Commencement Day 2: Lifetime achievement award
GCU News Bureau Staff
It is more than three hours before the first commencement ceremony of the day Saturday, and Diana Dilcher is already in front of Grand Canyon University Arena, raring to go.
She is in a wheelchair.
She is 73 years old.
And she is about to get her first college degree 56 years after she says she “barely graduated” from Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif.
She has waited a lifetime for this. What’s another three hours?
“I cannot praise God enough,” she says. “He’s in control. He’s here with me all the way. I wanted to quit so many times, and the Lord just speaks to me and says, ‘You’re going to make it.’ And here I am.”
Her path to a bachelor’s degree in communications was filled with bumps, starting with a rocky childhood. She says that she was abused and her family considered her a failure. Later, when she was getting straight A’s at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif., and wanted to move on to nursing school, circumstances conspired against her.
“The Lord closed that door,” she says, but she never lost faith. She moved to Reno, Nev. (“I had nowhere else to go”) and continued to dream. Finally, after she felt a push from God to move to Phoenix, she discovered GCU.
“It’s a Christian university and it’s online — I wanted to do online because of finances. God just laid it on my heart,” she said.
She’s a writer — that is one of the first things she tells anyone who greets her Saturday. She’s a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers. She’s been published on Kindle. And you can sure she has a lot to say.
“People have asked me, ‘Now that you’re getting your degree, what are you going to do with it?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. God hasn’t told me yet. He told me to move down here — Diana, I got you down here, I’m going to take you the rest of the way,’” she says.
“My main purpose is to mentor these young kids and tell them, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything. That’s my motto. Don’t let anybody discourage you. God works.’”
Now it’s time for the ceremony, and Dilcher is on the end of the row on the east side of the Arena, anticipating what is to come. Never in her wildest dreams could she have predicted this:
When her name is called and she is wheeled up to the stage to accept her diploma, names stop being called for a few seconds as GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda kneels down for her official graduation photo. The crowd roars, and she is visibly weeping as she returns to her row. She isn’t the only one — Radda says later that there were more than a few tears shed by the people onstage, too.
It is the highlight of the early afternoon session. Those people who are cheering see only a woman in a wheelchair who deserves their respect for what she has accomplished. They have no way of knowing that there is more — so much more.
“It’s not me, it’s the Lord. He says, ‘Obey me.’ He has blessed me. He has brought me through the ups and downs,” she says.
And now she wants to help people who have had more downs than ups. She next wants to get a master’s degree in Christian counseling and work with dysfunctional families.
“I went through a lot of turmoil, but it was God’s will that I go through this so I can understand what other people are going through,” she says.
This is what GCU commencement is all about. It is about victories, some bigger than others. It is about determination. It is about faith. It is about perseverance, about finding a way, no matter what. And, sometimes, it is about putting a lifetime of trials and tribulations behind you and saying, “See me now. I did this. And I’m raring to go.”
Bonded by love, family and a little competition
They hold hands, poke jokes and giggle — Pamela and Delmer Maldonado deserved a cutest couple of the year award along with their diplomas at Saturday’s ceremony.
The Albuquerque couple, who graduated with their master’s degree in elementary education, enrolled and completed the program together after years of contemplation.
“I always knew I wanted to go back to school, but it never felt like the right time,” Pamela said.
So when Delmer made the call, Pamela quickly jumped on board.
Pamela, 45, already has taught for 16 years and Delmer, 41, has taught second grade for two, but they had to learn to manage their time as parents, teachers and students. You would think the couple would share their homework and quiz answers, but instead they motivated each other with friendly competition.
“I would go in one room and he would go into another,” Pamela said. “Our adviser, Nick, knew we did this so he teased us by telling us the other was winning.”
The couple said their graduation is especially rewarding because even their sons, Nick, 8, and Gregg, 14, were supportive as things got hectic from time to time.
“To hear Nick say that we are two of the smartest people he knows meant a lot to us,” Delmer said.
