First in family to earn a college degree, she sets out to help others

Denisse Amezquita waves to family and friends after walking the winter Commencement stage Friday.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Denisse Amezquita's childhood wish came true Friday morning at Grand Canyon University's winter Commencement. She became the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“Growing up I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know how I would get there," said Amezquita, who earned a degree in government with an emphasis in legal studies. "As undocumented students we don’t receive federal or state aid. I felt locked out from the opportunity. I took a leap of faith when I applied for the Dream.US Scholarship.”

Amezquita moved to the United States with her family at age 5 from Sonora, Mexico, and it wasn’t until middle school that she started speaking English. Despite the language barrier and cultural shock, she knew she wanted to achieve a college degree, pave the way for her family and set an example for other students.

Denisse Amezquita had her sights on college from an early age.

“When I got the scholarship, I was very surprised. I did not expect it. The imposter syndrome took over me and I couldn’t believe I was chosen for the scholarship," she said. "It took me a week to accept it.”

Quickly after her scholarship acceptance, a GCU admissions counselor reached out to her with resources to connect, and within three weeks Amezquita was a Lope.

“I started out online because of the pandemic. My second year I came to campus and experienced a major culture shock. I didn’t know anyone with the same scholarship as me. I didn’t know anyone with the same story as me. I felt alone,” she said.

By getting involved, Amezquita started to feel more at home at GCU, going to weekly chapel, practicing her faith, trying out new extracurriculars and playing sports. She became more comfortable being herself on campus.

“GCU is very welcoming in all aspects. The more I got involved, the more I connected. We became our own support group," she said. "It was a unique and intimate circle.”

Amezquita came to college with a few goals in mind. She not only wanted to fulfill her childhood dream of achieving higher education and be the first family member to earn a college degree, but to use it for the greater good and give back to the community.

Denisse Amezquita is happy to show off her diploma sleeve.

“We don’t know if DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) will continue or be cancelled eventually. I want to become an immigration lawyer and help my people," she said. "I want to help them get their legal status and live a carefree life without fears of deportation.

“I feel it is important to spread awareness and provide extra support to undocumented students. I have helped three students get scholarships so far. This is not a job I get paid for or a volunteer position, it’s just all me. I spread the word and help them out. It is my way of giving back and helping provide higher education for them.”

Though Amezquita strives to encourage other students and share knowledgeable ways to make higher education a possibility, she has had to overcome her own obstacles.

“English is not my first language. Trying to get used to the language dynamics within my college was challenging. It is a whole other level of vocabulary. It is a whole other level of writing, too," she said. "Oftentimes I would read Supreme Court cases ten times and still be lost. In those moments it would feel like my brain is broken.”

Denisse Amezquita receives her diploma sleeve from Provost Dr. Randy Gibb.

In those hard moments, it was important to Amezquita to remind herself of how far she has come and why she was at GCU in the first place. Repeating affirmations to herself, such as “You are here for a reason” and “They gave you this scholarship for a reason,” encouraged her to push forward in her studies.

“I broke generational barriers. My parents made sacrifices for me and now it is time to honor those and not take life for granted,” she said.

Amezquita turned those childhood wishes into reality.

“It has been a character development I will never forget," she said. "Everything I have learned at GCU I am taking with me and holding on to it forever.”

GCU’s Staff Writer Izabela Fogarasi can be reached at [email protected]

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