Marana resident sees, believes in GCU online degree

February 17, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau

The sound of jackhammers echoed in Gary Skinner’s head last August as he sensed the buzz around campus. He felt warmed by the laughter of students and employees who opened doors for him.

It was his first visit to Grand Canyon University, during the fall semester Move-In/Welcome Week events, and he saw the fast-developing ground campus by creating a mental picture of how it might appear to other GCU students who aren’t blind.

GCU student Gary Skinner, 63, sits with his dog in a room that he's remodeled at his Marana, Ariz. home.

GCU student Gary Skinner, 63, sits with his dog Chelsea in a room that he has remodeled in his Marana, Ariz., home.  Skinner said that once he completes his psychology bachelor’s degree, he’d like to study counseling in a GCU online master’s program. (Photos by Rebecca Sasnett)

“It’s spread out … I walked and walked and walked,” said Skinner, an online student from Marana, Ariz., who is scheduled to complete his bachelor’s degree in psychology this spring.

He is among three students and one faculty member who will be acknowledged by GCU during Online Student Night Saturday on campus.

For Skinner, 63, graduation will mark the start of an exciting new chapter in his life. He began his GCU studies in April 2012 by telling himself that his disability would not prevent him from forging a career as a mental health professional.

After decades as a salesman, painter and small business owner, Skinner — who suffered from retinitis pigmentosa as a child and eventually became blind — is already thinking about enrolling in a master’s degree in one of GCU’s professional counseling programs.

Although he never was able to see clearly at night because of his condition, seeing his coursework in GCU’s LoudCloud online system with the help of an automated screen-reader computer program and, on occasion, University staff when he needs a human translator.

“As I got older, when I turned about 40, I noticed that my vision was so deteriorated that I couldn’t drive safely and I had a little bit of a challenge walking around a store without bumping into things,” said Skinner, whose faith in God brought him back to school and helped him cope with the frustration of needing extra time to complete some assignments.

Skinner currently has a 3.93 GPA, and although he’s pleased, he still wants some of those points back.

“My goal is to get everything I can out of every single class,” Skinner said. “If you’re not getting at least a 4.0, are you really getting everything out of it?”

Connected to his classes

Skinner said he has been told by professors that he’s one of the most “prolific posters” in his classes, someone who diligently drives online conversation and thoughtfully replies to his classmates’ posts.

Skinner, who is blind, uses an automated page-reader computer program to read his online coursework and respond to discussion questions.

Skinner, who is blind, uses an automated page-reader computer program to complete his online coursework and respond to discussion questions. He is currently earning a 3.93 grade-point average.

“If you don’t post, you don’t get information, and if you don’t get information, you lose touch with the class,” he said.

While Skinner qualified to go to colleges in his native Pennsylvania after high school, he decided it wasn’t the right time for that. Instead, he started in sales and eventually launched insurance and computer companies, putting off college until he settled in Arizona.

“It wasn’t until about 2010 when I thought, ‘Because I’m blind, because I’m disabled, I’m not ready to be packed away in the old-timers place yet,’” he said. “I’m going to find something that I’m interested in that I can accomplish, and move forward.”

Skinner lives in Marana with his wife, Shannon, who also is blind, and their daughter, Deanna. They moved west in 2004 after he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and the Pennsylvania humidity made breathing painful.

He has breathed more easily since settling in his homestead in a comfortable corner of unincorporated Pima County, north of Tucson, where he has built numerous additions to his home — including an Arizona room, covered back porch and carport.

Skinner also has authored a book, “Marshal Rides Alone,” which he described as a novel about 19th-century Arizona seen through the mind of a blind man.

He created many of his descriptive details of the Copper State’s landscape from conversations with friends and parishioners at Avra Valley Community Church, where he is a Sunday School director, leads a men’s Bible class and often asks people, “What’s it looking like today?”

Navigating the roadblocks

GCU enrollment counselor Nicole St. Pierre said she’s often inspired by Skinner.

She was the first GCU staffer to connect with him as he searched for a university with more “warmth” than the one where he first took online courses (in medical transcription, which didn’t inspire him) or the community college where he took a few prerequisite courses before enrolling at GCU.

“I’m going to find something that I’m interested in that I can accomplish, and move forward,” Skinner said about overcoming his disability through his online degree.

“Everything he does in life, he goes above and beyond,” St. Pierre said. “He doesn’t consider anything a roadblock.”

The two became friends and are in touch nearly every week. They motivate each other, St. Pierre said. If Skinner decides to pursue a master’s degree in professional or Christian counseling, he’ll likely excel, she added.

“Gary’s just someone who people naturally gravitate to and want to talk to, so he would be great as a counselor,” St. Pierre said.

In addition to plugging away at his coursework, Skinner helped GCU’s Disability Office develop a manual to help visually impaired students navigate LoudCloud.

Although a screen-reader program provides him with much of what he needs to complete homework, a couple of math classes — with their charts and graphics — required him to connect with faculty who could help him build mental images of those assignments.

Skinner said committing to his studies at GCU has made him feel more passionate than he has felt in years or maybe ever in his life. He knows that his hard work will pay off in a new career he is forging through the online experience.

“Who’s going to hire a 63-year-old who doesn’t excel in what they’re doing?” he said. “And I don’t want to quit.

“I want to keep going.”

Contact Michael Ferraresi at [email protected] or 602-639-7030.

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