Fall commencement 2015: Hard work pays off
By GCU News Bureau
Crazy weather was no match for the uber-determined non-traditional graduates of Grand Canyon University who powered through snarled traffic, dashed through a hard rainstorm and spilled onto campus sidewalks Friday for the first of four fall commencement ceremonies in a gussied-up Arena.
A wicked dust storm that had cell phones buzzing with alerts and lightning that made you think twice about being outdoors couldn’t keep these folks away. (One graduate’s trip from her home about in Casa Grande, about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix, reportedly took three hours.) More lightning before Saturday afternoon’s celebration and menacing purple rain clouds swirling around GCU Saturday evening failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the graduates, their family members and friends.
After all, what’s a little weather when you’ve raised a family, worked full-time, struggled with technology, cared for aging parents, studied into the wee hours and/or put everyone else first while earning a college degree?
All hail to the Class of 2015, you might say.
Nearly 3,150 online graduates in the Colangelo College of Business, College of Doctoral Studies, College of Education, College of Fine Arts and Production, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions and College of Theology showed up in their Sunday best (and some in T-shirts and shorts) to receive their diplomas.
The four ceremonies — a GCU record for two days — also drew more than 16,000 guests, many carrying roses in crisp cellophane, shiny balloons, cameras and Kleenex. They weren’t about to miss this moment, either.
Here’s some of what we heard and saw (click here for our slideshow).
Commencement speaker’s faith is no illusion
Jared Hall is an illusionist, but even he gets confused while doing more than 100 shows a year.
“Every morning I look at my phone to see where I’m at,” he said.
This weekend he found himself in Phoenix doing something a little different — the commencement address at GCU. He still did a couple of tricks, but he spent most of his time at the podium sharing stories about his past and his faith, with a few jokes thrown in to keep it light.
“This is fun,” he said. “It’s a little bit more formal than most events that I do, but it was kind of a fun thing to be part of. It gets my wheels turning, too.”
Hall grew up in Baytown, Texas, wanting to be a Las Vegas magician (“Like Seinfeld & Roy and David Coppertone,” he joked). He still does tricks, but he has found his niche in something a little different: He uses his act to spread the Gospel and inspire people, especially the young.
It took an unfortunate event for Hall to truly find his identity. Upon getting up one morning he discovered that a trailer containing all of his equipment, $20,000 worth, had been stolen from in front of his house.
“Who I was was wrapped up in those props, those illusions,” he said.
Not anymore. This weekend, he urged the graduates to not only find their identity but also live intentionally and seek to inspire others.
“To inspire you must first be inspired,” he told the audience. “It’s a transferrable thing, inspiration — a gift best received, then given.
“And your identity is in Christ. Your identity is more than your diploma, your salary, your career.”
Life has changed for Hall this year. He got married in May, and his wife, Maegan, travels with him. They happily shared restaurant reviews and were on the lookout for new places to try.
“Since I got married, I’ve kind of slowed my pace a little bit and tried to enjoy more of the city,” he said. “There have been times we’ve even stayed over.”
All the better to figure out where he is.
North Pole man visits Phoenix for first time
You’ll forgive Tom Resseger if he thought it was a bit warm Saturday. While Phoenicians were fairly giddy about the 88-degree high (hey, it’s better than 100), he might have felt more comfortable at home in Alaska, where it was half as warm.
The mercury didn’t get past the 38 degrees in North Pole, a town of about 2,200 people southeast of Fairbanks where Resseger, a new GCU graduate, has lived for two years. North Pole, which has a website bedecked in Christmas colors, is about 210 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the distance from Tucson to Prescott.
Resseger, 40, flew to Phoenix for the first time last week to receive his bachelor’s degree in nursing at commencement Saturday night.
Nursing is rooted in Resseger’s family, and it was a natural choice for him. He obtained an associate’s degree and for 15 years has worked in a variety of nursing positions, including an Intensive Care Unit, on a telemetry floor and in outpatient surgery. Currently, he is a nurse at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium of the 42 villages in Alaska’s interior that provides, among other services, health care to Indian Health Service patients.
Resseger said moving to Alaska, where the sun shines for 21 hours a day during parts of the summer and can put a person’s circadian rhythm out of whack, gave him a perfect opportunity to return to school and build his future. GCU provided the flexibility he needed to work around his schedule.
A friend in North Pole, Kendra Harding, already was a student in GCU’s online nursing program and convinced Resseger to enroll, too. Harding also graduated Saturday but did not attend commencement.
“What drew me in was that GCU made it financially feasible, but I also liked that I could take courses for five weeks, then take two weeks off, which opened the door for me to travel when I needed to for work and to experience Alaska,” said Resseger, who enjoys fishing and cross-country skiing.
