● Slideshows and replays of Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon ceremonies.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
The road was wet on Jan. 9, 2012, when Stefany Caicedo drove to work as a nanny. Her car hydroplaned, was T-boned by an oncoming vehicle and flipped.
For 49 days, the then 19-year-old was in a coma while her mother prayed at her side. When Caicedo emerged from it blind, unable to walk or remember how to eat, she found determination.
The nurses who worked with her to regain some functions, speech and memory would give her a pink wheelchair.
“Thank you, but no,” she told them. “I am going to walk.”
People told her that she shouldn’t worry, the government would provide food stamps and disability payments.
“God did not save me to sit on the couch,” she remembers thinking. “There are people who need those programs.
“I still always think of that day. You say no to me, and I will try harder.”
More than 10 years later, the Smyrna, Georgia, woman on Wednesday walked the stage at Grand Canyon University Commencement to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in educational studies.
“It was hard getting here,” Caicedo said, standing outside the Arena. “But my parents and my sister, I had to show them. God left me here on earth for a reason. And I am going to do great things here.”
Over the last decade, Caicedo relearned how to talk, eat and walk. She had an eye surgery to at least regain some vision, though she is still legally blind. She rejoined community college courses she had started before the accident and finished her associate degree. She got married, gave birth to a daughter and in 2018 enrolled in online courses at GCU.
To Caicedo, it all began in the coma.
“I was in another place, and I felt like God was there and I felt the strength He wants us to have,” she said. “People will think I’m crazy, but I was looking to the ground at two big feet and feeling like I know that is Jesus. I couldn’t see a face but this intense light and this intense power.
“From that moment on, I felt nothing could hurt me. I had this power inside. This is not the end of me. I am 19. This is where my life will start. And it did.”
She felt that power when she learned to talk and remember little things like the day of the week. She felt the power when she took her first steps, then walking with a cane, and at last on her own just three years ago.
“Now every time I go out and am just walking, oh my gosh, I always see God with me. Without Him I wouldn’t be doing this,” she said.
There were times she heard the agonizing screams on the hospital ward or when she thought of an empty future, and she cried in despair.
But her mother, Adriana Caicedo, was always at her side to help. Every day for more than a year, she waited in the parking lot all day as Stefany studied in community college.
Her dad, David, worked two jobs to help buy the tools she needed to overcome physical challenges.
“She’s a tough cookie,” David said. “We are very proud of her.”
Stefany Caicedo always remembered the feet in the dream.
The native of Colombia, whose family moved to the U.S. in 1998 when she was 6, thinks God pointed her to GCU. Its advertisements seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and everywhere.
She had just had a daughter, Maila Lucia, and some loved ones were worried that her challenges would make it too difficult for a young mother to study, too.
“I have something greater to do,” she told them.
Her dad bought her special glasses to better see text. The GCU Student Disability Office helped her make adjustments to study. “If it wasn’t for the support of GCU, I don’t know if I could do it,” she said.
She spent hours expanding text and taking screen shots to read it. Tedious work, but she wasn’t giving up.
“God saved me from something horrible. I’m not supposed to be here. If He put this in front of me, I’m going to do this,” Caicedo said.
When she recently received a congratulations letter from GCU in the mail, it was no ordinary day. Her parents, sister Valerie and husband Luis huddled around her, cried with joy and made travel plans to Phoenix.
“It is amazing. She is really something for me," said Luis, who followed Stefany's example and enrolled in GCU hospitality courses. "I am from Colombia and in the beginning it was hard, but she is pushing me, helping me on my dreams.”
Stefany dedicates her bachelor’s degree to her mother. “Whenever I wanted to give up, she was the one.”
On Wednesday, mom helped put on her graduation gown over a pink dress and a mortarboard that carried the glittery art that spelled out the date of her accident, Jan. 9, the word “family” and "babies."
She is pregnant with another child.
Maila, 3, wore a pretty dress and buzzed around the legs of her mom. Family says Maila saved her from bouts of despair.
Stefany wants to help others now. After her experience tutoring English as a second language to immigrants on Zoom, she decided to soon launch a nonprofit organization that features virtual language classes for South Americans who moved to the U.S. for a better life.
“In my heart and mind, I don’t have a permanent disability, I have a permanent exceptionality,” Caicedo said.
“For me, it’s three ‘yeses.’ That’s what drives me. If I could say a speech to all students out there: If someone says no to you, say ‘yes’ three times. If you believe in you, you can do it.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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