Commencement Day 1: There’s a lot to shout about
GCU News Bureau Staff
Changes, challenges and the challenges of changes were recurring themes Friday morning in spring commencement for traditional students at Grand Canyon University.
Before a huge crowd in GCU Arena, graffiti artist and leadership guru Erik Wahl delivered a commencement address filled with important messages about changing the world. Then student speaker Brittany Holen of the Colangelo College of Business followed right after with a spirited talk that openly challenged students to make the most of what she called “adulting.”
“Transformation — we sure have a lot of it around here,” Holen said, listing all the places on campus that changed in her time here.
But those changes, she suggested, have made GCU students more able to adapt with the inevitable transformations they will encounter in their lives. And then she posed this question:
“When we find our purpose, will we have the courage to pursue it?”
That’s exactly what Wahl, back at GCU after speaking at winter 2015 commencement, was getting at as he told the story of how he never started drawing until he was 30 and was at rock bottom, his career in business popped by the bursting dot.com bubble.
He said he had “intentionally repressed” his artistic ability for 20 years because of a discouraging teacher who didn’t like the way he colored outside the lines. He no doubt has found his purpose now, as he demonstrated when he quickly drew portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein — the latter upside down.
After asking the graduates to raise their hands if they liked to draw — and getting few affirmative responses, of course — Wahl pointed out that preschoolers would have a far more positive reaction. “How are you going to reawaken that beginner’s mind?” he asked the audience.
He pointed to Lincoln’s declaration that “the greatest growth is on the border between chaos and order,” and he used the Einstein portrait to urge listeners to “think like no one has ever thought before” and not be afraid to make mistakes.
“Failure is not the opposite of success,” he said. “Rather, it’s part of success.”
Just as challenge is part of change.
Popular place to be
The student speaker for the afternoon session was Austen Barraclough of the College of Theology, who, like Holen, had an important message for students.
“I urge you to consider what kind of contribution you intend to make (to society),” he said, noting that it’s easy, for example, to create chaos when your intention is to bring peace.
He also warned of expecting other people to think or act like us. “Never stop seeking new perspectives,” he said.
The Arena was packed to the rafters for both sessions Friday (657 graduates and 5,596 guests in the morning, 673 and 5,779 in the afternoon), and the crowds are expected to be even bigger Saturday for nontraditional (online) commencement sessions at 1 and 6 p.m. A word to the wise: Get there early.
Braun takes care of business off the court, too
There probably were more than a few GCU basketball fans who were alarmed to hear this name called at commencement:
Hey, wait a minute, they might have thought — wasn’t he only a sophomore?
Don’t worry. He’s not going anywhere. Braun redshirted his first year at GCU and got his business administration degree in three years, so he still has two years of eligibility remaining. He plans to pursue his master’s degree next.
“Really, nothing will change except that,” he said, adding that he will remain on campus for summer workouts.
But it still was a proud moment for his parents, Dave and Kathy Braun of Anthem, especially considering the four knee surgeries he had to overcome in high school to realize his dream of playing college basketball.
“He kept saying, ‘Don’t give up on that,’” Kathy said. “He always had faith.”
Both of his parents were athletes — Dave played soccer, Kathy volleyball. And they also talked Friday of how much of a “blessing” their son’s achievements are. Funny … that’s the word he always uses. Now we know where he gets it.
The sports connection didn’t stop there
Braun wasn’t the only member of the basketball team’s backcourt to receive a diploma. Point guard Dewayne Russell got his communications degree in the afternoon commencement session.
Like Braun, he’s not going anywhere. During the just completed season, he was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.
There also were two other graduates with nationally famous basketball names in the afternoon session — Michael Jordan and Blake Griffin. Just a coincidence, of course. We might have noticed if one of those guys was on campus.
The afternoon also featured a little frivolity. The new graduates broke out a couple of beachballs before they got ready to process out, and one of them was blowing bubbles, too. All in good fun.