The single father of a 20-year-old son, Devin, Resseger plans to return this summer to Ohio or possibly become a traveling nurse, having fulfilled a three-year personal commitment to live in Alaska. Resseger will miss the incredible wildlife, the literally breathtaking cold (his coldest was minus 36), and North Pole’s melting pot community of friendly troops stationed at nearby military bases, native people and Russians.
“When I came here, I said it would be an open-book journey,” he said. “I’m ready to start that next chapter. It seems appropriate now that I have my BSN.”
Pomp + circumstance = a lot of work
The commencement fairy at GCU doesn’t just sprinkle a little magic dust and — poof! — four ceremonies involving 3,147 graduates and 16,279 guests come off with nary a hiccup.
It takes an army of volunteers, smiling and pointing to available spaces in the parking garages, fussing over the regalia of the excited graduates, happily greeting visitors outside the Arena, guiding balloon- and flower-toting family members to their seats, warmly providing assistance to people with special needs and tending to the University’s administrators and faculty seated on stage, to pull it off.
The smiles are all worth it to Vanessa Jones, ground administrator in the disability services office and captain of the special needs team.
“My favorite memory would probably be the first time the executive team saw that we clap for the graduates when the graduates exit the Arena, and then without hesitation joined in our applause,” said Jones, who wore awesome silver sparkly Vans shoes to commencement Saturday night. “All of their faces lit up, and then all of the graduates exiting were even more overwhelmed and elated to see the president (Brian Mueller) standing there clapping for them, to round the corner and find all of us volunteers there cheering as well.”
GCU does an amazing job of sending its new alumni into the world on a positive, celebratory note, starting with graduation guru Jennifer Girl, director of campus events. Girl works year-round on GCU’s fall, winter and spring commencement ceremonies, always with a smile on her face, and is gracious about sharing the credit with her commencement captains.
This time, there are 14 faculty and staff members who organized their respective stations and volunteer crews of more than 200 people for each of the four ceremonies Friday and Saturday. Let’s meet some of them:
● Scott Busch and Vanessa Daniels, check-in staff captains: Busch, associate director in the Office of Academic Records (OAR), and Daniels, an OAR manager, have been involved in commencement for four years and eight years, respectively.
Busch is involved because, he said, “The excitement of the participants and volunteers is always enjoyable and, of course, I get to work with Vanessa Daniels.” Daniels, who has participated in every GCU commencement since 2008, said she loves the energy and magnitude of the moment.
“Graduation is a rite of passage,” she said. “The years of hard work and dedication needed to earn a degree should be celebrated.”
● Jacqueline Smith and Jackie Cotoia, regalia captains (“The Jackie and Jackie Show”): Smith, director of career services, and Cotoia, an admissions representative for the traditional campus, have a combined 13 years at commencement, seven for Smith and six for Cotoia. Additionally, Smith’s husband, Dave, director of academic excellence in the College of Education, is one of two people announcing the thousands of graduates’ names from the stage.
“I love seeing the graduates so happy and the families so proud of them,” Jackie Smith said. “I love hearing all the stories — how far they drove … obstacles they have overcome. It’s why we are here at GCU. It’s my favorite time of year.”
Cotoia, who took last spring’s commencement off to watch her son, Anthony, graduate, said her husband, John, volunteered instead. She most enjoys seeing the graduates’ faces right before they walk onto stage in front of thousands of cheering people.
“Most are so nervous they pay no attention to what is going on,” said Cotoia, who accepts their name cards and points them across stage to receive their diplomas. “Talk about stage fright! I try to get them to relax with kind words and remind them to smile for the camera.”
● Beth Jamison, executive regalia captain: Jamison, manager of disability services, is a seven-year volunteer who participates rain or shine. The first year she was captain at commencement, in 2011 at Chase Field, Herb Kelleher, founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was among the guests. It was a highlight for her to meet and talk with him about his work. Jamison loves volunteering at commencement because everything GCU does is about getting students there.
“The Events team and Jennifer Girl really know how to put on a show and make everything look amazing for the students,” Jamison said. “It’s a big day. It helps give perspective on what we are all doing here at GCU.”
● Emily Montoya and Micah Dennard, captains of graduate seating: Montoya, an admissions manager, and Dennard, an admissions representative, have been at the seating
helm for two years. Seeing the excitement of the graduates, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college, is one of the reasons Montoya volunteers. Dennard finds it satisfying helping the graduates’ days go smoothly.
Jones has been assisting special-needs folks attending commencement for four years.
“I love getting to share in such an exciting day for our students,” she said. “Getting to smile with them, congratulate them and assist them on this important day is incredibly rewarding and reminds me why we do what we do here. It all leads up to that ceremony, that accomplishment, and we get to be a part of that.”
Teachers urged to be ‘force for good’
Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, dean of the College of Education, looked across the sea of online students getting their bachelor’s and master’s degrees Saturday at GCU Arena.
