Grateful SIS scholarship recipients warm Arena

GCU student Arianna Torres gave an emotional address at the scholarship reception.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Rick D’ Elia

GCU News Bureau

GCU Arena was filled with gratitude Tuesday night.

Student Arianna Torres tearfully spoke to the nearly 1,200 people assembled, the largest-ever gathering of Students Inspiring Students scholarship recipients, their families, donors and Grand Canyon University leaders and employees.

“Mom and Dad, I love you guys both so much. Thank you for all the sacrifices you guys made to put me in the position I am in today,” said the GCU freshman, one of 169 recipients of SIS scholarships that go to high-achieving neighborhood students with financial need. “To my siblings Javier, Isabella and Natalya, I love you guys so much, and you don’t know how hard I strive every day to be an example to you three.

“I do want to see the day when you guys top me. Maybe one day you guys will be sitting here.”

Scholarship recipients even got misty-eyed hearing stories of fellow students.

Torres’ younger siblings were all dressed up for the Students Inspiring Students Scholarship Reception. Her mother, Claudia, cried while seeing her daughter in college and giving an emotional speech before hundreds.

It had been a rough year leading up to this occasion for Adrianna, as it had been for many through the pandemic, which prompted the cancellation of last year’s event. GCU went all out Tuesday, for the first time combining SIS graduates and recipients in the ceremonies.

“Typically, we have 400 RSVP for the event, this year we had 1,200,” said Megan Serafini, SIS and External Scholarships Director. “It’s a night to showcase SIS for our families. It’s hard for first-generation students to explain this experience to their families, so they can see tonight the true sense of community.”

Torres was the freshman speaker for the reception, which included a wide array of hors d’oeuvres that filled nearly half the basketball floor.

She told the crowd she had faced difficult times. As a freshman, she transferred to a new high school and sat alone at lunch, even calling her mom on Facetime just to have someone to talk with while she ate. She eventually found her crowd, a group she called the “Geek Squad.”

But the pandemic left them apart her senior year. She felt numb and isolated while taking classes online at home.

“Just sitting at a desk in my room alone with no real contact with my classmates or no real contact with the outside world, I fell into a depression and felt disconnected with the world and lost interest in the things I loved to do,” she said. “I felt lost in the world.”

Torres said those challenges built character, made her who she is today and propelled her to apply for the SIS scholarship.

On the third try, she got it.

In May, when she was surprised by the scholarship announcement at GCU, her parents and siblings were all there to support her, but she knew it fell on her to make it happen.

She looked down to a Kobe Bryant bracelet she wore every day that reminded the former high school basketball player what she needed to do, live in the spirit of the late NBA star who died in a 2020 airplane crash.

“I remember thinking, ‘He is with me today.’ It’s because of his inspiration I didn’t give up through it all,” she said. “A quote I always say from him is, ‘If you don’t really believe in yourself, no one will do it for you.’

“I try to keep this mentality in me every day, and I believe every student sitting here today has carried this drive within themselves, even if they may not know it.”

GCU President Brian Mueller gives a fist bump to Luis Peña, an SIS scholar who introduced him.

GCU President Brian Mueller described the scholarship program’s origins, conversations with high school educators about how to lift the neighborhood around GCU by educating its young people. It started in 2014 with after-school academic assistance through GCU’s Learning Lounge, which led to scholars ready for the challenge of higher education.

It happened quickly, he said, and today thousands of tutors have helped students from nearly 200 schools, with 545 scholarships having been awarded since 2016.

Many of the 329 SIS scholars enrolled at GCU sat before him, among them a freshman class with an average grade point average of 4.1 in high school.

“A lot of these students didn’t know if they could go to college. To put that kind of effort into high school and produce that kind of academic excellence, there’s a lot of character in that,” he said.

Then Mueller praised the recipients.

“Tremendous fortitude and perseverance through COVID, not knowing if you’d get a scholarship like this, but you did it, you saw it through,” Mueller said. “Now let me say to you, don’t let this opportunity slip away. All of you are going to have challenges in the next four years … You’ve got a lot of support here. Don’t feel like you are on your own.”

The growth of the SIS program was led by GCU’s Vice President of Student Success Dr. Joe Veres and helped by generous donors, said Mueller, who recognized many who attended the celebration.

A tearful video montage of gratitude from the recipients and family members was played to cheers after each marched to the stage for a certificate of their scholarship.

The stage was flanked by several SIS graduates, now 102 strong, who had taken their degrees into the work world and often helped changed their futures for the better.

It also has helped the neighborhood, said Arizona Rep. César Chávez (D-Maryvale), who represents District 29 in west Phoenix and attended the reception.

“All of these students are from the community I grew up in,” he said. “It allows our community to feel like we have a spot in higher education. So when I’m talking to students, especially DACA students, I always point them in the direction of GCU.”

Andres Paez talked about the good job he earned, thanks in part to his SIS scholarship.

Andres Paez said it can change the trajectory of a family.

Paez thought he had it made as a senior in high school as the family’s oldest sibling, he told the reception gathering. He landed a package handling job that earned $2 an hour above minimum wage, enough to afford a great sound system in his prized 1998 Nissan Maxima.

But he began thinking about his father, working so many hours just to raise a family, and the sacrifices he made. He had to work two jobs, and he often only saw him exhausted and dozing in a chair.

“I had a strong urge to make my family proud,” he said. “Break the generational cycle and attend college, be the first to finish and land a good job that pays well, one that I find fulfilling and makes me happy. I’d also like to retire my father.”

He applied for the SIS scholarship and was initially nervous as a first-generation college student.

“The pressure can make one’s knees buckle as you feel all eyes are on you,” he said. “I’m here to say it’s alright, it’s achievable, and you guys can do this.”

He called the SIS scholarship a “game changer.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity in 2020 and got a job at General Motors on the software team.

“The scholarship has changed my life and I wouldn’t be where I am without it, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “It’s like the butterfly effect. From being lost four years ago, to getting this scholarship, to meeting many wonderful people, including my beautiful fiancé, who is also an SIS recipient who I met through this wonderful opportunity.”

His gratitude not only filled the Arena, it led to the loudest cheer of the night.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: It’s all about the family for SIS scholarship winners

GCU Today: SIS scholarship winners make their parents proud

GCU Today: SIS scholarships provide hope to more families


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