God is star of graduate's 'supernatural encounter'

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

She had just confessed to the pastors of the church where she worked that she was living a double life. Now Corrine Martinez Santanelli was back on the job in the strip club – the part of her life that God was determined to pierce.

Her pastors hadn’t ordered her to walk away from making a living as an exotic dancer. They simply had given her a sheet of paper that told her who she is in Christ, and one of the verses – 1 Corinthians 6:20 – jumped out at her.

Corrine Martinez Santanelli, the student speaker at Fall Commencement, tells the story of her journey from stripper to GCU graduate. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

You were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.

She had read it again and again, committing it to memory. Now she was onstage in the second set of her performance, and it came flooding back into her mind.

“I could hear that Scripture in my mind and my heart, playing over and over,” she said. “I actually started having anxiety. It was weird because it was a loud voice, but it was my voice. I thought I was going crazy.”

There was more. Instead of hearing the song she was dancing to, she heard a worship song.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m having a supernatural encounter with the Lord right now.’”

She walked off the stage, put her dancing clothes in her locker and left behind her 10 years as a stripper. That began a chain of events that led her to a new life filled with ministry, education, marriage and, this week, the opportunity to share her incredible story as the student speaker for Fall Commencement at Grand Canyon University.

Santanelli talked of how she was physically and sexually abused while growing up in Chicago and was on her own at age 16, relegated to couch surfing for a time.

She still didn’t have her high school diploma when she left exotic dancing behind. She failed the math portion of her GED exam four times before she finally passed. She didn’t think she was smart enough to advance in education.

“You don’t need a textbook to be a stripper,” she said during her speech.

Journey through education

Santanelli was as determined to make something positive of her life as Christ had been to reach her. She heard that nearby South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois, had a massage therapy program, so she enrolled.

“In exotic dancing, you make a lot of money quickly. Your mind is like, ‘What can I do to make a lot of money quickly that’s legit?’ Something that you’d be OK with doing,” she said. “I like massage. There’s healing in the hands.”

But what she really wanted to do was go into counseling and try to heal other hearts, including those wounded by working in a strip club.

This graduate shares Santanelli's sentiments about God's influence in our lives.

“I knew that I wanted to do something with counseling because I work with these girls and they have a lot of issues – depression, anxiety, addicted to drugs,” she said. “Things that I can’t help them with.”

As she scouted various colleges, she found that none of them would accept most of her community college credits – except GCU. Those other institutions also don’t have a Student Services counseling program like GCU’s, and Santanelli was amazed by the way her counselor, Christa Spencer, stayed with her through the process. They still talk once a month.

“She helped with everything – all of the tests, financial stuff, even my personal stuff,” Santanelli said. “She’s been incredible. I don’t have any other university to compare it to, but I’ve never met anybody like her.

“She knows me. She was with me when I was single, she was with me when I started dating my husband, when we got engaged, when we got married. She made such an impact on my life.”

But there was one more obstacle: math. She didn’t think she was smart enough to understand it. She would say all the time that her challenges with numbers would prevent her from getting a degree.

Her husband, Mike, encouraged her to take advantage of the academic assistance GCU offers all students, ground and online. “They’re going to be so fed up with me,” she told him.

Hardly. With the tutoring help, she got an A in her statistics class, and in October 2020 she earned her psychology degree.

Sharing her story

But, right about that time, there was yet another twist in this journey. Santanelli regularly checked a Facebook page for GCU online students and noticed that a lot of them were discouraged and ready to give up.

“Lord, what if I shared a piece of my story, like an outline of my life, and posted a picture of myself in my cap and gown?” she prayed.

She felt the inspiration of Jeremiah 29:11:

Santanelli wound up as the student speaker at Commencement after she shared her story on a Facebook page for GCU online students.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Her Facebook post laid out all the horrific details of what she had lived through, including the gang violence that plagues Chicago, and contained these words: “For those of you who want to give up, DON’T. My life should not be where it is today, but it is.”

The next morning when she woke up, there were more than a thousand Facebook notifications on her page. She thought it was an error. She tried to answer all of them, but it was overwhelming.

That kind of response drew the attention of GCU, but she still couldn’t believe she was chosen to speak at Commencement before thousands of people. She has shared her story many times in small churches and other ministries, but never anywhere like this.

“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. It’s TOTALLY different,” she said. “Sharing my story is easy because I’m passionate about that – it’s my story. I don’t need a script for that. But this was just completely different. You need a script.

“I had to pray a bunch of times, ‘Lord, help me not cry.’ Even reading it a bunch of times, it’s all very real for me.”

She fought through her emotions at Wednesday morning’s ceremony and was more composed in the afternoon session, maybe because it was for psychology majors like herself.

Healed in two ways

There’s more to that supernatural experience she had. After she heard her voice reciting that verse from Corinthians, she looked out into the crowd, the Scripture still reverberating in her head.

“It was like a veil was removed from my eyes,” she said. “I could finally see things from a different lens. At that time I despised men because I danced for a lot of married men, I danced for a lot of pastors. Imagine your heart becoming very jaded.

“But the words did a double healing. I felt like the Lord was speaking to me: ‘I died for them, too. I love that man, too.’ I just began to feel the Father’s pity. The Holy Spirit worked.”

And now she’s the one doing God’s work – she’s ministering to women working in that very same club as well as others on the South Side of Chicago and in northern Indiana.

Oh, and one other thing: She’s working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health. She wants to go into counseling.

Near the end of her talk, Santanelli reminded the graduates that we encounter many fight-or-flight moments in life and asked them to turn to each other and say, “I choose to fight.”

“My personal essentials for fighting have been trusting in the Lord, commitment and mental toughness,” she told them.

She concluded with these well-chosen words of faith and encouragement:

“Had I not put my faith in the Lord, that abused and broken, scared little girl whose innocence and dreams were almost shattered – if I did not trust in Him, I would not be here, all grown up, happily married, providing services for women, pursuing my education and standing before you all, celebrating with you this very day.

“It was and is the very Lord to get me where I am, and I’m confident that all of you graduating today, you’re not graduating in vain, but you’re committed to the skills and the tools that the education here at GCU has offered you to pour into others and encourage individuals to impact communities for a change in our world.

“Along the way, if you ever are feeling feelings of inadequacy, if you’re ever feeling not smart enough, not popular enough, not loved enough, whatever you think you’re not enough of, remember that God is true to His word. He WILL take the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, and he WILL choose the weak things of this world to shame the strong. He is trustworthy, and we are proof of that today.”

After all, He is leading the fight.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


To hear Corrine Martinez Santanelli’s talk at Commencement, click here. She starts at the 12-minute, 38-second mark.


Related content:

GCU Today: Degree of success: Online program changed his life

GCU Today: Doubly special: Mother, daughter graduate together

GCU Today: Grads go far to applaud in-person Commencement

GCU Today: Commencement to culminate her 16-year journey

GCU Today: Graduates finally walk stage in 1st of 7 ceremonies


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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