Day 2 blog: Commencement at Comerica Theatre

March 15, 2014 / by / 1 Comment

By GCU News Bureau staff

Day 2 of Grand Canyon University’s online commencement Saturday was filled with people – nearly a full house in the morning, packed in the afternoon – and also with emotion.

Comerica Theatre was near capacity for Saturday's commencement involving GCU's education and nursing colleges. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

Comerica Theatre was near capacity for Saturday’s commencement involving GCU’s education and nursing colleges. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

But for Geraldine Sam, the feelings bubbled over as soon as she walked into the staging area at Comerica Theatre. Even before the regalia staff could help her arrange her mortarboard, Sam broke down in tears and sobbed on a worker’s shoulder.

“I’m a big baby. It’s been about two years, and I’m just so excited,” she said, still struggling to compose herself. “It is such a dream come true. It is such a blessing. I’m graduating with a 4.0 and it hasn’t been easy.”

The first-grade teacher wasn’t speaking solely about her master’s degree in educational administration. In 2009, Sam was sworn in as mayor of La Marque, Texas, a town of almost 15,000 about 35 miles southeast of Houston. She thus became the first female African-American mayor in Galveston County, serving in that role for two years.

But the family’s trailblazing doesn’t stop there. Geraldine’s nephew is Michael Sam, the University of Missouri athlete who recently became the first prominent football player to announce during his career that he is gay. Michael made his declaration even though there was speculation that it could hurt his chances of being a top pick in the National Football League draft in May.

“I think he made history. I’m really proud of him,” Geraldine said. “I didn’t know, but it really didn’t matter to any of us (in the family). All we know is that we love him. He’s in the same category as Rosa Parks. What he did takes courage.”

Geraldine Sam comes from a history-making family, yet her focus Saturday was on praising GCU.

Geraldine Sam comes from a history-making family, yet her focus Saturday was on praising GCU.

Geraldine, or Aunt Gerrie as Michael knows her, has been teaching for 29 years since getting her bachelor’s degree from Prairie View A&M University, and she doesn’t intend to stop at a master’s. She said she will begin working on her doctorate from GCU in a couple of months, and if the University ever needs someone for a promotional video, she’d be a great candidate. She said she has talked several friends into becoming GCU online students.

“I’m always bragging on GCU — your ears should be burning,” she said. “Everything I learned is just awesome info. You guys are the best. You’re like … wow!”

Sam’s enthusiasm was matched, and then some, by Gloria Billings, a second-grade teacher from Fayetteville, N.C., who also got her master’s, in elementary education. Billings didn’t break down in tears. Instead, she wanted to shout her love of GCU from the rooftops.

Her good feelings started with her enrollment counselor, who kept calling her until she agreed to give the program a try — and then stayed in touch long after she started. Billings said she needed the support because both of her parents have been ill, and she credits her husband, Bruce, for supporting her, along with her four children. She has two grandchildren and another one on the way.

“It’s been one of the roughest parts of my life, but it’s just been a great ride for me,” she said. “It’s just been wonderful. The teachers call you and you can call them, and no question is stupid. If you have something going on in your life, they want to know about it. It’s a very wonderful, wonderful university.”

Billings, like Sam, has been a GCU recruiter on the side. She has talked two friends into doing the online program.

— Rick Vacek 


Faculty, staff and grads were raving about the quality commencement address by Karen Mills, who now makes her living as a comedian based in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she played basketball while attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She graduated from the school in 1981.

Mills seamlessly weaved life lessons, anecdotes and jokes into her address, and she customized her four speeches over two days with remarks specific to each of GCU’s colleges. She also produced the PowerPoint, set to Gloria Estefan‘s song “Reach,” that closed her talk, and her impressive attention to detail included a purple blouse.

Commencement speaker Karen Mills takes a breather between sessions on Saturday.

Commencement speaker Karen Mills, taking a breather between sessions on Saturday.

