She crossed a river and a stage to thank family who saved her

College of Education graduate Stephanie Oliva-Castellanos clutches her diploma sleeve during the Friday morning Fall Commencement ceremony at GCU Arena.

Photos by Ralph Freso / Thursday morning slideshow / Thursday afternoon slideshow

When she crossed the stage Friday morning, she didn’t make it about her, even though her mortar board carried the message: “My story. His glory.”

Stephanie Oliva-Castellanos, a 35-year-old mother of two, raised her arm toward the ceiling of GCU Arena holding a sleeve that will carry a bachelor’s degree from Grand Canyon University.

But her story is one of gratitude for God and others who helped her make it to Fall Commencement for online and cohort students.

There was grandmother Carmen Lydia Castellanos, watching the live feed from a computer in the Bronx, who 33 years ago led children and relatives on a walk from Honduras, through Mexico, to New York City. It took a month.

She met a Honduran man there, Alfred Thiebauld, who helped many immigrants start their own ice cream cart businesses in the Bronx, where recently a street was named after him.

“Grandma literally worked there until she was 80, selling ice cream every day on a corner in the Bronx,” Stephanie said. “She wanted a better life for her kids.”

There was uncle Menelio Castellanos. After walking through Mexico with the family for two weeks, he began fighting the current of the Rio Grande River to cross into the U.S. when he heard the cries. His 2-year-old niece, Stephanie, had slipped through her mother’s arms slapped by the current and was floating downstream.

“My uncle swam after me and rescued me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said.

He sold snow cones, shaving off big blocks of ice, and kept up with his niece until his death in June.

There was mother Zeluma Bosque. She sold snow cones for a while in New York City, too, but married a man and moved to Clovis, New Mexico, where she cleaned houses and every month for 12 years traveled with husband Tony and Stephanie for nearly four hours to Albuquerque to work toward U.S. citizenship.

“When she passed her test, I became a U.S. citizen at 16, too,” she said. “We had a ceremony and had our pictures taken. I was overcome with joy.”

Because of grandma, mom and her late uncle, Stephanie crossed the stage.

Stephanie Oliva-Castellanos was joyful during the Friday morning Fall Commencement ceremony.

“I know that (my uncle) is looking down on me now. I did this for him. I did this for my grandmother, my mother, because they wanted a better life,” Stephanie said. “I don’t know how I would be living if I was in Honduras now; it is such a poor and very dangerous country.”

The strength of generations was with her as she went through early years of school, finding it hard to socialize at first when Spanish was her first language. A kindergarten teacher came to her home to help her with English, and she never forgot it.

“It is why I wanted to be a teacher,” Stephanie said.

But she didn’t go to college after high school, instead having two children, who are now ages 16 (Jazlynn Moreno) and 8 (Jaylee Moreno). She worked for a call center for a while, got an associate degree, then eight years ago landed a job as an educational assistant at Zia Elementary in Clovis. But there was never enough time or babysitters to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Three years ago, she heard about GCU and a program her school offered that allowed time off to study. She began classes toward a bachelor’s degree in elementary education while working and raising her daughters.

She learned about lesson planning, motivating children, and how to engage students – and that it could be done with belief in God, which she promises to bring to her new position as a teacher at Zia Elementary starting in January.

“I have a big faith in God. I know that in America it works weird, and you can’t bring that in, but I am bringing it in to my students in a way that I can,” she said.

Stephanie Oliva-Castellanos felt proud of her accomplishment but even more gratitude for family members who helped her.

The other day she called her grandmother, 88, to tell her that the dream had come true.

The first person in a family who crossed that raging river had earned a college degree.

“She was so happy and happy that I was going to tell (the family) story,” Stephanie said.

“I want to show others, not just my daughters, but other students that no matter what you go through, you can do it.”

It may take some help.

On Friday, as she walked out of the Arena to find husband John Moreno, her phone dinged with grandmother Carmen’s message.

We are proud of you.

We love you.

Stephanie smiled, “I am just thankful for today.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]


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Jesus taught his disciples, saying: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

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