“Today we come together as one group, the class of 2015, but also a much larger one…the field of education, the teaching profession, the most noble of professions,” LaPrade said.
LaPrade said graduation is a milestone and a time for mixed emotions. “Be a force for good,” she urged the graduates. “Congratulations and God bless you all.”
Graduate blessed by GCU enrollment ‘angel’
If not for an “angel,” Lynn Bintliff of Pennsylvania wouldn’t have graduated Saturday from the College of Education. It’s because of her angel that Bintliff studied online and earned her long awaited bachelor’s in educational studies.
And why did she and her husband embark last week on the “trip of a lifetime” across the U.S. to Arizona? You guessed it — it all started with the angel, Michele Kramlich, a COE enrollment counselor for the northeast region. The prospect of meeting Kramlich at Saturday morning’s COE commencement was almost as exciting to Bintliff as getting her diploma.
Bintliff’s road to college began in 1977, when she graduated from high school in Clifton, N.J. She went on to secretarial school, got married, had children and stayed home. When Bintliff returned to the workforce 15 years later, she realized her skills were outdated and she began studying at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pa.
The college hired Bintliff as an administrative assistant to the nursing director even before Bintliff earned an associate’s degree in 2003. Bintliff is still employed at the college, as an administrative assistant in Academic and Curricular Services. But she was intent on getting her bachelor’s.
She began taking online classes at GCU in 2012, completing most of the coursework before a series of events prompted her to withdraw. Last January, Bintliff asked GCU about finally finishing her degree, but she had doubts. How many classes did she still need? Did she still need to student teach to graduate? Was it worth it?
“I thought, ‘Do I really need this?’ Then, Michele called. Within 24 hours, she had determined I would need just 12 credits to complete my degree in the newly implemented program,” Bintliff said.
“Within two weeks, I was in class.”
Kramlich said the help she gave is part of her job and that the term “angel” is an exaggeration. “She is too funny,” Kramlich said. “She didn’t really need my help. She could see the light at the end of the tunnel immediately.”
Bintliff and Kramlich agreed to meet before Saturday’s graduation at a set time in the GCU Arena lobby. They were texting each other, not knowing they were six feet apart, when Bintliff heard an unmistakably familiar voice and stood face to face with Kramlich.
“I knew it was you right away,” Bintliff said minutes later after their hug-filled meeting, smiling warmly at her friend for life. “This is incredible to me, to see my journey come full circle.”
Bintliff’s story is what Kramlich’s job is all about.
“I’ve been working in higher education for 16 years,” Kramlich said. “The most rewarding part of it is seeing people meet their goal and knowing you’ve been a part of that.”
Two hours later, as Bintliff walked across the stage to pick up her diploma, Kramlich joined in the cheering for Bintliff. Tears streamed down Bintliff’s face when Kramlich congratulated her in person.
“Thank you,” Bintliff said. “Thank you for being part of it.”
Grandma knows best: This 75-year-old never stops learning
One of best moments of Mary Trickel’s visit to GCU came when her 21-year-old grandson was working out in the fitness center at the hotel and was asked by another man there why he was in town. When he replied he was here for the GCU commencement ceremony, the man asked him what his degree was in.
“No, my grandmother’s graduating,” he said. “She’s getting her doctorate.”
“Your grandmother rocks!” the man exclaimed.
But this isn’t just any rockin’ grandma. This is a wise-cracking 75-year-old who jokes, “I’m just thankful I completed the program before I turn senile.”
Trickel, who was profiled in this 2013 GCU Today story, had an ulterior motive for bringing two of her grandsons to witness the big event: The East Stroudsburg, Pa., resident is always looking for ways to inspire them to continue their education, passing down a belief system her father instilled in her.
So what do you do when you’re retired from your 16-year role as vice president for finance and operations at Middlesex County (N.J.) College and now can call yourself a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Higher Education Leadership? You keep looking for ways to give back, that’s what.
While visiting GCU for the first time this weekend, Trickel met with Dr. Cynthia Bainbridge of the College of Doctoral Studies to talk over the possibility of mentoring other doctoral learners, just as she did with her cohort.
“As alumni, we understand what the student is going through and some of the frustrations, and we also understand what’s expected from the University to complete the program,” she said.
Trickel also wants to network with other alumni, continue to do consulting work in higher education and volunteer at universities that are struggling with strategic planning (her dissertation was titled, “The Exploration of Succession Planning Strategies in New Jersey Community Colleges”).
“I have a reputation for a positive attitude,” she said.
Ya think? Rock on, Dr. Trickel.
He reached his goal with an assist from his enrollment counselor
John Johnson loves doing Bible studies and thought it would be a good idea to get a master’s degree in the subject. But when he signed up for the online program at GCU, his first thought was, “Why am I doing this? I’m not a technical guy. I feel like a fish out of water.”