Speaking of that closing procession, there’s nothing quite like one graduate after another walking tall and proud and straight-backed, waving to family and friends and just looking radiant. They are greeted in the Arena lobby by the University’s top executives and faculty leaders, applauding as they walk out. Quite a scene.
GCU degree taught her how smart she really is
Heidi Bailey, 35, a forensic science major and mother of five, was in her element at GCU’s Forensic Science Day earlier this year.
Standing by a fingerprint display, she enthusiastically told onlookers that more than 65 percent of our fingertips contain “loops,” 35 percent have whorls (a pattern of spirals or concentric circles) and only 5 percent have plain or tented arches.
Off to the side, her husband, Dustin Bailey, a GCU instructional designer, and daughter, Eliana, 15, listened with admiration.
“This is the single best thing that has ever happened to my wife. It meets all her strengths of personality and interests,” said Dustin, who himself is earning a master’s of science degree in counseling at GCU. “I see her as more confident and realizing how smart she really is.”
Heidi agreed: GCU’s forensic science program “makes me rise up, completely and totally, to thinking outside of the box,” she said.
Bailey, who graduated today with her bachelor’s degree in forensic science, has come a long way from some of her prior jobs as a custodian and teacher’s aide.
“It still doesn’t feel real to me,” she said. “This school is a blessing. It’s a complete blessing.” —Laurie Merrill
New grad caps a dual degree, a job and an adventure
At 16 years old, she was looking for nothing more but an exciting volunteer opportunity. During that time, Megan Flores started spending a lot of hours next to her sister, a nurse in the emergency room at Maricopa Medical Center.
As time went by, the 22-year-old discovered a high respect for her sister and a genuine passion for medicine, and she eventually pursued a double major in pre-medicine and psychology.
“Although my goal is to be a doctor, nurses make just as big of an impact,” Flores said. “I know it sounds cheesy, but what I liked most about being in the hospital setting was being able to make someone smile when it was the hardest time of their life — whether it was bring them a warm blanket or a cup of water. The small differences can really light patients up.”
After six years of volunteering at the hospital and contributing on a research project concerning snakebite medicines, Flores was hired a part-time as a research associate. Still, she worked straight through to her degree and fulfilled her role as president of the Honors College Club.
Flores said she intends to continue on to medical school, but first she’s taking a celebratory road trip to Yosemite Valley – a graduation surprise from her family.
“I threw it out in the air and I didn’t think they would do anything about it – come to find out, we’re actually going to go out there this weekend,” Flores said. “I’m excited to go hiking and camping, but I’m hoping there will be no bears.”
Business star says it’s their dean who shines
It’s pretty easy to see why the Colangelo College of Business has turned out so many top-notch graduates the last two years: It coincides with the arrival of its dean, Dr. Randy Gibb.
And don’t think the students haven’t noticed.
“Dr. Gibb is amazing,” said Lemmy Gitahi, president of the IDEA Club, which together with Gibb and Tim Kelley, assistant professor for entrepreneurship and economics, has managed the stunning development of the Canyon Challenge entrepreneurial competition. “He’s always trying to help me achieve my goals.
“Every time I walk into his office, he gives me at least five minutes no matter how busy he is. And when he says he’s going to follow up, he does it. He’s very selfless — you don’t find that in a lot of people.”
Gitahi’s work has shown that he possesses many of those same qualities. The Nairobi, Kenya, native has gone from Canyon Challenge finalist in 2014 to mentor for other competitors and delights in the way the quality of the entries has kept improving.
“I’m very proud of that, to be honest,” he said. “I’m excited to see where it’s going to be five years down the line.”
Next up for Gitahi, after earning his forensic science degree from GCU, is the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, from which Kelley graduated in 2004. He also sells commercial real estate for SANTE Realty Investments in Tempe.
But he won’t be far from GCU. He’ll still mentor other budding entrepreneurs — he’s just trying to be more like his dean.
