It gets real for Students Inspiring Students scholarship winners

The first of 100 students from high schools in Phoenix and Glendale received the surprise of a lifetime Tuesday when Grand Canyon University awarded them with full-tuition scholarships through the Students Inspiring Students initiative.

Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau

Bursts of cheers and clapping could be heard throughout Grand Canyon University’s Learning Lounge on Tuesday night as the first 25 Students Inspiring Students scholarship recipients for the 2017-18 academic year walked into a life-changing surprise.  

They had been told they were finalists for a last interview on campus, then were asked to change rooms because of "technical difficulties."

Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President of Student Development and Outreach, delivers the news.

“There are no technical difficulties,” Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President of Student Development and Outreach, explained as the local high school students and their families settled into their seats, still surprised and confused.  

Veres added, “Because of your hard work in the classroom and the dedication of your staff, principals and teachers, along with the pure love of your family, it has paid off. I am here on behalf of Grand Canyon University to award you the Students Inspiring Students scholarship.”

The scholarships are part of a groundbreaking program designed to increase educational opportunities for students with limited financial means. Now in its third year, Students Inspiring Students is a collaboration among GCU, the Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation, local high schools and business and philanthropic leaders to improve K-12 education.

Each year, the University awards 100 full-tuition scholarships to students from inner-city schools who meet academic criteria and demonstrate financial need. An additional 25 scholarships will be awarded in January followed by 50 more in the spring.

Washington High School senior Brianna Castro, who was celebrating with her father, Boanerje, said she was relieved to learn the scholarship would alleviate the financial burden of paying for college. 

Boanerje proudly kept taking pictures of his daughter.

“Today has been a special day and a surprise,” he said. “My first-born is receiving a scholarship from this university, but this has God’s glory all over it. This is beautiful.”

Washington High School senior Brianna Castro has worked hard for this moment for a long time.

Raquel Lopez immediately began to cry when her son was called up to accept his award. Meanwhile, Edgar Robles, her Metro Tech High School senior, was seen flashing a thumbs up, paired with a smiling face.

Robles said he realized how hard he had been working just for this moment.

“It’s my dream to run my own business someday,” he said. “GCU will give me the knowledge to prepare for it.”

The Bustamantes were in equal disbelief.

“I’m so proud,” Pablo Bustamante said of his daughter, Paulina. “She has worked so hard. She’s always doing homework and wanting to maintain a high GPA. I have always pushed her to work hard because nothing in this life is free, and this is only the beginning.” 

Paulina Bustamante of Metro Tech and her family were grateful for the scholarship opportunity.

Paulina, also of Metro Tech, laughed and said, “I’m very excited and I’m very proud, but it makes me want to try harder. It makes me feel good to know that someone believed in me and made it possible for me to get a higher education.” 

Under the terms of the Students Inspiring Students scholarship, recipients receive academic assistance at GCU’s Learning Lounge, its free after-school tutoring program, while in high school. As part of their full-tuition scholarship, students then pay it forward by putting in 100 hours a year of mentoring and academic support at a Learning Lounge site while at the University to the next group of K-12 students behind them.

The average GPA of the first 25 SIS scholarship recipients, who come from nine different high schools, is 4.1.

“They all have stories and they can all be described as dedicated, committed, hard-working and optimistic people,” said Shari Stagner, Program Manager at GCU’s Learning Lounge. “It didn’t start their senior year – these kids have been on a mission their entire high school experience because to have a GPA like they have does not happen within one academic year.”

In addition to high academic achievement, the recipients also must receive strong recommendation from Learning Lounge LEADs (learning advocates).

Edgar Robles, a Metro Tech High School senior, was all smiles.

“There is no clear way to discuss the impact of the Grand Canyon University student who has chosen to be a LEAD,” Veres said. “These students, beyond attaining great success in school for themselves, are also highly successful in highly rigorous programs. Yet they’ve given up their breaks and weekends, and they’ve come in on their own accord to check in to see how their students are doing to fulfill their potential.

“They have a strong commitment to the Lord, and this is their way to serve and support Him. But if you move higher and look at our leadership at GCU and what (President) Brian Mueller has created, it’s all about giving back.”

It started in 2013, when Alhambra principal Claudio Coria, now Executive Director of Leadership for the Phoenix Union High School District, met with Mueller to discuss the challenges at the high school, where 82 percent of the student body is Hispanic and more than 90 percent fall below the federal poverty level.

From that conversation, the Learning Lounge on GCU’s campus was opened to provide free tutoring and mentoring to any Alhambra student who seeks academic assistance. Today, students from 73 inner-city K-12 schools receive help in the Learning Lounge from more than 1,200 LEADs.

The goal is to raise enough money to expand the program and award 800 full-tuition scholarships (200 per year) to qualified high school seniors while creating an education-minded inner-city community.

“This is why we work so hard and this is why we are so devoted,” Veres said. “I am privileged enough to witness this numerous times throughout the course of the year.”

The celebration was also momentous for Learning Lounge LEAD Meghan Whiteley, who expressed her love for the students.

“They are so awesome and the highlight of my day,” she said. “I love when they stop by and tell me about their day, how life is going and how school is going. Our future is so bright because of them.”

Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or [email protected]


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