Success of SIS program is worth shouting about

Luis Peña Espinoza already has big plans for his career after receiving his degree Friday at Spring Commencement.

●  Video: Graduates talk about what they've learned at GCU and what's next.

● Slideshows and replays of Friday afternoon and Friday evening ceremonies.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Commencement ceremonies at Grand Canyon University have become a testament to the success of its groundbreaking Students Inspiring Students program.

But now these students are breaking new ground.

Estephanie Torres delivers her speech in the Friday afternoon ceremony at Spring Commencement. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

It was evident again Friday in two former Metro Tech High School classmates – both first-generation college students – who used the full-tuition scholarship to walk through the doors it opens, from on-campus opportunities to progress toward a career. 

Estephanie Torres, the student speaker for the afternoon ceremony, has had internships with Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, graduated with a double major in business management and finance, and has a job lined up with Uber corporate in downtown Phoenix.

Luis Peña Espinoza, who majored in computer science, demonstrated his popularity on campus simply by spending 10 minutes being interviewed inside GCU Arena before the evening ceremony. Every few minutes, a fellow graduate would walk by and greet him – it seemed as if he knew everyone.

“Hello, sir, you’re looking great!” said one buddy.

“You’re looking even better!” Peña responded.

Peña’s sartorial splendor is matched only by the future he is fashioning for himself.

Raza Development Fund, the largest Latino-focused Community Development Financial Institution in the country, wanted to develop a resource platform to help immigrants find housing, employment, health care, legal work, schools, etc., but it didn’t have a fulltime position for Peña.

No problem. He remembered what his father always said about making the most of every opportunity – it’s all about saying yes.

“They said, ‘Luis, we would love to have you, but we don’t have any roles for you. Is there any way we could contract you?’” he related. “I said, ‘Yes! I would love to do contracting!’ When I said that, I knew nothing about contracting. But my dad always said, ‘Go for the opportunity and then prepare yourself afterward.’”

Peña had taken entrepreneurship classes at GCU and reached out to Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) instructor Paul Waterman, who has extensive experience in starting companies. Waterman told Peña he needed to form an LLC and obtain an Employer ID Number, then explained how to do it.

When Peña needed help to become a contractor, he found it at GCU. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Thus, Conext Platforms LLC was born. Peña thought of three “co” words – community, collaboration, connections – and said to himself, “All right, what’s next? Conext!” He’s been contracting with Raza for two months and hopes to earn that fulltime spot by this summer. It's either that or renew the contract.

“In a week, I went from knowing absolutely nothing about contracting to having my very own business and solidifying a contract with a company,” he said.

He’s not stopping there. Peña also is working with other computer science majors on a social network that would give someone starting a new venture – say, writing a song or building a video game – with professionals who can help get the job done.

“I see a lot of people who are very passionate about starting a project, but they never finish it because they’re missing a piece or they don’t have the background knowledge to get it finished completely,” he said. “I saw a need for people to come together and collaborate through these projects.

“My grand idea, long term, is to do this contracting business and use the money to fund the social network project, which then would create an opportunity for other people to come together, create more projects and just build through there. Whether that works or not, I’m pursuing it and I’m going to learn from it. Either way, I’m very excited to do what I want to do. I’m pursuing my dream – what I feel is my calling.”

Peña was gratified to hear Torres list her GCU-and-beyond accomplishments in her Commencement speech. Another Metro Tech grad has made it thanks to Students Inspiring Students.

SIS and External Scholarships Director Megan Serafini noted that many recipients of the scholarship want to provide the money for someone else someday.

“She’s always been a hard worker,” he said. “Seeing her onstage, I was like, ‘Wow, she put in the work, she did the necessary sacrifices and she’s up there speaking to everybody.’ And that’s an SIS student! That’s the impact one SIS student has. I feel like all SIS students have so much potential.”

The potential goes beyond a degree and a career. Megan Serafini, SIS and External Scholarships Director, said that many SIS graduates “plan to give back to the scholarship to offer incoming students the same life-changing opportunity.”

Indeed, Torres expressed that very sentiment. But first, there was the matter of addressing a crowd numbering in the thousands Friday for the first time in her life. Fortunately, her time on campus prepared her for this opportunity and others.

“Growing up, I was very shy, and I’m insecure, because as a first-generation student, there are a lot of challenges and you don’t know what to expect,” she said. “Just having the resources here at GCU, like the ACE Centers and your professors, helped me find internships and how to prepare for interviews and write my resume. It helped me not only prepare mentally but professionally as well.”

Torres overcame her shyness, got involved in the Finance and Economics Club on campus and took advantage of study sessions for the Securities Industry Essentials exam. Her role with Uber will encompass both of her degrees by giving her experience in project management, finance, consulting and finance and even mixes in a bit of technology, “which recently has been of interest to me.”

Finance professor Alan Klibanoff (left) spoke with GCU President Brian Mueller at the opening of the Charles Schwab Foundation Finance Center in September.

Her mentor, CCOB instructor Alan Klibanoff, said he admires her “humility, drive, dedication and perseverance to excel.” His most important advice to Torres, in her view: “You’re not looking for a job, you’re looking for a career.”

And all her life she has listened to her parents. She acknowledged their influence with these words on her mortarboard, written in Spanish:

“Thank you, Mom and Dad, for your love and unconditional support. Another goal achieved, and we’re going to go for more.”

Peña, the ultimate go-getter, became a resident assistant so he could live on campus and was most prominent in TEDxGCU – he was a vice president this year.

“I’ve made so many friends in the last four years,” he said as yet another one greeted him. “I didn’t want to leave this school with regrets. I told myself I’m going to take every opportunity that comes my way.

“Oftentimes, my plate was very full, but people have described me as someone who’s very hungry, so I love my plate being full because I always make sure I leave it clean and make the most of those opportunities.

“I’m just fortunate that, because I had the SIS scholarship, I haven’t had the burden to always be working or always stressed about student loans. I’ve been able to focus on what’s in front of me.”

The SIS program gave these two achievers the foundation, and they built from there. That’s how you put aspiring scholars on solid ground.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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