She didn’t rest until she closed the deal
Maya Hinojos has her own reason for being thankful to Gibb and Kelley: They helped her sell 1,863 beds to GCU.
How’s that? Simple. She manages Comfort-Pedic Furniture, the business her father, Guillermo, started six years ago — she worked for him from the very beginning. With help from her CCOB mentors, which included Paul Waterman, she was able to close a deal for the beds that will go into new apartment buildings on campus.
“Without them, I don’t think I would have been able to even start that sale,” she said.
But Hinojos, who majored in business administration and minored in entrepreneurial studies, showed during her time at GCU that she’s hardly a sales wallflower. She was the president of CCOB’s chapter of DECA, an international association of marketing students, and this week won first place in Professional Sales at its International Career Development Conference in Washington, D.C.
The skills she used at that conference are the same ones that have enabled her to successfully sell furniture.
“I love talking to people. I love meeting people,” she said. “I’m very passionate about owning my time.”
She plans to focus on her dad’s business for the next year, but after that she’d like to get into furniture design. But she first might need to get more comfortable with her college days being over.
“I don’t want to leave,” she said. “Without GCU, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Don’t sleep on her future.
Overflowing with good memories
David LaJeunesse has been thinking a lot about what this day will be like. He has been journaling extensively in recent weeks and reads some of it to the interviewer. “This is very bittersweet,” he says. “I love it here.”
But now that it’s time to go, his degree in finance and economics (with a minor in Christian studies) secured in just three years, he also is at peace with what he has accomplished.
“I feel real satisfied with what college has been for me,” he says. “I feel like I’ve given a ton.”
What he also has given is something far more valuable to some people in the world — water. During his time at GCU, LaJeunesse created a startup, Overflow Bottle, that sells water bottles. All of the proceeds go toward digging new wells in third-world countries, and he’s pleased that he was able to raise $1,200 for such a well in India.
“It’s not a lot,” he says, “but it’s something. It’s a start.”
And like so many graduates, he already has a job. He’s a client relationship specialist with Vanguard, a job he was offered in October. “Their values line up with mine,” he says.
But first he has to show his values in another way. In a week and a half he leaves on a mission trip to the Middle East — he can’t say where for security reasons. He will go there mindful of what he is leaving behind.
“Community happens naturally at GCU,” he says.
He was an important part of it.
They call her ‘Ms. V’
Jessica Ventura has been a devoted teacher since she was in middle school. The California student found that she was constantly tutoring her classmates in math, all through high school, and later realized her calling – teaching.
Ventura graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Education, and she praised the program to the skies. She especially credited her professors and mentors Brandon Juarez and Jim Mostafo for their genuine support.
“I wholeheartedly believe that because of professors like them, I am able to teach so much better,” Ventura said.
Originally, Ventura said she wanted to teach middle school, but after her teaching experience at Alhambra High School, she said her heart is on teaching high school students.
“I love my students,” Ventura said. “They are so influential — some have really hard home lives, and I see them really push through the classroom every single day.”
Ventura said she most enjoys hearing “Ms. V” and bumping into them around the Phoenix neighborhood.
“I can say that everything worked out for me. My students are a reassurance that my purpose is to teach,” she said.
New grad has a funny kind of story
Through her experience at GCU over the last few years, DeeSember Corrales has learned several things — her unique name is significant to her personality, she was called to be a leader and anything is achievable.
As for her name, her parents came up with it while reading an article in a December magazine issue. It’s a story that will never get old, she said: “I’m really thankful that my name is unique because it matches my personality — optimistic and energetic.”
Some students arrive with set-in-stone plans, but Corrales spent her time searching for her passion. She changed her major three times and eventually stuck with business management and never looked back — a decision she does not regret.
She also recently accepted a full-time position as an online enrollment counselor for the Colangelo College of Business, where she hopes to share her passion with incoming students.
