GCU’s Class of 2011 Shares Stadium Stage

May 06, 2011 / by / 13 Comments

Story by Doug Carroll
Photos by Zane Ewton
Communications Staff

Grand Canyon University gave a rousing sendoff Friday afternoon to the Class of 2011 and to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, in the final Commencement to be held at the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With the opening of the 5,000-seat Arena in September, Commencement will be on campus next spring. An estimated 2,200 degree candidates participated Friday in the ceremony at the baseball stadium, which hosted GCU for the third consecutive year. The University conferred more than 8,000 degrees, and those included the first members of its College of Doctoral Studies.

Herd on Campus arrived early to watch the spectacle take shape, and there was no shortage of interesting stories from the graduates and those involved in making their day a special one.

Beating some long odds

Graduation day was plenty significant for Sara Ford of Globe, but she’ll never forget July 25, 2005 — the day her six-year drug habit landed her in jail.

“My 8-year-old son refused to talk to me,” Ford recalled. “He was done with me. I decided that something had to give.”

GCU graduate Sara Ford

Through inpatient and outpatient rehab programs, she became convinced that counselors didn’t completely understand the life she led. One of those counselors, Judy Lopez, challenged her to do something about it, and a subsequent visit by representatives of GCU to Eastern Arizona College changed everything for Ford.

She graduated Friday with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Health Sciences. Her career goal: counselor and psychiatrist.

“I want to be there to tell people, ‘I’ve learned it and lived it and I know you can overcome it,’” said Ford, 34, who now works as a crisis counselor at Horizon Human Services, the place that first took her in. “I know what it’s like to sleep on the streets and in jail.

“This is monumental for me. As I watched (master’s degree candidates) get hooded at convocation, I said, ‘That’s next.’ I thank God every day that He brought me out of it.”

Her children — Dominic, 13, and Cheyenne, 11 — were on hand to see their mother graduate.

Getting what she came for

In 2006, Karen Rudin of Mesa arrived at GCU as a music major, only to see the music program shut down shortly thereafter.

GCU graduate Karen Rudin

“I started praying it would come back,” she said. “This was an excellent music program, known all over the country. I was sad, and I wanted God to bring it back better than ever.”

Forced to change plans, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from GCU. Then she got the news she had been waiting for: The University was restoring the music program as part of a new College of Fine Arts and Production in the fall of 2010. Rudin did some checking and discovered she could complete a bachelor’s degree in music education in a year.

Friday marked the accomplishment of her mission.

“My heart’s desire is to have this degree,” said Rudin, who hopes to land a position as a K-8 music teacher. “My passion is music, and I really want to teach it. This campus has been like a family. I found my purpose here.”

The Voice of Commencement

Most at GCU know him as the director of athletics, but Keith Baker has been calling names at Commencement for so long that he can’t remember when he started.

Keith Baker prepares the internet live stream of graduation before his ceremonial duties.

Nowadays, he splits the job with Keith Chandler of Event Services. They alternate reading the names of degree candidates over the public-address system after being handed an index card for each graduate. On Friday, that amounted to more than 1,000 index cards apiece.

“I stand the entire ceremony, and that’s probably worse than the voice part,” Baker said. “At the end, I just want to sit down.”

Lacking a phonetic spelling for some hard-to-pronounce names, Baker said he just gives it the old college try.

“I was once told by a missionary at my church that most Chinese know that Americans can’t pronounce their name correctly — and they’re OK with that,” he said.

Rallying for a victory

Driving into downtown Phoenix on Thursday night, Shannon Landers had a chilling thought: What if the Diamondbacks game went into extra innings and delayed setup for Commencement?

It happened — the game went 11 innings and four hours — and the Event Services team, under the direction of Helen Bleach, couldn’t take the field until after 2 a.m.

As you might imagine, the folks in Events aren’t shedding any tears over next year’s move to the GCU Arena, where the individual college convocations will replace a University-wide Commencement.

“It’s going to be so much more intimate,” Landers said of the Arena. “It will be easy to have it in our back yard.”

Judging from the haggard looks on the faces of Diamondbacks personnel, they won’t mind, either — although video producer Rob Weinheimer insisted he likes the change of pace supplied by a graduation.

“It’s fun doing something besides baseball,” Weinheimer said from the control room in the recesses of the stadium’s second level. “Besides, we don’t want anybody else coming in and using our (video) toys.”

Dressing them for success

With her tool apron cinched about her waist, Debi Parris looked straight out of Home Depot on Friday. Inside were the supplies — Kleenex, bobby pins, safety pins, Band-Aids — needed to help the graduates look sharp for the big stage.

Debi Parris

Parris, whose daughter Catherine was part of the Class of 2011, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, has volunteered at Commencement for six years. She assists the cap-and-gown crowd with their academic regalia and assembles a team of 40 to help her.

Those hoods have to go on a certain way, you know, and there’s a steady, 90-minute crush of students just before the procession.