“We would’ve never thought about coming here if it wasn’t for them,” Pamela said. “These are their degrees as well.”
Delmer also said that GCU staff were helpful in helping them reach their goals.
“As online students, we’d never been to campus, so our advisers were GCU to us,” he said. “Because of them, this was a great experience for all of us.”
A double bonus graduation celebration
For most people, graduations and birthdays are separate celebrations.
Not so for Nancy Henderson of Corona, Calif. She graduated from GCU on Saturday, which was also her birthday. As an added bonus, her son, Dontaie Ferguson-Henderson, also got a GCU degree Saturday.
Nancy’s degree was a bachelor’s in early childhood education, while her son’s was a master’s in business.
To top it off, Nancy’s husband, Richard Henderson, is earning a doctorate in business from GCU.
“I never thought I could do this,” Nancy said. “I’m going to be 56 and the first of my siblings to graduate from college.”
After getting her high school diploma in 1978, Nancy spent nearly three decades raising children and grandchildren. About four years ago, she enrolled in a local college and earned several associate’s degrees.
But it took the support of her husband and son to give her the courage to enter GCU’s online College of Education bachelor’s degree program to pursue her passion: working with children.
“I didn’t get discouraged because the teachers were always there for me, and my husband was really the biggest part of it all,” Nancy said.
Richard said he set an example for his family by going back to school and earning his master’s degree.
“Later on, when the kids got out of high school and literally everyone was in college, my wife decided she wanted to go back to school, too,” he said.
Richard’s brother and sister-in-law are GCU graduates, and Richard was considering getting his doctorate when he learned that the University had a business school.
He also was profoundly moved by GCU’s mission of helping students find their purpose.
Richard, Nancy and Dontaie visited the campus, and the love affair began.
“I fell in love with GCU. My wife fell in love with GCU. My son fell in love with GCU,” he said.
Richard, an executive with Boeing Company, said he is now the first student in GCU’s online doctorate of business administration program. He is at the dissertation stage.
He also taught an undergraduate business class at GCU until the doctorate program became more demanding.
“What can I say? It’s just remarkable.”
Rounding up a magical day
The afternoon session Saturday — for the College of Doctoral Studies, Colangelo College of Business, College of Fine Arts and Production, and College of Humanities and Social Sciences — drew 903 graduates who received their diplomas and a crowd of 4,471. The numbers for the evening session, for the College of Education and College of Theology, were 740 graduates and 4,423 onlookers.
The commencement address Saturday featured Justin Willman, host of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” and a frequent guest on the talk-show circuit. His act is part magic tricks, part self-deprecating humor.
“I know I don’t look like a magician,” he said. “I look like an out-of-work Jonas brother.”
His main message: Live in the moment.
“We simply waste our todays worrying about our yesterdays or our tomorrows,” he told the audience.
It’s now Dr. Seminoff and Dr. Behling
Sitting side by side before the afternoon session were Cindy Seminoff and Rachel Behling, two GCU employees who received their doctoral degrees.
Seminoff, who has been with the University for 19 years and teaches athletic training and exercise science, received her diploma for Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction and said he already has incorporated what she learned into her classroom.
Her dissertation, which she completed even though she’s the first to admit that “writing is not my passion,” was titled, “A Stroll Down Memory Lane: College Students’ Motivation for Physical Activity Utilizing Memories.”
She gave considerable credit to her husband, Rich, for getting their two children, Sandra, 14, and R.J., 11, what they needed and where they needed to be while she completed her doctoral work.
“He took on so many responsibilities,” she said, “to keep the house from falling in on us.”
Behling, who works in the College of Doctoral Studies as a research specialist, got a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership: Organizational Development. Her dissertation: “Effects of Writing Skills and Gender on Doctoral Students’ Dissertation Progression in Online Programs.”
But her biggest contribution was founding, with Cathy Ames, and serving as president of the Doctoral Community Cohort, a club designed to help doctoral learners navigate the dissertation process.
