Cyrus McMullen wheels his bike to the door with great aplomb, wavy brown hair flapping in the breeze, fists deftly steering the handlebars, legs moving the back wheels in a half-circle-skid along the sidewalk. Setting the lock and grabbing his backpack, the teen enters the building, shows his ID and strides confidently to a break area at the back, grabbing a cup of water and a granola bar.
DeeSember Corrales smiles and calls hello to Cyrus from her work station, where a white eraser board and slim markers await. He plops down across from her, yanks his binder and homework from his backpack, and they get down to business: Algebra I. Soon, DeeSember is recording his goals and progress, setting his appointment for the next day, and sending him on his way.
Cyrus is among an estimated 130 students – many American-born like he is, but also refugees from the Congo, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Somalia, Thailand and elsewhere – who have received free tutoring at Grand Canyon University’s Learning Lounge since its Sept. 16 opening.
Operating at the start in a large space just off campus, the center is staffed by GCU student tutors who help students at nearby Alhambra High School learn math, reading and writing well enough to pass Arizona’s high school graduation test. Perhaps as importantly, the tutors help Cyrus and others think ahead to college, careers and community.
Cyrus comes to the Learning Lounge nearly every afternoon, and in just a few short weeks, he and DeeSember have built a rapport. Outwardly, they don’t have much in common. But as freshmen in their respective schools, each has faced the angst of unfamiliarity. They share a social generation as Millennials and a birth order as the eldest in their families. They’re both from west Phoenix and have been moved around in their short lives.
And there is this: “I know what it’s like to have a hard day,” DeeSember says with a shrug after a tutoring session in which Cyrus seems distracted and frustrated.
Tutor learned the hard way
DeeSember never entered a classroom until she was 7. She was helping to raise her younger brother for their mother, who was divorced from their father and then had five more children, leaving them mostly in DeeSember’s care. Several times, her father, Robert, had asked her and her brother to come live with him, but she felt guilty about leaving her stepsiblings. DeeSember finally agreed to go. It was the last time she saw her mother.
Her father’s friend, Sarah Anaya, got DeeSember into school. “She was like my mother, and she treated me like her daughter,” DeeSember said. “She hugged me at night and told me everything was going to be OK. We would spend hours studying, learning our colors, the alphabet, doing addition and subtraction, worksheets, reading aloud.”
DeeSember read “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Rainbow Fish,” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” She passed a test to get into second grade and soaked up learning, even after being bounced to two new schools in third grade and yet another in fifth grade. She had her own room and her own bed for the first time, and life was good.
Seventh grade brought another new school and an upheaval when her father and Sarah split up. The children stayed with their father, but there were many disappointments and struggles for DeeSember. “I was losing too much at one time. I didn’t care anymore, and I just wanted someone to be there with me,” she said.
That someone was Sarah, who became the children’s legal guardian when DeeSember was a junior. The teen again blossomed, taking college prep courses, editing the yearbook and working on the student newspaper as a senior. And her potential was noticed by Arlin Guadian, a GCU alumna who worked in high school outreach. Guadian, now the Learning Lounge’s program coordinator, persuaded DeeSember to visit campus before she graduated from North High last May.
“I loved it there – we got to stay in the dorms and they had food for us, and the student workers were really cool,” she said. “I got to meet people at GCU and experience what it’s like on a university campus. I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
In August, DeeSember started classes at GCU, and she landed her first job ever as one of 30 Learning Lounge tutors, working four afternoons a week.
“I love it,” says the 19-year-old business major, whose brown eyes are as shiny as her black curls. “I love my friends here. We are not just friends, we are family.”
She sees herself as a role model of success for high school students who don’t see that in themselves. “I’m not afraid to say I’m a proud college student who did it, and to let them know that, no matter what you’re going through in life, you can still be successful,” DeeSember said.
Gently encouraging Cyrus, her most regular student, she says, “You’ve got this. It’s OK. I’ll help you.”
Student tries to keep focus
Cyrus, 15, is the eldest of four children who live with their parents in a home in west Phoenix. Before that, his family moved from one cramped apartment to the next. But Cyrus is among the fortunate at Alhambra High – his primary language is English, and he has had relative stability in life.
He’s bright and funny, saying he likes school and his teachers. Although his early first-semester grades indicate success in Reading Fundamentals, Cyrus is struggling in Algebra I, Health Education I and Ecology, and he is failing in English I. “When I get lost in what the teachers are saying, I zone it out,” he said.
He heard about the Learning Lounge and came in a week after it opened. His first tutor was Emily Benzing, who remembers him as shy and unwilling – or unable – to make eye contact, until she started talking about weight training and football. And then they did his math homework, solving for algebraic equations, negative and positive slopes, ratios, probability, order of operations and the like.
The next day, Cyrus’ teacher at Alhambra asked if anyone in the classroom knew how to do a problem.
“My teacher was shocked – it was the first time I had raised my hand in class,” he said. “I went from a student who didn’t do nothing to volunteering to get up to do a problem. I did a problem, and I did it correct on the first try. It felt kind of good.”
He’s young enough that Alhambra and the Learning Lounge have time to help him stay on track for graduation and apply to college.
“This is the first time I’m actually working hard to get my grades up. Before, I used to never try to do homework, and I was failing all my classes, and I always had lunch detention. But now I’m struggling to work hard,” Cyrus said. “Hey, I don’t want to retake this next year. I don’t want to be a fifth-year senior.”
A tutoring session with Cyrus can be 40 minutes of sporadic productivity. When he’s on task, he works quickly, asks pointed questions and grasps his mistakes.
“My teacher said I could be in the top of my class when I graduate,” he says. “I’ve been told I’m a quick learner.”
At other times, teenage braggadocio wins out.
“Oh, you missed it!” he tells DeeSember, relaying the gory details of his bike accident and displaying a bruised hand and scuffed chin.
“There was a fight at the flagpole today between two girls!” he announces between fractions. “I’m sorry to hear that,” DeeSember replies calmly, steering him back to matrices.
Cyrus can’t play football next fall unless his grades are better, but that matters less than his long-term game plan: Get good enough grades to enroll in automotive classes at Metro Tech High, graduate from high school, enlist in the Marines, attend college on the GI Bill, open a mechanics shop, be happy.
At Cyrus’ age, DeeSember didn’t have that detailed vision. She’s glad he does.
“I’m already imagining how successful he will be. I can already see how committed he is to going to school,” she said.
It’s paying off for Cyrus, too, whose next report card is a motivator. “A friend came by to see if I wanted to play (a game of touch) football today, but I told him no, I gotta go study at the Lounge,” he said.
“And my mom told me I was (being) responsible.”