“I realized that I was cutting myself too short,” Corrales said. “I am confident that I can give back to the community while leading with the heart of a servant and integrating my faith. I’m excited.”
And so were the 32 of her family members rooting her.
He is proud of his spontaneous move
Twenty-two year old Adriel Nuñez has known for years that he wanted to be a doctor someday. But what he didn’t expect was to leave his California hometown during his freshman year of college. It all happened when he was watching the Super Bowl three years ago and noticed a GCU advertisement.
“I really wanted to go to a private Christian school, and after exploring the school online, I applied that same night,” he said.
Within a week, Nuñez had his heart set. His first day on campus was also his first time ever seeing it, he said.
Although it was spontaneous, Nuñez said he is glad it happened that way. He was a resident assistant, worked several events on campus and consumed as many spiritual events on campus that he could.
“It was everything I could have ever wanted,” he said.
CSET graduate proudly walks by faith
Natalie Gonzalez has a very personal reason why she chose to study human biology. The new grad experienced many near death experiences as a child — from meningitis to presumed brain damage and a kidney infection.
“Basically, my parents were told to prepare my deathbed,” Gonzalez said.
But the family held on to their faith. Today, Gonzalez is alive, healthy and proud of her story. It’s no wonder when she graduated Friday, she was all smiles.
“It’s funny how life took a turn,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times the doctors shut their doors on us, so my mother had to take me to Mexico to find treatment.”
Gonzalez would love to go into physical therapy to “build one-on-one relationships with people.” But, first, she is going to officially move from Arlington, Texas, to Tempe, where she will attend discipleship school.
“I never thought I’d leave Arlington, but Phoenix has definitely grown on me,” she said. “There’s a large, young, hipster culture here and so many beautiful mountains. Whenever I’m up there, I feel closer to God.”
Concert pianist with a double major in helping others
Reisto Belovich couldn’t decide which major he liked more, so he chose both. Friday, he graduated from GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production with a double major in piano performance and substance-abuse counseling.
“When I first came here, I was at a crossroads. I loved the piano very much. I had my doubts about wanting to stay in a practice room four or five hours a day,” he said.
He decided to pursue a counseling degree because he has a an aptitude for helping people. But the piano continued to beckon.
“Music is such a big part of me,” he said. “I couldn’t let it go and not pursue it. When I realized I could actually do both degrees and graduate in four years, it was definitely appointed by God that it happened.”
In addition to his studies, he has a job in a substance-abuse treatment center’s marketing department, was Counseling Club president, a section leader for both the Canyon Chorale and Choral Society, and a music theory tutor.
His GCU piano teacher, Dr. Jelena Vladikovic, gave him a rave: “He’s a wonderful pianist, incredible human being, works outside the University … and as a peer tutor, participates in other music activities within the school, plays chamber music with other students, accompanies the choir, and does all of that while managing to be a straight-A student.”
Belovich, 21, a lifelong Arizonan, said he attempted to fully embrace the myriad opportunities GCU offered.
“The community of people is one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced here,” he said. “It’s amazing the quality of the faculty that are drawn to this place.”
What’s next? He hopes to translate his love of music composition into film scoring.
To hear Belovich’s piano playing, click here.
International student becomes more than ‘part of the crowd’
By now, Nikita Pradhan has done the unthinkable.
The 21-year-old moved from India to Nogales, Ariz., with her parents just five years ago and then arrived in Phoenix by herself to pursue her college education. It was her first time away from everything she had known, and Pradhan admits she was petrified about settling into her new dorm. And, as if being shy wasn’t painful enough, Pradhan said she never had a roommate.
Pradhan said she isn’t sure whether it was bad luck or fate, but she was able to find her place on campus when she joined Life Group and the Associated Students of Grand Canyon University.