Enter his enrollment counselor, Trinita Doughty.
Johnson, a 65-year-old insurance and investment sales broker who lives in Spokane, Wash., visited the campus for Destination GCU and met Doughty, who made him feel at home both at the University and in the online program.
“I really believe that face-to-face interaction helped,” she said.
Did it ever.
“I thought, ‘If she’s a good indication of what GCU is like, I’d be a fool not to do it,’” Johnson said.
But Doughty didn’t stop there. She called Johnson every couple of months to make sure he was on track, and the payoff came Saturday when Johnson received his degree in Biblical Studies of Christian Leadership.
Johnson, who admits to being “a bit of a perfectionist,” showed during his coursework that he hadn’t forgotten how to study despite being out of school for so long. He got straight As.
What does he do with his degree? “I really don’t know except having the satisfaction of completing this,” he said.
But he did have one task in his immediate future: He was showing Christian leadership by bringing some things to a friend’s nephew, a student at GCU. Clearly, this is a man who does more than just study the Bible — he lives it.
Employees show their mastery
GCU fosters continuing education by offering free tuition to employees and their immediate families, and more than a few staff members take advantage of the opportunity. But two of them who got their master’s degrees Saturday afternoon have paid dearly in other ways to get where they are.
Previn Carr, an enrollment counselor in the CONHCP who works at GCU’s Peoria campus, began work on his degree during a two-year stretch in which he and his wife, Kimberly, were adopting five — count ’em, five — children even though they already had a daughter who’s now 13.
All five kids (two boys, three girls) have the same mother, and Carr said it just kind of worked out the way it did because the adoption agency wanted to keep the siblings together.
“The agency liked us so much, they’d say, ‘Hey, how about one more?’” Carr said. “Then it was two more, and then another, and then another, and I finally had to say, ‘OK, that’s it.’”
Kimberly had warned her future husband while they were dating that she wanted “a house full of children,” and now she’s working with the HOPE Foundation of Arizona, a nonprofit adoption-support organization, to help families transition the way hers did.
Once the Carr family got used to the idea that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were school days for Dad, everything worked out fine. Previn, an assistant pastor at his church who also was a senior pastor elsewhere for 15 years, said working at GCU inspired him to get his Master of Arts in Christian Studies with an Emphasis in Pastoral Ministries.
“What makes me proud is that they see me as an example,” he said. “We’re trying to set a good example in education. Watching me motivated them to work harder in school.”
Another employee with a big smile on his face and a mortarboard on his head Saturday was Komi Lokossou, but the smile part was nothing new: Lokossou, profiled in this GCU Today story/video last year, never tires of greeting everyone he sees on campus in his role as a public safety officer.
Now, however, he’s an officer with an MBA with an emphasis in strategic human resource management. The father of 10 had 50 family members and friends on hand Saturday for his big moment. So it was time to party right afterward, right? Not quite.
“We’re going to party Sunday after church,” he said. “We’re going to praise the Lord first.”
The Lord is smiling, too.
Longtime teacher reaches dream, conquers technology along the way
For Ernesteen “Tena” Budak of San Bernadino, Calif., the death of her father was heartbreaking, and the nocturnal stress seizures she suffered left her incapacitated for days at a time. But they weren’t the biggest hurdles she had to clear while earning her online master’s degree over the last year and a half, a feat she completed when she got her diploma Saturday morning.
Budak, 51, said her biggest challenge was the technology. Everything about the class was online — textbooks, lectures, homework, even communicating with classmates, she said.
“I’m not a techie person,” Budak said. “Everybody at work teased me because I don’t even check emails. I still don’t check my emails. I have about 900 unread work emails right now.”
She began her program, Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction: Reading with an Emphasis in Elementary Education, in the spring of 2014. At first, Budak spent a great deal of time on the phone with GCU’s ITS department.
Now more proficient on the Internet, Budak often incorporates its use in lessons for her second- and third grade pupils at Fitzgerald Elementary in the Rialto (Calif.) Unified School District, where she just began her 21st year as a teacher.
She didn’t have time until two years ago to pursue a master’s degree because for 20 years she’d juggled her family, job, role as PTA president and duties as a soccer coach.
“I’m not coaching soccer, I’m not a PTA president, and my daughters are grown and out of the house,” Budak said.
On Saturday, two of her children, Stephanie and Dylan, her granddaughter Makayla, and Luca, a foreign exchange student from Italy who lives in Budak’s home, watched Budak graduate. Before going inside for the ceremony, her family gathered around Budak in front of GCU Arena. Her eyes filled with tears of happiness and gratitude.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” she said.
Contact the GCU News Bureau at GCU.Today@gcu.edu.