Photos by Ralph Freso
Candace Mabry confidently strode to the front of the room of 20 new Grand Canyon University students who were just arriving to campus from foster care.
“I am a nursing student at GCU,” the senior told those receiving GCU’s Fostering Futures Scholarships during recent luncheon. “Today, I want to share the quality that allows you to reach your dreams. That quality is grit.”
The freshmen in the audience could be excused if they had heard that before. People telling them to buck up, buckle down. But Mabry wasn’t a privileged student, they soon learned.
After her parents divorced, Mabry told them she admired her mom for not only taking care of her and her brother but working as a nurse who made patients feel special.
“But in 2014, my mom got sick. In a matter of months, we lost her to cancer. I was 11. I had lost my best friend,” she said.
Mabry and her brother moved in with her dad, who she said was suffering from depression and using drugs and couldn’t take care of them. They moved in with grandparents.
“Suddenly, at 16, my grandparents sat us down and told us our dad had committed suicide. I remember freezing in that moment.”
She had pushed away God after her mom’s death, but when her dad died she was confused, Mabry said in a later interview. Her dad had sunk deeper into depression and felt bad not being able to support his children. But nothing made sense. Her pain didn’t ease.
Until she listened to her heart.
“The Lord is there. He is unchanging. The circumstances may change, but He doesn’t,” she said. “It is heartbreaking what has happened and there is a lot of grieving, but it doesn’t mean I am any less valuable.”
The Idaho native found new inspiration – and a Christian university in Phoenix – and would try to overcome her circumstances. After enrolling at GCU, she earned financial support through its Fostering Futures program. While its full scholarship is for Arizona children transitioning from foster care, Mabry earned a scholarship for those that don’t meet all the state requirements, funded by Levi Conlow, a GCU alumnus and CEO of Lectric eBikes.
She found support in the program through Fostering Futures Student Administrator Brandi Turner, connected with Student Care when she felt down and leaned on friends on campus who became like family.
That’s where her story picks up again to the students.
“My first year at GCU, I got the worst phone call ever. My brother called me, barely putting words together. My grandfather also had taken his own life. In that moment I was in such utter pain, I just sat there. I couldn’t take a step forward even if I wanted to.”
She later said her grandfather also suffered from depression that worsened after a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
“I also knew in my heart I wanted a better life. There had to be something better in this world than one tragedy after another after another. There had to be more joy in life. I decided I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted my story to look different than all the things that had happened to me.”
GCU supported her in writing that narrative, she said.
GCU President Brian Mueller confirmed that point to students.
“We know life hasn’t been easy for you,” he told the students earlier. “You haven’t had some of the advantages of some students on our campus. But life can be good. There can be a lot of flourishing,” Mueller said.
“There is nothing that can hold you back if you are determined that this is what you want ... I hope we can come alongside and give you all the support we possibly can.”
Mabry’s speech added a second component – finding grit, even when you are feeling “so dark and it feels pointless. I get that. I have been there.
“In those moments that’s when I found God. I knew God was greater than the circumstances I was facing. God has carried me when I didn’t think I could walk anymore.”
God is her grit.
“Don’t forget who you are. Choose to respond to every challenge with grit,” she said. “Your grit is not something everyone else will understand.”
Her other “grit” is her mom, who she later said is always with her in her studies to be a nurse.
“My mom’s heart for loving others and making sure they were seen is part of what I learned and part of the way mom raised me,” she said in an interview. “I’ve had people who were nurses with her say that when everything was hectic she would walk into patients’ rooms and made those people feel seen and cared for.”
She wants to take that same compassion into hospital rooms and into volunteer work.
“I am super passionate about mental health awareness because of the suicides in my family. You are not alone. People do see you, even if it is not pretty right now,” Mabry said.
Students learned her speech wasn’t just platitudes from a successful nursing student and robustly cheered her.
“You are so strong, so go out there,” she told them. “Keep getting up when things knock you down. Don’t let the past get in the way of achieving your dreams.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]
Foster Futures Scholarships: Offers tuition, fees and year-around room and board, student worker opportunities and other services to Arizona residents transitioning out of foster care. Information