“When I got to Arizona, I really had no expectations because everything was so foreign to me, but I’ve had so much growth since I got here,” Pradhan said. “I came here because I wanted to be more than someone stuck inside of a larger crowd. Somehow, this experience pulled me out of my little shell.”
And, it didn’t stop there. Pradhan instructed students in math at the Learning Lounge and volunteered at Banner University Medical Center Phoenix while finding time to complete her degree in Health Care Administration.
Now, Pradhan said that she has the confidence to continue stepping out of her comfort zone.
She has been accepted into an East Coast medical school and will have to decide soon whether to go. But her ultimate dream is to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Georgia.
Best friends for life
These three women studied together and were buddies together, and on Friday they graduated together wearing mortarboards they decorated together.
“We all took the same class, and there was a two-hour break afterward,” said Erin Jones, 22, sitting with Britnee Van Tyle, 24, and Megan Armstrong, 22.
All three earned bachelors of science in counseling degrees from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and all wore the gold cords indicating honors status.
“We started to have lunch together. Then we started hanging out outside of class together,” Van Tyle said.
They planned a Miley Cyrus-themed birthday party for Jones’ birthday and are organizing a ’90s-theme party for the summer.
You can also catch them on Instagram at #counselingcrew, Van Tyle said, adding they’re “best friends for life!”
Like oil and water, sometimes vocalists and instrumentalists don’t blend.
But tuba player and percussionist Ricardo Laborin and saxophonist Anthony Julian are fast friends with vocalist Jasmin Tomic.
You may have seen Laborin and Julian in the Thundering Heard, where they met, or Tomic in the Choral Society and Canyon Chorale.
“It’s unusual for us to collaborate together,” said Laborin, who just received a job offer from a Phoenix high school. “There’s a rivalry.”
On Friday, all three graduated from the College of Fine Arts and Production. Laborin and Julian earned bachelor of arts degrees in music education, while Tomic’s was in music with an emphasis on voice performance.
Their collaboration continued as they sat near each other while waiting for graduation to begin.
It’s a ‘warm sunshine smile’
Jasmine Shaw, 22, waited serenely as the Arena filled up and she prepared to receive her bachelor’s in counseling from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
For her, GCU is the definition of happiness. The warmth of the community and the expertise and caring of the professors wraps her in a glow.
“It’s the warm sunshine smile,” she said.
She’s weighing two hospital job offers, but she already is planning on getting her master’s degree from GCU.
“I have to,” she said with a grin. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”
It’s the real world now
After graduating Friday with a bachelor of science in justice studies from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a minor in business administration, Olivia Gurney has plans.
First, she’s going to earn a master’s in business management from GCU. Then, she’s going to law school out of state, preferably back east.
She’s excited for the future even though it’s a change.
“I’ll miss being able to wake up, take class and do whatever I like,” Gurney said. “Now I’m in the real world.”
She wants to use her degree to open a business
Hannah Nolcheff, 21, will miss the wonderful fellowship and community of GCU, but she’s ready to move on.
“I’ve been encouraged and blessed by the entire student body,” said Nolcheff, who wears a Bible verse inside a jar in a necklace a friend made.
She plans to build a career on her bachelor of arts in digital design with an emphasis on web design from the College of Fine Arts and Production.
In the short run, she wants to find a job in marketing, web design or graphics. She was a student worker for four years in GCU’s marketing department, primarily promoting GCU to high school students.
In the long run? “I hope to start my own business.”
A graduate’s childhood dream comes true
You’ll giggle a bit if you ask Melissa Brown at what moment in time she knew she wanted to be a nurse. She was in kindergarten when she was cast in a play about getting over the fear of going to the doctor. Brown played the nurse.
“It just felt right,” Brown remembered.
As the daughter of a pastor, Brown said she chose GCU to practice her faith and build her future.
“I value my faith, I love science and I love to help people, so this was the perfect combination of things,” Brown said.
GCU provided the 26-year-old the friendships, encouragement and training she needed to build confidence to go out into the field, she said.
