Students share struggles, inspire others at banquet

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Juan Colorado-Alvarez asked this simple question: “Who here growing up enjoyed the school lunches in the cafeteria in elementary, middle and high school?”

Junior accounting major Juan Colorado-Alvarez spoke at Tuesday's reception about the hardships he had to overcome and how the Students Inspiring Students scholarship changed his life. (Photo by Cole Parker)

Then Colorado-Alvarez revealed something about his life before GCU, as if it were a secret that wanted to stay hidden away: “My parents come from immigrant backgrounds. ... The only time I was able to see both of them was at 9 p.m. at nighttime, right before bed. Seeing them both entirely exhausted was something that always broke my heart because I knew that they were trying their hardest and barely making enough money for us to survive. …. The only time I was sure to have a meal was here in the cafeteria at school. I looked forward to it every day. ... Believe me when I say this, guys -- appreciate the little things.”

He knows firsthand to be thankful for those little things.

Those little things can save you.

It was just a few of the words of wisdom Colorado-Alvarez shared with the 50 Students Inspiring Students scholarship recipients for the 2019-20 academic year at a reception in their honor Tuesday at Grand Canyon University Arena. It’s where they were embraced by Colorado-Alvarez and other previous recipients of the four-year, full-tuition scholarships.

Not that it was a small feat what these SIS recipients, all from families with financial need, have accomplished to get here: excelling academically (at least a 3.5 grade point average) and dedicating themselves to 100 hours of study in GCU’s Learning Lounge, all while overcoming unimaginable barriers.

Not only did Colorado-Alvarez worry about not eating -- he was bullied. It was something he never shared with his parents.

“I worried that they would find out I was not a strong enough person to defend myself,” he said.

Fifty students received SIS scholarships for 2019-20. (Photo by Cole Parker)

And then came sixth grade: “The worst year of my life.”

Four of his loved ones passed away, including his beloved grandfather, who, weakened by chemotherapy, culled up his strength and told his grandson he would be there for his graduation; he didn't make it.

“I had thoughts of committing suicide,” Colorado-Alvarez said of that year.

And he might have lingered too long in those dark places if not for his older brother and one of his younger sisters -- the only two people in the world he confided in.

His brother, he said, found a way to keep safe. He joined a gang.

His sister?

“She was my right hand; mi ‘mano derecha.’”

By high school, life had brightened.

That’s when he heard about the SIS scholarship. He was chosen as the first SIS scholarship recipient in 2016 and became the first one in his family to go to college.

“My grandmother, she cried,” Colorado-Alvarez said. She thought about how proud his grandfather would be. Before his grandfather succumbed to cancer years ago, Colorado-Alvarez vowed to him that he would get his college degree.

His brother left gangs behind; his sister is still his “mano derecha.”

Three years later and Colorado-Alvarez, a junior accounting major, is just a year away from earning his bachelor's degree and fulfilling his promise to his grandfather.

This is the fourth year GCU has awarded these “neighborhood scholarships.” They’re given to students from schools in the vicinity of GCU, once middle-class neighborhoods that the University has dedicated itself to restoring and transforming.

GCU President Brian Mueller said this year's incoming SIS scholarship recipients have an average weighted GPA of 4.1. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

The SIS scholarships’ roots go back to 2013, when GCU President Brian Mueller met with Claudio Coria, then the principal at nearby Alhambra High School. They dived deep into the school’s challenges -- the staggering poverty rate, high refugee population and the many languages spoken at the school.

From those talks came the Learning Lounge, opened to provide free tutoring and mentoring to Alhambra students, though its scope has since been expanded. It now serves kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the community and at off-campus sites, such as at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training facility in Maryvale and at Westwood Elementary School, Royal Palm and Palo Verde middle schools, and Washington High School. SIS students pay it forward by volunteering at the Learning Lounge.

Dr. Joe Veres, Vice President for Student Success, said in the years since the Learning Lounge on campus opened, 3,000 students have visited, clocking in 40,000 visits with more than 100,000 hours of mentorship and tutoring completed.

The SIS initiative blossomed out of the vision that set the Learning Lounge on its path of community transformation.

Mueller emphasized that SIS doesn’t happen by GCU’s hand alone. The many GCU and Grand Canyon Education departments, the GCU Scholarship Foundation, local high schools, and business and community leaders come together to make magic happen. The goal is to award 800 scholarships.

“We’ve had people donate from $500 to as much as $100,000,” Mueller said. “... There’s been a huge family of support that has come around these students.”

And then there is the support of the families and the students themselves: “These students had to do the work," he said. "They had to put the time in. … Some of these students earned this under very difficult circumstances, really not knowing if they would have a chance to go to college, but they performed at incredible levels anyway. They have faith, they believed and they were rewarded.”

Mueller said the average weighted GPA of this incoming cohort of SIS students is 4.1.

But he said the journey isn’t over.

“Americans who earn college degrees and those that don't in terms of their level of prosperity is huge,” he said, noting how the next four years also will be tough but “I really believe there's no university in America that believes in you more than this one and no university that will come around you and support you in every way that we can.”

The goal, Mueller said, is that 100 percent of the SIS scholarship recipients -- they come from 18 high schools this year -- will complete their college education and get their degree.

Junior biology major Adriana Quintanares and 2016 SIS recipient talked about the challenges of going to school and not speaking English. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

It’s something Adriana Quintanares, like Colorado-Alvarez, also is determined to accomplish. The junior biology pre-med major spoke to new SIS students about her journey to GCU.

She was 4 years old when she arrived from Mexico with her family. She didn’t know how to speak English and struggled in school.

“I remember telling my parents I didn’t want to go to school the next day. Every conversation at school was a complete blur for me,” Quintanares said. “... But I can tell you that quitting was not an option.”

She remembers how her parents helped her overcome that language barrier.

“My parents bought a dictionary and translated every homework assignment, word for word, in order for me to understand the question and know how to respond to it. ... I am extremely grateful and blessed to have them in my life.”

That’s when Quintanares choked up and began to cry, spurred to continue by applause from the audience.

“Like most immigrant parents, my parents left their families back in their hometown, packed the little they had and began a completely new life with the purpose of having their children become successful. … My parents are my everything,” she said.

And she had some advice for the incoming SIS cohort: “Give it your all. Give back to the community. Help others and give with the same passion and responsibility you would with your family members.”

SIS scholarship recipients gather for a group photo. The first scholarships were awarded in 2016. GCU's goal is to award 800 scholarships. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

Colorado-Alvarez also had some final words, and a final question, to ask students, and it wasn’t about cafeteria food.

“Did I inspire you?” he asked and said the new SIS students can make it through their years at GCU and inspire students, too, along the way.

“In the end ... it’s not about where you guys come from or what your guys' background is. Your demographics do not define you. Your potential is never limited, and each and every single one of you sitting here is destined for greatness. That's a fact.”

Two SIS scholarship recipients who know the truth of those words are Sean Oliver and Yenni Sanchez Perez. Oliver, majoring in criminal justice, and Perez, who is majoring in government and will pursue a master’s degree in education, are the first SIS bachelor’s degree candidates and will walk the stage at commencement next week. It took them only three years to earn their degrees. 

Mueller told the students that, in a few minutes, they will walk across the GCU Arena stage for the first time to receive certificates as SIS scholarship recipients. But in three or four years, they will take their last step as Lopes across the stage, this time with a college degree.

No simple question. Just a dream -- and a promise -- fulfilled.

Follow GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: "Students surprised with full-tuition scholarships"

GCU Today“Students Inspiring Students adds nine more winners”

GCU Today“GCU’s Learning Lounge boosts Westwood”


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