students scholarship?”
Echo Hall erupted in cheers and joyous laughter, followed by hugs and tears.
The father of Flavio Bustos jumped to his feet, turned to the 25 students and parents and started a chant that others quickly joined:
“Si se pudo! ... Si se pudo!”
"Yes we did it! ... Yes we did it!”
Yes they did earn a full-tuition Students Inspiring Students scholarship from GCU that goes to high-achieving students of families in need from surrounding neighborhoods.
Many said it meant the difference between not going to college and the opportunity to follow their dreams.
That’s why Evelyn Silva turned to her single mother of three who bakes cakes for a living, hugged her tight and cried.
“It’s been a long fight,” said mom Claudia Silva, an immigrant from Mexico whose thoughts were translated by a family member. “We have been fighting alone for a long time. All the sacrifices have been worth it. I am so proud she was able to achieve this goal.”
Evelyn vividly remembers sitting alone in class not knowing a word of English, “going from being an A student to F, and wondering how to communicate that I was struggling.” But helped by her English teachers in grade school and later at Thunderbird High School, she made it to this night.
“I know my sixth-grade self would be proud,” she said.
She wants to study psychology.
“To help people,” she said. “I want to help people understand their experiences affect them in a negative or positive way.”
Jenn Mitchell, who began work just five days before as a director of SIS and the Learning Lounge, where recipients are tutored on GCU’s campus, said that others at GCU may be familiar with the joyous reactions of students and families during surprise SIS announcements, but she was taken aback.
“I didn’t just tear up, I lost it,” she said.
For good reason, if you know what it means for families – now 675 who have been offered scholarships.
“We are changing lives,” said SIS Program Manager Cinthia Monge.
SIS recipients are of all backgrounds, but on Friday night the room was predominately filled with Latino students and parents, hearing announcements in both English and Spanish.
Bianca Hansen, an SIS scholar and learning advocate, told the group she remembered the night as a first step for her own education, but the community she found at GCU made her “realize that I was working toward something bigger than myself.”
Jesus Ruiz Suarez, who was awarded a scholarship Friday, already has that in mind. He has advocated for other immigrants, specifically Dreamers like his older sister, and said he recently got to talk with Gov. Katie Hobbs on the subject of educational opportunities for them.
He said it means a lot to be surrounded by such a diverse crowd with similar backgrounds after studying at Brophy College Preparatory.
“I’m usually around others that aren’t like me,” he said. “It is neat to be able to see people flourish. Their parents worked so hard to get them here.”
Jesus said his mother, Isabel Suarez, who watched his older sister Sandra Ruiz graduate with a nursing degree at GCU and younger brother Martin Ruiz excel as a sophomore here, was still overcome when she heard the news on Friday, translating her thoughts:
“She said she felt like she would faint because the emotions that were coming out of her. It was great seeing all of her children realize their dreams.”
Ruiz Suarez will join a rare place in his family. Only his uncle had a college education, and that was because the entire extended family joined to help him become the one who could go. Now he is going to college with his tuition paid for four years.
They carried this shared history of hopes and upheaval and new beginnings with them.
Anahi Saucedo Mejia said her family came from Mexico three years ago.
“They didn’t want to be there because of the pain,” she said, tears filling her eyes.
Her 16-year-old brother drowned, and the family left their home to find a new life in Phoenix. Both mom Iliana and dad Jose are working long hours in construction so she can have the opportunities they didn’t.
Anahi said she struggled but leaned on her faith to get through her brother’s death.
“Without God, I don’t know what I would do,” said the Bourgade Catholic High School senior who will major in psychology. “My parents really helped me. When I was down they were always there for me.”
Saucedo Mejia studied hard, got a scholarship, and wiped away her tears.
She is doing this, she said, for her brother.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
GCU News: First-gen scholar, SIS alum achieves the dream