Story by Cooper Nelson
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Four Southern California teens and soon-to-be Grand Canyon University students said emotional see-you-laters in July as a pinkish-orange sunset sank below the frothy waves lapping the sand of Los Angeles’ Dockweiler State Beach. They’d met for the first time a few hours earlier, and already couldn’t wait to reunite in Phoenix in August.
The quartet, Sabrina Gomez, Melanie Rivas, Nykole Ridenour and Madi Thomas, had spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and sharing their expectations for college. Around them, nearly 100 other GCU-bound teens chatted and played beach-themed games until the sunlight was gone, then settled around fire pits to roast marshmallows for s’mores. It was GCU’s second-annual beach nurturing event, a meet-and-greet for incoming freshmen from the Golden State.
Gomez, a self-described introvert, didn’t plan on being at the beach that day, but she showed up and gained new friends and a new outlook. She was amazed that a university in Arizona cared about students in California.
“I’m glad I came. It helped me get out of my bubble and meet people, so now I’m not as nervous about college,” said the 18-year-old nursing major. “It’s a good feeling knowing your school cares so much to put time and money and effort into something like this. Most schools wouldn’t.”
The event, one of more than 30 across California, is designed to help ease out-of-state students’ transition to campus. Although several social events are scheduled for GCU’s Welcome Week, Aug. 17-22, from a pool “Cool Down” to a night glow party, University representatives understand the importance of making new students feel comfortable before even arriving on campus.
Mat Marquez, regional director of operations for California and Hawaii, said the nurturing event was designed to resemble a “typical Cali beach day,” with a GCU twist. Students played sand volleyball, giant Twister, corn hole and football, swam in the ocean, loaded up with GCU swag and interacted with counselors. Click here for a slideshow.
Hosting out-of-state orientations is a foreign concept to many larger Division I universities, Marquez said. But with nearly 2,000 incoming freshmen from California, GCU wanted to show those students they were more than just an enrollment number.
“This type of event builds a cohesive student body and allows them to make friends early, which is extremely important,” Marquez said. “This is a really emotional time in their lives, but they’re going to come out to the beach anyway. So why not unite them under the Lope flag and have a good time as a GCU family?”
Many students came alone but made new friends with help from a handful of dedicated Southern California enrollment counselors. They made sure students were comfortable by tossing footballs, sparking impromptu games of volleyball and introducing the more shy students to the group.
Some students even made connections they didn’t expect. Wellington Afusia bumped into a former high school volleyball teammate he didn’t know was attending GCU. Other students brought friends or family members from other schools who said they considered transferring to GCU or enrolling after high school because of the event.
“My friends who aren’t going to GCU can’t say they went to the beach and made new friends before school started. We’re meeting face to face, they’re meeting over Facebook,” said Wellington, an accounting major. “If you saw these kids from the outside it’s like we’ve known each other for a long time, like one big family.”
Allison Vann, an online doctoral student, was enjoying the beach with family a few feet from the event. She happened to wear her purple “Lopes” T-shirt and was surprised to see GCU on a California beach.
Vann, who graduated from Nebraska and recently returned to her native California after earning a master’s in K-12 leadership from GCU, said the event aligned with the University’s Christian servant foundation.
“I went to a huge university and all I got was a name and a phone number of my roommate, so for GCU to come out here, shows they value and respect them,” said Vann, 37. “As an alum, it makes me proud to be associated with this school.”
GCU held similar events in San Diego, Northern California and a few other states with large numbers of incoming students. That dedication is paying off for the University and its students.
“The fact that Cali (enrollment) has grown 250 percent year over year speaks to quality of learning and our customer service from events like this,” Marquez said. “Being accessible and showing our servant heart to these families is huge and these students want to be a part of that.”
Contact Cooper Nelson at 602-639-7511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.