Brown already has several job offers to choose from, and she received another the morning of graduation.
Although she hasn’t made her decision yet, Brown said she already feels as if she is living her childhood dream.
Couple succeeds together
The day of graduation fills Bijan and Amy Mahlouji with overwhelming joy.
Bijan helps Amy put on her cap and carefully fixes her hair. They’ve been married for eight months and still can’t believe how much their lives have changed since they met four years ago.
Bijan said he found out about GCU at a concert back home in Colorado. He was convinced to visit the GCU table offering free backpacks and T-shirts, and although he was hesitant, he signed up to receive more information about the school. Just like that, after a long time of questioning his ability to make it through college, GCU happened — and it came with an even more special package.
Bijan met Amy while still living in Colorado, at a dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory hosted by GCU. The two became close friends, began dating their sophomore year at GCU and married last July.
On campus, Bijan served as a life leader, joined the Honors College and founded his own club among his group of friends. Amy pursued a degree in nursing and obtained a job at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center.
Bijan said he would like to go into the seminary. His ultimate goal is to be a pastor.
“Being here at the Arena today, I feel very nostalgic because I remember the first trip Amy and I took as friends to see a Switchfoot concert in California and the memories created at each of the dorm rooms,” Bijan said.
“For me, it just reminds me of all the Chapel and basketball games,” Amy said.
After commencement, the couple celebrated with a dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory — this time, married, graduated and in Phoenix.
From the classroom to the dugout
Keijiro Kitashiro, 25, will be spending his summer in Reno, Nev., doing an internship as a strength and conditioning trainer with the Reno Aces baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Class AAA affiliate. He earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science after four years at GCU.
Kitashiro, a native of the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, said he enjoyed his time at GCU and learning about American culture.
“I used to play baseball,” he said. “Now I like the golf.”
Mortarboard messages display personalities
Lauren Thompson’s mortarboard read: “She believed she could do it so she did.”
Thompson, 22, of Ranch Cucamonga, Calif., earned a bachelor of science degree with a pre-med emphasis and graduated cum laude.
Thompson said her mortarboard message is a statement about her being the youngest and first of three siblings and four cousins to graduate from college. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in California or Virginia.
Some of the other mortarboard messages included:
“Teacher — See the ability, not the disability”
“God is within her and she will not fail.”
“The Time is Meow.”
Students lined up to walk across the stage to get their diplomas in a wide variety of footwear, from purple and black tennis shoes to tall heels and even a walking-boot cast. Two grads-to-be carried their heels as they walked outside the arena in their bare feet.
There’s nothing better than seeing a student’s eyes light up
Grace Malave, 23, gave two exuberant hugs to her former dorm roommate Danielle Maelleo when they met outside the arena before commencement.
“I am excited,” Malave said. “All this hard work. This is a relief and GCU made it all possible.”
She is graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in secondary education with an emphasis on English and completing her student teaching at Valley Lutheran High School in Phoenix.
A native of Puerto Rico, she moved to Gilbert when she was 15 years old.
Malave said GCU helped her complete her education with scholarships and a good placement for student teaching.
“I am passionate about teaching,” she said. “There’s nothing better than seeing a student’s eyes light up, when something clicks with them. …It’s like seeing the Holy Spirit.”
The first of five siblings to graduate from college
Edgar Rivera, 22, of Durango, Mexico, was standing with his parents, Ramon and Marfina Rivera, outside the arena before picking up his diploma. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in business administration after transferring from the University of Illinois.
“This is a significant event in my life,” said Rivera, adding that he is the first among five siblings to graduate from college.
His father, a high school history teacher, is very proud of him, said Rivera, translating for his dad.
“This is one more accomplished goal among many more to come,” Ramon Rivera said.
The Riveras planned to celebrate with a buffet lunch at the Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale.
Rivera said he will be spending the summer in Mexico doing an internship and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in finance.