Stress melts away to joy for SIS scholarship winners

Natalia Perales' family suffered separation for her education. From left, sister Evelyn Perales, Natalia Perales, brother Luis Alfredo Perales Chavez, mom Adriana Chavez and dad Luis Alfredo Perales Licon.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

When Natalia Perales was in fourth grade, her parents sent her to the U.S. to live with her grandparents and get an education.

She rapidly learned English; her father told her that was the key to a brighter future. But her parents missed her, and she returned to Mexico for seventh and eighth grade.

Adriana Chavez and Luis Alfredo Perales Licon, her mom and dad, had made a lot of sacrifices to give their children a brighter future, and they had to make one that hurt again. They had to send Natalia back.

“They knew I needed my high school diploma to be successful and for me to go to college,” she said.

Last week, Perales called her parents in Mexico. She had done it. She was going to college.

There wasn’t much talking over the phone then. It was mostly crying.

Natalia Perales

“It means I will be a first-generation college student, so it was a big milestone for all of us, not just me,” said Perales, who wants to study forensic science at Grand Canyon University.

Perales was one of 78 students to be awarded GCU’s Students Inspiring Students scholarships during six days of surprise virtual announcements last week. SIS full-tuition scholarships go to exceptional students from the neighborhoods surrounding GCU who need financial support to afford college. More than 600 have been awarded since 2016.

Like the other recipients, Perales thought she was making one final pitch for the scholarship to SIS officials and students via Zoom. She told them that her family was her motivation to keep reaching for her dreams.

Sitting beside her was sister Evelyn Perales, 25.

“I feel like she deserves it because she has been through a lot. She’s been here on her own,” Evelyn said.

Natalie was born in the U.S., but her father was deported when she was a baby and the family moved back to Mexico – until they decided to send their daughter toward a brighter future.

The sisters were asked to watch a short video of GCU information. Really, it was a congratulations for winning the scholarship.

Natalia and Evelyn laughed and cried all at once.

“Now you don’t have to do it on your own,” Evelyn said.

It wasn’t easy, Natalia said in an interview afterward.

When she came back to attend Trevor G. Browne High School, her English was rusty and everything about the system was confusing. She envied other students.

“They had their biggest supporters, their parents, but for me it was different. I didn’t have anyone there for me,” she said.

“That’s where my sister comes in.”

Evelyn left her own life in Mexico to be by her sister’s side and help her.

“To be there for me, it was one of those things that motivated me,” Natalia said.

She took jobs at Walmart and at a warehouse to earn money. She studied hard.

And last week the news that she had won a scholarship became a family celebration, but in many ways they all had done it.

“It was always motivation for me to do it for my parents since they never had opportunities like I had. They gave them to me to come to school here,” she said.

Jesus Rosales Vergara

Giving the first person in the family a chance to attend college has been a mark of the SIS program since its inception. Nearly three in four of the 78 who were rewarded last week are first-generation students. Many were flanked by parents.

“They needed some good news. When we tell the SIS scholar the news, you can see the stress melt away from all of them," said Megan Serafini, SIS and External Scholarships Director. “You could see on their faces how being awarded full tuition impacted their lives. Many students said, ‘I want to give back to my parents and retire them someday. I want to do better than they have.’"

An additional round of more than two dozen scholarships are expected to be awarded by the end of April.

Serafini has seen a lot of happy tears in the years of these announcements, but it's rarer to see a boy break down with the emotion that Jesus Rosales Vergara showed last week.

“I’m laughing because I don’t want to cry,” he said, but he did anyway, removing his glasses to wipe away the tears.

Then he hugged his mom, Luz Argelia Bergara.

It’s a big deal, he said later, because it’s just him and his mom at home. The two work together in her cleaning business while he studies at Independence High School. Now he can see a brighter future, perhaps in sports medicine or becoming a physical education teacher.

“I want to be successful and help her,” he said.

His grandfather passed away 20 years ago and his grandmother moved back to Mexico. He wants to help his mom financially so she can go back to visit her for the first time in years.

Faith also drew students to apply to GCU.

Daniella Viner

Daniella Viner said during the group call that her proudest accomplishment was “coming to Christ.”

Viner was feeling down when she turned 15 and began reading the Bible.

“I was going through a lot, and I decided to pray and reach out to God,” she said in an interview.

Viner engaged in church and attended Bible study.

It helped her through the long months of COVID quarantine and toward her graduation this spring from Barry Goldwater High School.

“That’s the main reason I wanted to go to GCU,” she said. “I couldn’t have talked about it without mentioning God.”

She plans to live on campus to get the full college experience, including Bible study.

“I had my friends from church praying for me. And I had prayed so long that it was really emotional,” she said. “This will really help us out financially.

“My dad was probably happier than I was.”

Darren Viner didn't wear his happiness on his sleeve, but he was clearly proud. He looked straight at the screen and said, “Thank you all very much. You aren’t going to have any regrets with her. She is a natural born leader.”

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


Related content:

GCU Today: SIS scholars capitalize on visit to state Capitol

GCU Today: Grateful SIS scholarship recipients warm Arena

GCU Today: SIS grads bring home the jobs, lift up neighborhood


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