“Unbelievable” was Provost Hank Radda‘s one-word assessment. “She did a lot of homework to make sure her talk was integrated with our school.”

As she relaxed backstage between Saturday’s sessions, Mills said she felt “a bit of relief knowing that this was an older group (of graduates),” and her conversational-style message, delivered with a Southern accent, hit the perfect tone. This was her first commencement address, and she said she would like to do more of them.

“I love to be able to inspire people with my story,” said Mills, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last May and completed chemotherapy treatments in October. She said she is now cancer-free, joking that comedian friends have told her the disease was “a good career move.”

The graduates could relate to that later-in-life career of hers. Mills began in comedy at 34, performing at open-mic nights at the Punch Line comedy club in Atlanta, the city where she lived for 18 years. Encouraged by the club’s owner, she began writing her own material, and now she is on the road for at least parts of three weeks each month, often touring with the Southern Fried Chicks revue.

“Standup comedy was so much bigger then,” she said of her start in the business. “Now people watch comedy on their computer and don’t go out as much. But there were a lot of places to get onstage at that time.”

Mills said she regularly hears from cancer survivors who appreciate her candor and find healing in her humor.

“How you handle it makes a difference in your recovery,” she said. “I had no idea how many people (cancer) touches…. I always had a peace about it. The chemo was rough, but I always felt I would come out the other side.”

— Doug Carroll


Terri Fuller threw herself into volunteer mode when she saw the need.

Terri Fuller threw herself into volunteer mode when she saw the need.

Some nursing graduates might have wondered why a friendly woman in full cap and gown was waving her arms just inside the door and telling them where to go to prepare for the afternoon ceremony. Meet Terri Fuller, who does colonoscopies at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale and looks as if she could make even that procedure, well, at least entertaining.

“I thought to myself, ‘You’re just standing there, Terri. Might as well do something,’” Fuller said.

So when Fuller noticed that the steady stream of grads was becoming too much for one person to handle, she jumped right in. She said she’d like to teach preventative or alternative medicine at GCU, and Saturday she showed that she certainly can teach leadership.

— Rick Vacek 


Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, dean of the College of Education, referred to the “COE Promise” during her brief remarks to the graduates Saturday morning. Some may have wondered: What exactly is that?

The college promises to help any graduate with any teaching-related issue for their first year after leaving the GCU program. Dave Smith, director of academic excellence for COE, said it’s a practice that dates to 1984 at GCU, was suspended for several years in the middle of the last decade and then reinstated four years ago. He doesn’t know of another university that does it.

“We’ll do it by phone, but if necessary we’ll send a faculty supervisor to meet with the student,” Smith said. “It’s like a continuation course or classroom-engagement course. It’s usually just a conversation with the principal, and it’s usually not content-related – it’s more about classroom management. For example, you know how to teach fractions, but what do you do when you’ve gone out there and tried it and gotten blank stares in return? Maybe there’s another way to teach it.”

— Rick Vacek


Brian Engel of the Comerica staff, possibly the hardest-working guy in the commencement this week.

Brian Engel of the Comerica staff, possibly the hardest-working guy in the commencement business this past week.

GCU relied on Robert Healy and Brian Engel of the Comerica Theatre staff to make everything work for the staging of commencement. The theatre did an Arizona State University commencement in February and will do one for Rio Salado College in May, Engel said.

Logistics involved a dizzying array of aspects: video, audio, lighting, draping and layout, to name the most significant. Engel oversaw much of it, in his role as operations manager and technical director. Healy, the facility’s maintenance engineer, made certain that the lobby was set up to accommodate the crowds, which on Saturday included 604 graduates in the morning for the College of Education and 771 in the afternoon for the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions.

With friends and family also in the house, the upper level was nearly full Saturday at the 5,000-seat theatre, comparable in size to GCU Arena. It had been relatively unoccupied on Friday’s first day.

Becky Barber, GCU's social media specialist, paints the outline of an Antelope head on the graffiti wall connecting Comerica Theatre with its dressing rooms.

