Fall Commencement’s Sunny Skies Matched Only by Graduates’ Outlook
Story by Doug Carroll
Slideshow by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University’s first-ever fall commencement celebrated nearly 1,000 degree candidates — many of them from outside of Arizona — on a picture-perfect Saturday that received an “A+” grade from those in attendance at a packed GCU Arena.
“I left 29 degrees (to come here),” said Delese Braxton, 49, of Fredericksburg, Va., who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and was greeted by one of her instructors, Dr. James Beggs, a longtime faculty member on campus who now teaches online exclusively.
As is typical of the nontraditional learning environment, Braxton and Beggs hadn’t met face-fo-face previously. So the professor stood outside the Arena, hoisting a “Delese Braxton” sign as if he were waiting at the airport baggage claim for a passenger on a business trip.
Braxton, who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, clearly wasn’t regretting her decision to come to Phoenix, where it was a blue-skies 70 degrees for the start of the two-hour morning ceremony. The University began making plans a year ago for the fall commencement in an effort to better accommodate its nontraditional students, now numbering about 47,000.
GCU’s spring commencement for nontraditional students is scheduled for March 14 and 15. The earlier-than-usual dates were necessitated by an Arena expansion that will follow the basketball season. The spring ceremony for traditional campus students will take place on April 24 at Veterans Coliseum in Phoenix.
Brian Mueller, the University’s president and CEO, gave the commencement address and congratulated the graduates on a successful juggling act.
“You people have been through difficult work while raising children and staying married,” he said, “and we want to recognize that.”
Mueller used the biblical story of David and Goliath to make the point that leadership calls for caring, courage and creativity. He said that without those things, the very notion of attending college online never would have gotten off the ground.
“When we’re locked into tradition,” Mueller said, “we miss opportunities.” He encouraged the students to “find that one thing you were uniquely created for.”
Florida, Texas turn out
Saturday marked the end of a 42-year journey for Zoe Terry, 64, of Tampa, Fla., who now has a master’s in addiction counseling to go with her bachelor’s in psychology from North Texas State University. She’s not done, either: She plans to go for a second master’s, in professional counseling, from GCU.
“I retired three years ago and my youngest son was graduating from college,” Terry said. “I encouraged him to pursue his master’s in social work, and he did. I decided that it was finally my time.”
That son, Todd, 25, was part of a large contingent that traveled from Florida and Texas for his mother’s big day at GCU.
Terry said her work for 25 years in foster care sparked her interest in studying for an advanced degree.
“So many children were removed from homes because of drug abuse, and I didn’t like that,” she said.
Also along for the congratulatory ride was Terry’s sister, Becky Loving, 61, of Austin, Texas, who works as a sales representative for Dell computers. Loving said she is most of the way to a bachelor’s in business administration from GCU. Family friend Tanikee McNeal, 37, of Tampa, said she is on track to graduate in nursing from GCU in 2015.
Tennessee teachers love GCU
GCU enrollment counselors might want to keep an eye on Caywood Elementary School in Lexington, Tenn. Three of its teachers graduated with master’s degrees from GCU, with two of them making the trip on Saturday.
“GCU gave me an education that was phenomenal,” said Deborah McBride, 44, a special-education teacher at Caywood along with Cami Fisher-Casey and Jonna Woods. Fisher-Casey also was able to attend commencement.
“In 2003, I had tried a different (online) school and had a bad taste from it,” said McBride, a mother of four children, two of them with disabilities. “But (GCU) walked me through it and assured me that I could do it. It was a wonderful experience…. The course work was rigorous and relevant.”
McBride has been at Caywood since 2001, even performing a six-year stint as the school’s band and theatre director.
“Whatever they’ve needed from me, I’ve done it,” she said.
Heart for helping children
From high school dropout to a master’s degree? That seems incredible even to the one who did it, 68-year-old Patricia Benson of Phoenix. After earning her GED, she successively earned associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees over a span of 41 years.
Retired from work for the state of California, she has lived in Phoenix for eight years. Her master’s from GCU is in special education.
“I like working with the little children,” said Benson, a Chicago native who has been a substitute teacher in the Roosevelt School District for five years.
“I fell in love with those children, and that’s why I went back to school. They’re wonderful kids.”
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].