She left school to aid sister, returned to set example

GCU graduate Aliyah Stanford (right) shares a moment with her sister Taylor before Commencement.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

Aliyah Stanford quit college. She was scared. Teachers had always preached that it’s the way to a better life.

But she had something vital to do.

Her younger sister Taylor Stanford was struggling in high school in California and needed a fresh start. Aliyah asked her to move in and finish high school. She needed to make sure that Taylor adjusted, had rides to Central High School in Phoenix and a big sister around to help.

So she quit college.

“I just wanted to be there for her and support her,” Aliyah said. “I know how critical it was in senior year to have a support system.”

On Friday, Taylor was there for her big sister.

Aliyah graduated from Grand Canyon University after returning from a three-year absence to earn a degree in elementary education. (See a slideshow/video of Commencement here.)

“I look up to her a lot,” Taylor said outside GCU Arena during the evening session of Winter Commencement. “She helped me when I came here. She supported me through all her own hardships.”

Aliyah Stanford said she doesn't regret pausing her education to help her sister.

Life after graduation commences for Aliyah with a new teaching job at Palomino Primary School in Paradise Valley in January. But before that, there was a reason College of Education faculty named her one of four Exemplary Teacher Candidates this fall, and it has much to do with the final leg of its mission of learning, leading and serving.

Aliyah felt like she always looked out for everyone in a family of five sisters and a single mom and wanted to escape after high school.

“I’ve always been worried I wasn’t going to graduate from college,” she said. “The odds weren’t in my favor, growing up in a broken home. My teachers were always like, ‘It’s how you get out.’”

She followed sister Amber to GCU, where she threw herself into classes and a stronger faith.

“I didn’t have the strongest relationship with God. I felt like being from a broken home, not having a dad, I wondered if there is a God, then why he would allow you to suffer like that?” she asked. “It made sense later, going through things so I can help others.”

It became clear when she heard from Taylor, who was struggling in high school.

“She needed to get out of the environment in California. I just knew I couldn’t do school and work and try to take her on,” Aliyah said. “I told her to come out and live with me, I’d pause my education but continue teaching, because I needed to pay bills.

“I was terrified to stop. I was scared I wouldn’t go back because I paid for everything on my own. But I just felt like God was talking to me, ‘You will go back later; there will be a reason.’”

Aliyah found a job at a charter school in Phoenix that didn’t require a degree, teaching her fifth graders that you are never done learning.

Four of Aliyah's sisters watched her walk across the stage at GCU Arena.

“No matter how old you are, there is so much you can learn,” she told them.

“But I felt like a hypocrite. I needed to show them I have a degree, too, and they can get that. I wanted to be that example for my students, that I came from all this craziness and I was able to get my degree. I didn’t come from money. I wanted to show them you can make it out from whatever statistic you are placed in.”

As COVID began its dreadful march across the U.S., Aliyah returned to GCU and began courses online. She had a renewed sense of her purpose and threw herself into the classes that showed her how to be a better teacher, which she used immediately as a student teacher at Palomino.

“I learned to differentiate, to break down a lesson for all my students, no matter what level they are, and keep them engaged so that they are all still participating, even if some don’t understand or it’s too easy for others,” she said. “GCU really taught me how to get that sweet spot.”

While Aliyah excelled at GCU, Taylor graduated from high school and began work as a researcher for a real estate company in Phoenix.

“She’s got her own apartment and is doing amazing,” Aliyah said. “I am so proud of her.”

Aliyah walked into GCU Arena with Taylor and a pack of sisters, all dressed up for the occasion, honoring one who lived out her purpose to serve.

“I just wanted to make a difference and be there for her,” Aliyah said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever go back to school. But I didn’t give up.”

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

College of Education Exemplary Teacher Candidates for the fall semester

Undergraduate students:

  • Aliyah Stanford
  • Charelle Meriwether

Graduate students:

  • Caitlin Stahl
  • Iris Quan


Related Content:

Video: Watch Aliyah Stanford's comments on her GCU education

GCU Today: From Nepal to North Pole, GCU grad finds her place

GCU Today: Commencement speech focuses on relationships

GCU Today: Start of this grad’s career is already a done deal


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