“This is so satisfying,” said Parris, who works on campus with GCU’s international students. “You see students you’ve walked through all the stages of school. You get to see them from beginning to end.”

For the students, Commencement is a last impression of GCU — and a lasting one.

“You want them to have a good experience,” Parris said. “It’s a mothering thing. You want them to look good and the school to look good. The students sometimes say, ‘My gosh, GCU has thought of everything!’”

Parris said she knew of families from Malaysia, Scotland, Australia and India that had made the trip for Friday’s festivities.

Father’s Day arrives early

Michael Kellerman Sr. and Michael Kellerman Jr. walked together as graduates, one with a master’s degree in executive fire science and the other with a bachelor’s in nursing.

GCU graduate Michael Kellerman Sr.

Michael Sr., 45, a firefighter and paramedic for the Surprise Fire Department who studied online, never gave much thought to participating in Commencement until his wife mentioned the rare father-and-son opportunity.

“Because of my work schedule, we weren’t sure until about a week ago that it would work out,” he said as he waited for Michael Jr., 23, to arrive.

Michael Sr., who has a bachelor’s in electronics from Southern Illinois University, has been in the Marines and the Border Patrol and had his own business for a time. The master’s, he said, is for “when I get too old to get out of the back of a fire truck.”

Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or doug.carroll@gcu.edu.

Click on the photos to view the slideshow.

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13 Responses
  1. Zakiya "Zee" Byrams

    Graduation was awesome! I flew in from Atlanta Georgia and took part in a very exciting and spiritual experience. I met graduates from all over the College of Education was huge and I was over whelmed we I received my Masters degree. Thanks Grand Canyon for an extraordinarily opportunity!

    May.11.2011 at 6:54 pm
  2. Vickie Koernig

    Thanks for the really nice overview of GCU commencement 2011.

    I walked as an MBA and was pleased to be able to “see” through this article what was going on all around me.

    May.12.2011 at 6:16 am
  3. Melissa J. Grant

    I am a 2011 GCU graduate, and I must say that it was well worth the travel all the way from the D.C. Metropolitan area. Thank you GCU for a wonderful experience and an education that goes beyond academia. I hope for great things for GCU- I will pray that the university continues to build and continues to change lives. Sincerely, Melissa J. Grant, MS

    May.12.2011 at 6:58 am
  4. Pamela E. Jones

    When taking online classes one is in a virtual world. Making friends across the US but never seeing them. Going to graduation to receive my Master of Arts in Teaching was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I was so happy that I had chosen GCU to complete my Master’s degree. Now I recommend it to everyone. Kudus to the wonderful staff, who were so efficient and welcoming.

    May.12.2011 at 8:27 pm
  5. Shirley Hammel

    Excellent graduation ceremony! Thanks for sharing these photos

    May.15.2011 at 8:39 am
  6. Debra McBride

    I was so excited until I couldn’t believe that it was really happening to me on that day. I met some of the nicest people that was getting their masters along with me. The ceremony was AWESOME! Thank you GCU for helping me to succeed!

    May.16.2011 at 1:49 pm
  7. fernando alejandro

    Fantastic experience attending the commencement ceremony. I had a chance to meet with classmates. The on-line experience was unique. Congratulations to all master’s in Education TESOL 2011.

    May.16.2011 at 5:53 pm
  8. Alfreda "Freda" Fitts

    Flew in from Virginia Beach, was not sure what to expect other than felling like I was going to explode from excitement. The convocation and graduation were more than I could have dreamed of. Very happy to meet some of my online classmates. Had an awesome time and I thank God for my “one moment in time”.

    May.16.2011 at 8:15 pm
  9. Terrie Watts

    Graduation was very special. I appreciate the time that went towards making it a spectacular event. I too took online classes for my Master’s in Reading Instruction & Curriculum. It was a great experience for meand my family. We traveled from Nevada and had an awesome trip. Thanks GCU!! God Bless

    May.17.2011 at 8:04 pm
  10. Deniece Selvin

    Thanks so much for a memorable experience! My children were so impressed with the fireworks, they selected your college! Now this will be our family alma mater!

    May.21.2011 at 7:22 pm
  11. Marisela Alvarado

    I LOVED graduation! It was AWESOME! I got to meet my online friend and visit my family! I loved how our families could see us on the big screen! Thank you GCU for making our graduation so memorable and meaningful! Can we purchase the graduation DVD?

    May.26.2011 at 6:49 pm
  12. Toni Borras

    I had a blast at graduation on May 6. I was so impressed with the ceremony. Flying out to Phoenix for the event was worthy every penny. I also took the campus tour and was impressed with it. The whole experience was awesome!

    Jun.08.2011 at 8:43 am
  13. Sename Atsou

    This day was an awesome day for me. I am from West Africa (French country)and never experience something like that. Being in the U.S just three years later and my first graduation ceremony.I hope will have a second one. I will never forget this day (May 6th, 2011) in my life.

    Sep.02.2011 at 3:39 pm
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