Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Elizabeth Tinajero
GCU News Bureau
Patrick Zeman was all alone. He’s not anymore.
On Wednesday night, he looked over to a white-haired man clutching a cane who came with him to Grand Canyon University as he opened a gift-wrapped box in the Student Union dining hall.
Inside was a paper describing his full-ride scholarship to GCU. His shoulders shook as he laughed with pleasure.
“I always dreamed of doing something great,” said Zeman, one of 16 high school students from the Valley who were awarded scholarships in a surprise presentation of GCU’s Students Inspiring Students (SIS) initiative. “I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but it’s possible now.”
Zeman was essentially homeless. His parents had emigrated from Slovakia and later divorced. Then six months ago, his mother fled with his brother to South Dakota to escape a bad relationship, he said.
“I was living by myself, and I’m here tonight with a great friend of mine who took me in at a time of need,” Zeman said.
That white-haired man sitting next to him smiled. It turns out the two from different generations and backgrounds helped each other.
“I am a neighbor across the street. I developed cancer and asked Patrick if he would mind helping me around the house and walking the dog,” said David Goldman. “Things happened and Patrick didn’t have a place to live, so I said come on over. He helps me out, and I care about him a lot.
“He was looking at me for advice what to do, so I took him on a couple college trips before I said, ‘Why don’t you look at GCU?’"
Zeman, who attends Glendale High School, began to seek help with calculus at GCU’s Learning Lounge, where GCU students called learning advocates (LEADs) help local children with free tutoring and mentoring.
It is from those eager and bright students that scholarships are given. Five years ago, GCU President Brian Mueller was dismayed to learn that the students coming to the Learning Lounge often said they loved GCU but couldn’t afford to go to college.
So GCU began the collaboration among GCU, Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation, local high schools and philanthropic leaders to grant four-year, full-tuition scholarships to inner-city students who have at least a 3.5 grade point average, meet financial-need requirements and have received 100 hours of academic assistance at the Learning Lounge.
Many of the students receiving their scholarships Wednesday come from families who had never had college graduates, yet the 16 have an average GPA of 4.12 -- 10 with a 4.0 or higher.
“This is a program that changes families,” said Shari Stagner, GCU’s Director of K-12 Outreach. “They are students who are skilled and are bright and deserve to go to college. They have everything it takes, they just need a hand up, and that’s what GCU does for them.”
In the first four years of the SIS program, nearly 300 scholarships have been presented to students from 30 area schools – 27 of them in the Phoenix Union and Glendale Union school districts. The surprise ceremony is a highlight of each semester, when prospects are lured to an event without knowing they will be awarded a scholarship.
They were told they came to honor the nine SIS students who will graduate Dec. 13 and applauded them as they were introduced.
Then those soon-to-be graduates gave them a gift box.
Jocelyne Barrera opened it and cried. So did her parents, Claudia and Juarez, and the three had a group hug.
The night is as much for parents, “many who worked three or four jobs to sacrifice for their children to help their kids get here,” Stagner said.
Claudia Barrera asked how she felt about her daughter’s scholarship and started to cry again, trying to describe with limited English what it meant: “For her,” she said of the happy tears.
“For her,” repeated Juarez, his eyes wet.
“Honestly, I worked so hard in high school to make my parents proud. This scholarship means so much to me,” said Jocelyne, who attends Independence High School. “I will be the first one to go to college.”
She wants study pre-med at GCU and one day be a dermatologist.
Those soon-to-be GCU graduates from the SIS program looked on with a kind of wonder that they once sat in the same chair, pulled into a life of possibilities.
“I saw a few parents cry, and that was my mom once. That was me. That night opened the door to my bachelor’s degree,” said Elva Martinez, a Justice Studies major. “After my four-year journey, I get my diploma with no debt and now I get to share my experience with them.”
Students who receive scholarships pay it forward by providing mentoring and tutoring for other K-12 students at the Learning Lounge.
“In addition to academics, this gives them the experience of altruism and how good it feels,” Stagner said. “We are planting seeds of altruism in the community. They do it, their children do it and it makes a difference in a community with a heart to serve.”
The ripple effect starts on a night like this.
Yoslyn Salcido wants to study psychology.
“I didn’t think an undocumented student could get a college education,” said Salcido, of Sunnyslope High School. “Now that I have a scholarship it’s like a dream come true.
“I hope to use my voice in my community and advocate for those who don’t have a voice yet.”
The students’ voices were loud and clear Wednesday.
Zeman has a new life with an older friend and a new dream. First, he wants to be a lawyer, then maybe a senator. He’s already learned you can’t dream too big in America.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.