Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
The two sisters stood to each side of their mom in Grand Canyon University Arena, a place that only seemed like a dream a few years ago.
Guille Varelas and her daughters, Flor Varelas Martinez and Alexandra Martinez Varelas, have been side by side for years cleaning offices.
“I remember her telling me – we were at a stoplight – that all she had ever done is clean houses and offices, ‘I don’t want you to do that,’” said Alexandra Martinez Varelas.
On Wednesday night at the Students Inspiring Students Scholarship Scholarship Banquet, Alexandra got to tell her mother that she had heard the advice. She worked hard to attain GCU’s full-tuition SIS scholarship that goes to families in need in the neighboring communities.
In her speech before 59 SIS recipients, families, University leaders, SIS graduates, donors and Arizona legislators, she told of the promise her mom made to her back then.
She would quit one of her two cleaning jobs if she got the scholarship.
“I’m still working on that promise,” Alexandra said afterward.
“I thought she had forgotten,” said her smiling mother in Spanish.
How could a mom not smile on a night such as this?
Flor was first to rise to the stage and give a speech, the same stage where six years before she was awarded an SIS scholarship, the same stage where two years ago she accepted her degree in biology.
She remembers being excited the first week on campus in 2017 but nervous as the first-generation college student of a single mother. Week two was disastrous.
At 6:30 p.m. while cleaning offices with her mom and sister, dozens of calls came from family members. Her brother, Miguel Varelas, 30, was assaulted and killed in his barbershop in Juarez, Mexico, she said, her voice cracking.
“I felt very alone. I felt lost. I felt empty,” she said.
Flor said afterward that it took a year to know how to move forward.
“I realized I could honor him. I could keep him in mind to help me get through the tough times, knowing he lived a great life,” she said. “Even though it was a tragic end, he inspired me in so many ways. I could use it to continue to try to help others.”
In her speech, she paused long and said this: “Miguel Varelas, this moment is dedicated to you.”
To Alexandra, and all her fellow SIS scholars, many who face similar hardships, she added: “This is your moment. Make every second count.”
Alexandra rose to the same microphone minutes later.
She had already heard GCU President Brian Mueller tell the group it would not be easy, but they had many to lean on at GCU, just like the 708 others who have been awarded this scholarship.
“We all know you are going to start this program. We want you to graduate from this program and be a role model for everyone else in your family that is coming after you,” Mueller said.
That’s what happened to Alexandra. She saw her older sister change her life at GCU, graduate and begin work at Banner Health as a business analyst assistant.
“She pushed me to always do better,” Alexandra told the audience. “And she is my best friend.”
But she faced an additional hurdle.
“Growing up I knew I was different. In fact, I looked different than everyone else around me,” she said. “When I was younger, I would get asked, ‘What is wrong with your nose? Why is it crooked? What is wrong with your lip?’ These questions would make me feel insecure. I was born with cleft palate.”
After surgeries and through the guidance of a hard-working mom, she began to work alongside her by age 8. She watched her sister go to college and thought, “That could be me.”
She told her story to SIS officials in her application for the scholarship, one she had never told before, about the insecurities growing up and looking different.
“Look at me now,” she told the audience, “taking the opportunity to tell you my story.”
To Director of K-12 Outreach Jenn Mitchell, hearing the sisters’ story of overcoming is what the scholarship program is all about – the resiliency of families and their children who don’t always have idyllic childhoods of “swinging on swings and running through the grass freely. It’s kids going to work with parents after a long day of school. It’s learning to make sacrifices at a young age.
“It’s family sacrifice that builds stronger families. And when you sacrifice together you grow closer. She didn’t hide it from them. This is hard work. Let’s do it together.”
And that’s what this night was all about, families coming to GCU to hear the stories “and listen to the purpose and the legacy.”
Both sisters thanked their mother for being an example of what it is to be a strong woman and afterward gave her hugs – with a gentle reminder to work on that promise to quit the night job that tires her out so much.
“I feel very happy,” said Guille Varelas, looking at her daughters all dressed up. “I am very proud.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]