Grand Canyon University’s Promise of Free College a Reality for 15 Students

A promise kept is a precious gift. And then it becomes a responsibility.

That transformation is happening this week at Grand Canyon University for 15 incoming freshmen.

They are at the school because 10 years ago a promise – the product of a tragedy – was made to them.

At the time, they were third-graders at Granada Elementary School in west Phoenix. Many were poor, and most of their families probably didn’t even consider college an option.

When university officials brought them and their parents together to promise the students that they could go to the college for free, none of them really understood what it meant.

Now, it is the students’ time to fulfill that promise. Now, they must honor the work that went into keeping it by working hard themselves.

"This is something I didn’t deserve or earn. It was a gift," Daron Beck said. "I’m honored to be a Sydney’s kid. Now, I get to be her memory."

"Sydney’s kids" were named after Sydney Browning, a Phoenix native and a Grand Canyon graduate.

On Sept. 15, 1999, she was sitting in Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, when a gunman walked in and started shooting.

Browning was the first to die that night, one of seven murdered by the gunman.

In life she was committed to educating the less fortunate. She taught at Success High School, a Fort Worth public school that brought former dropouts back to the classroom.

University administrators chose Sydney’s kids to honor her.

Two days before the shooting, a group of students from Granada, which was close to the campus, had gone to GCU to sing "Happy Birthday" for the school’s 50th anniversary.

The singing struck a chord in the minds of the officials who, the next year, made the 60 students the promise. If their grades and test scores were good enough to get in, they would go for free.

Armando Rivera was one of those students. Now 18, he remembers the parents being more excited than the children.

"Honestly," he said, "at the time, I didn’t understand it."

Future ahead of them
Of the 60 students offered the scholarship, 15 are taking advantage of it. One more will start next semester, and a 17th will enroll next year.

Some of the other students hadn’t kept up their grades. The rest moved away or just fell through the cracks. GCU was unable to find some of the students. The promise is still open to them.

On Thursday morning, Jessica Reyes, Cameron Stafford and Beck were chatting in Beck’s dorm room.

Jessica, like Armando, plans to become a doctor and will major in biology. Daron will study business. Cameron is thinking of business or marketing.

Like many college freshmen, each appeared a little nervous and a little excited about the start of their new lives.

They chatted about class schedules, what they would eat. They cast sideways glances at their parents, seeming to want them to stay and go in equal measure.

They were all aware that being one of Sydney’s kids comes with responsibility.

"It’s a special gift," Stafford said. "Now, I have to fulfill it."

Reyes is thinking about what she will say to Sydney’s parents, Don and Diana Browning, when the group meets with them in the next couple of weeks.

"I’ll tell them how blessed I feel," Reyes said. "They have helped me so much. I want to do well for them."

Beck is keeping it simple. "I know I have to study hard," he said. "I can do that."

Work pays off
On freshman registration and move-in day, deans, faculty members and school administrators put on T-shirts and shorts and help freshmen move into their dorms.

Among them were people who helped make the promise and then keep it.

They all seemed to share a feeling of joy and relief.

Joyce Hatch is the vice president of financial aid on the campus.

"I was here when they came and sang," Hatch said. "I was here when the promise was made. It seems like a long time ago."

For a while, the promise seemed in doubt.

In the early 2000s, GCU was in dire financial shape. It severed its ties with the Arizona

Southern Baptist Convention. In 2004, a venture-capital firm bought GCU and turned it into a for-profit institution.

But the school remained committed to Sydney’s kids, and 3 1/2 years ago, Jennifer Hatch, Joyce’s daughter and an admissions counselor, started looking for them.

"It’s so exciting," Jennifer said. "I couldn’t sleep last night. I cried on the phone this morning with my mom. They are really here."

On Thursday, Jennifer helped Armando move into Hegel Hall.

"Sydney would be in awe," Jennifer said. "It is amazing. We did our job. Now, they do theirs."


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