SIS grads bring home the jobs, lift up neighborhood

GCU graduates Jellsy Gonzalez Duran, left, and Edgar Ojeda both landed jobs in the neighborhood.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Alan Cisneros

GCU News Bureau

Edgar Ojeda's house is a symbol of progress.

It’s a single story with four bedrooms, one for each member of his family, including his mom, brother and sister. The back door needs repair and the waterless pool is full of sand. “But, little by little, we are making it better,” he said.

They’re getting started on shaping it up after refinancing the mortgage, which Ojeda is now proud to help pay.

“Now that I’ve got a job, I can see a big difference. My brother and sister can pay off their cars. It’s a big change for us,” said Ojeda, who graduated in April from Grand Canyon University with a mechanical engineering degree that helped him land a good paying job with a contractor for Intel.

His home seven blocks from the GCU campus is a tangible example of building up a neighborhood with education through the University’s Students Inspiring Students Scholarship Program, which is closing the circle on its vision: Educate students who can then get good jobs and begin to give back to their communities.

The 100th and 101st graduates of the program finished studies this summer – and 61 of them have full-time jobs while others work part time or have gone on to graduate school. Since its first award in 2016, SIS has helped hundreds of students on economically challenged west-side neighborhoods attend college.

It started for Ojeda many years ago, when he began attending GCU’s Learning Lounge, which offers tutoring help for neighborhood children. He earned good grades at Central High School and an SIS full-tuition scholarship to GCU.

It was a joy to his family; Ojeda said he couldn’t afford it otherwise.

“My mom didn’t go to college, or even high school. She was the second oldest and had to help raise a big family in Mexico by helping out with chores,” Ojeda said.

Through high school and college in Phoenix, he moved a lot.

“We lived in apartments our whole lives,” he said. “First, we lived with relatives. Then after my sister got a job after high school, we got an apartment. Then we got a small townhouse.

“Then this house …

“Progress.”

He alternates paying a month of rent with his brother and sister.

The house is in a perfect spot, not too far from other family in Glendale, a few blocks from their church.

“We can even get ahead on the statements. We are hoping to pay it off in half the time, or less,” Ojeda said.

Vanessa Garcia became one of two graduates to take the SIS program over the 100-graduate mark this summer.

It’s music to the ears of GCU President Brian Mueller.

His vision of the program, which started in 2014, was to help neighborhood children with schoolwork in the Learning Lounge, believing that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. That led to the SIS scholarships that began in 2016 and have since been awarded to 545 high-achieving neighborhood students who are in financial need.

“There is so much talk of the inequalities that exist in our society, some of it based on race,” Mueller said. “These are programs that can change those things in a major way. Education is a very important key to unlocking that inequity that does exist.”

More than 90% of the scholarship recipients are students of color, reflecting the demographics surrounding GCU.

Vanessa Garcia said the scholarship was a blessing. She said she was the type to stress out about her studies, and GCU helped her through it, starting back in secondary school when she came to the Learning Lounge to sharpen her math. Teachers and counselors helped her when she began at GCU.

“They motivated me. It will get hard in life, but they calm you down. ‘You can do it. Get it done.’ They helped me through those years.”

She is one of the two students who completed their academic degrees this summer to push SIS graduate numbers past the century mark.

Those graduates are not only improving their homes and helping their families and the local economy but setting an example for younger students in the neighborhood. They can tout new jobs at companies such as Banner University Downtown, American Express or General Motors.

“They are getting good jobs,” Mueller said. “One student was telling me that in the first two months of his first job, he’ll make more than his parents will, combined, for the whole year.”

Others have set an example by teaching.

Edgar Ojeda, left, and Jellsy Gonzalez Duran

SIS scholar and April GCU graduate Jellsy Gonzalez Duran teaches in the very school she once attended – John F. Long Elementary School.

When the youngest of four and first to graduate college told her mother that she wanted to teach, it didn’t go over the best. Other professions might earn more money.

But Lucia Duran quickly came around.

“It means a lot to her that I stayed in my community,” Duran said. “And that’s why it’s important to me. I can help the kids in Maryvale.”

Those third-grade students get the benefit of someone who was helped “socially and emotionally” by the SIS program and GCU.

“They were open and welcoming, regardless of what your situation was,” Duran said.

She worked two jobs through college, everywhere from an auto parts store to serving food, while helping tutor children, all adding up to sometimes 60 hours a week. But she kept her eye on the goal.

“I think education has always been in my heart. I met so many educators that really helped me stay on track, and I was able to find that love through everyone I met,” Duran said. “Teaching is a job you really have to love.”

Now she sees herself in her students. Many have come to America to seek happiness and to learn, she said.

“It’s important for them to see people who care about them. I love my community. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”

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

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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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