‘Lopes Up! Becky Barber, GCU’s social media specialist, draws the outline of an antelope head on the graffiti wall connecting Comerica Theatre with its dressing rooms.

Both men praised Jennifer Girl, GCU’s director of campus events, for her organizational skills.

“This has been smooth, and Jennifer was awesome to work with,” Engel said. “The biggest challenge is being on the same page with what the University requires and finding the right solutions at the right price.”

Girl said Engel even built a staircase that ended up not being used after a more suitable one was found.

“They bent over backward,” Girl said of Engel and Healy. “We asked them, and they did it. They made (the venue) work for us with no complaints.”

— Doug Carroll


Catherine Rodriguez, of Shirley, N.Y., and Angela Maxwell, of Atlanta, couldn’t stop talking and smiling as they prepared to receive their bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and special education, respectively. Like many online students, they began their friendship by phone when they were in the same online class – in their case, in 2012 – and have been talking at least once a week ever since.

They met for the first time Thursday and saw the GCU campus for the first time Friday.

“We have the same mindset about work ethic. We’re like troupers,” Maxwell said. “I know the Lord sent her to me because I would’ve quit. Well, I wouldn’t have quit, but it would have been tough.”

Rodriguez also was excited about meeting Ashley Conover, an enrollment manager for COE who, Rodriguez said, called her less than 30 minutes after she originally inquired about the program and then stayed in touch during her time in the program.

“She helped me with whatever question I had. She was really good,” Rodriguez said.

Another twist to the friends-studying-together routine: Bexy Thomas and Jolly George once were neighbors in West Palm Beach, Fla., and stayed in touch after Thomas had to move to Dallas because of her husband’s job. They went through the nursing program together, Thomas to get her master’s and George her bachelor’s, while visiting each other every few months. Graduating on the same day was the perfect capper.

“We’re like mom and daughter,” Thomas said.

— Rick Vacek


Those decidedly unsensible shoes belong to Patrece Hallock, who admits they don't work for nursing.

These decidedly unsensible shoes belong to Patrece Hallock, who admits they don’t work for the on-your-feet job of nursing.

Call us crazy — and plenty have done so — but we started wondering about all the nursing graduates in their high-heel shoes. If ever there were a career made for sensible shoes, it’s nursing. And high heels are not sensible. At least, not to a couple of men wearing Rockports.

We were drawn to the hot-pink heels of Patrece Hallock, who works in labor and delivery for St. John Medical Center near Vancouver, Wash., and was on hand to claim her BSN.

“I like to wear heels, but I can’t on the job,” said Hallock, 30, who is originally from Goodyear.

The pink?

“I like bright shoes, and I wanted something to match my nails.”

Hallock said that on the job many nurses favor Dansko shoes, which go for about $120 a pair and are “like the Cadillac of nurse’s shoes.”

Malychanh Williams, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., and works at Folsom State Prison, towered over most of the other graduates in her heels, which transformed her from 5-foot-10 to about 6-2 as she got her master’s.

“It’s different – makes me feel important,” she said with a laugh. “I can barely walk in these things, but I’ll bear with it.”

Colleen Boman, a nurse practitioner from The Woodlands, Texas, who was getting her bachelor’s, is almost as tall (5-8) as Williams but said she wears monster heels every chance she gets. She had no difficulty moving around.

“I could run in these,” she said. “I’m more comfortable in these than in flats.”

OK, Colleen, we’ll take your word for it. But your shoes are making our feet hurt.

— Doug Carroll and Rick Vacek

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One Response
  1. Gloria Billings

    Wow, what a great day and well put together event. The ceremony was superior with a great speaker and staff of GCU. Everything was wonderful for my big day. Thanks to the GCU staff for all the help of getting prepare for the big moment. Also, I love all the write-ups and comments from my new family. Thanks and God Bless to All!
    Gloria Billings
    Master of Education

    Mar.18.2014 at 3:37 pm
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