Common bond: Special socials unite freshman groups

Story and photos by Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau

Leesa Kolter, of Redwood City, Calif., grew up thinking college wasn’t in her future.

Drake Johnson of Surprise applied because he was inspired by his digital animation teacher — and his mother.

Leesa Kolter, from California, is the oldest of three sisters and the first in her family to go to college.
Leesa Kolter, from California, is the oldest of three sisters and the first in her family to go to college.

When Chris Diaz of San Diego completed forms and borrowed money, he did so without help from his parents.

Today, all three Grand Canyon University freshmen are the first in their families to continue education after high school — a significant experience they have in common. And they got to meet and share their experiences during GCU’s first official First in the Family socials.

First in the Family is one of four new networks GCU created this year to add social events, support and information to smaller groups of students, according to Michael Schissel, who works in GCU’s new student and family programs.

The other three were created for transfer, out-of-state and multicultural students.

“We created a few networks for people on campus that may have had less traditional experiences,” said Charity Norman, new student and family programs manager and the coordinator for all Welcome Week activities. “The biggest thing is that students who are first in their families don’t have the same expectations, and they wind up doing a lot of things alone.”

Drake Johnson of Surprise had inspiration from his mother and a favorite teacher.
Drake Johnson of Surprise got inspiration from his mother and a favorite teacher.

Things like applying for financial aid, signing up for PSATs and SATs, filling out college applications, lining up recommendations and choosing courses.

Norman should know. She was the first in her family to go to college when she entered Cedarville University in Ohio.

“I didn’t know I could pick my own dorm, I didn’t know I could pick a roommate and I didn’t know I could choose my own schedule,” said Norman, who is pursuing a master’s in Business from GCU.

It’s also a demographic that tends to be more excited about school and to have “the potential to experience more wonder,” she said.

“I ended up loving school more than all of my friends,” Norman said. “It was a very, very formative experience.”

There seemed to be wonder among the freshmen who attended the social, the first of monthly First in the Family networking events.

Chris Diaz of San Diego, left, and Rosaura Carrillo, from Tempe, met each other and about a dozen other GCU freshmen with similar experiences.
Chris Diaz (left) of San Diego and Rosaura Carrillo of Tempe met each other and about a dozen other GCU freshmen with similar experiences.

Rosaura Carrillo, a Tempe High School graduate, said she feels a certain pressure to excel from her mother, a stay-at-home mom, and her father, a carpenter who works for a remodeling company, because she is the first to attend college.

“I’m very excited and a little nervous,” she said. “My parents are striving for something better for me. I’ve been asked to set an example and was put on a pedestal. It’s such a big role to play, but I’m ready to take it on as best I can.”

Diaz plans to study marketing. His dad is a union plumber, and his mother owns a catering company.

“The benefit for me is I want to invest in myself, make connections and get a master's right away after graduation,” Diaz said.

Diaz already is working as a marketing director for M33 Labs, a startup that is raising Kickstarter funds to produce a smart desk combining cable, a desk, speakers, a touchscreen and a computer tower.

Johnson, a Vista High School graduate, said one of his inspirations for college was his mother, a data worker, and another was a favorite teacher, Melinda Holder, who nudged him to stretch beyond his academic comfort zone.

“She challenged me,” Johnson said of Holder. For example, she encouraged him to make a video with the dance club and create a short movie with the drama club.

“She figured out what I should do with my future,” he said, which is to study digital animation and digital design.

His father, an electronic engineer, and mother are “super proud of me,” Johnson said. “I really don’t want to let my parents down.”

Kolter is the oldest of three sisters. Her father is president of operations at a garden materials business, and her mother stays at home because of health issues.

Kolter never thought she would go to college, but after she received a few scholarships there was enough money for it. She said she applied to one place: GCU.

“I visited it and fell in love,” she said.

Like the other First in the Family students, her parents could offer little help in the application process.

“My parents are sad to see me leave, but they’re proud, too,” she said.

The students said the network event was an excellent idea because it helped them make new connections with others in the same situation.

“If you come here and don’t know anybody, it’s cool to meet people who are kind of like you and have similar experiences,” Carrillo said.

Said Kolter, “It’s a really, really good idea. It’s a nice, small group, which is easier.”

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].


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(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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