“The reason a lot of people don’t get Ph.d’s is because they don’t feel connected,” said Behling, and the college showed its appreciation for her efforts by having her be a regular speaker at doctoral residencies. “I couldn’t have asked for better support.”
She actually started on her doctorate at GCU before she became an employee, taking advantage of the fact that employees get free tuition. And now she hopes her three children — Chantal, 24, Ricky, 19, and Ashley, 17 — will utilize that benefit, which extends to immediate families. They certainly would have a good mentor.
Bringing the GCU love from Baltimore
It’s not uncommon for faculty members to come to commencement just to support their students. But what Dr. Naomi Hill and Dr. Verlynne Hutson-Herring have done the last two years is most uncommon.
The site supervisors from Baltimore — they go out to area schools and do collaborative evaluations for administrative interns and student teachers from GCU — have flown to Phoenix just to be part of the big event and to spend time with Dr. Debbie Rickey, the College of Education associate dean. As an added bonus, they get to join administrators and other faculty in the opening processional at commencement.
“We come because we want to be a part of the University and see what’s going on,” Herring said. “From last year to this year has been tremendous growth. It feels so good to be part of the growth of the University.”
Hill said, “We are loving it, and we can’t wait to return next year. We had such a great time a few days ago talking to Dr. Rickey and her whole team. This is like family.”
Hill discovered GCU in an advertisement and quickly got on board, then convinced Herring, who had retired, to join her. Herring was her principal and mentor when she was assistant principal at Woodbourne Day School in Baltimore.
Together, they have 69 years of experience in education, and Hill plans to retire from the school system in two months. But they both plan to continue their work for GCU.
“Our passion is just for the children and for families,” Hill said. “We are committed and devoted to making it work and doing whatever it takes to make it work. We passionately work together to make sure that we are giving back to our communities, and what is a better way than what the GCU mission statement says for us to do? It all aligns perfectly.”
His bishop asked, and he answered with a master’s degree
Father Kurt Perera, the chaplain of Bourgade Catholic High School, didn’t have to travel far Saturday to receive his master’s in educational leadership.
“I’m so close by,” said Perera, 31, a Catholic priest.
He resides and celebrates mass at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral on 27th Avenue, and Bourgade is located just across Camelback Road from GCU.
The high school and University are partners in such programs as “Students Inspiring Students: A Neighborhood Scholarship,” GCU’s pay-it-forward program to expand the Learning Lounge, its thriving after-school tutoring program.
“We have a great partnership with GCU,” Perera said. “GCU has been wonderful.”
Perera, who was ordained as a priest three years ago, has been working at Bourgade as chaplain, full-time teacher and part-time administrator even though he doesn’t have a master’s degree.
“The bishop asked me to go back to school to get that degree,” he said. He enrolled 18 months ago.
“The faculty and administration really want you to succeed,” Perera said. “It was a great experience, and I thank GCU.”
Talk about a sacrifice
Andrea Pellicer wasn’t in the Arena on Saturday evening to officially receive her College of Theology degree in Christian studies. But she had a real good reason — she spent the money on a mission trip to Rwanda.
A discussion question about what you would do in a cross-cultural ministry inspired the 32-year-old Kennewick, Wash., resident to choose Africa and serving over Phoenix and simply celebrating. That’s a good indication of why Michele Pasley, a member of the online full-time faculty, was so impressed with her.
“She is the kind of person we are proud to send out as a graduate of GCU,” Pasley said.
Pellicer, 32, was equally delighted with the program, which she discovered when she saw a GCU poster on the wall of a high school friend’s office.
Pasley, she said, “volunteered to talk by phone and sent me articles from the library. It’s staggering to me that she would take the time to thoughtfully interact with me like that.”
Pellicer earned her degree even though she has two daughters, ages 9 and 6, and her husband’s schedule as a police officer can take him away from home for long stretches of time. She also serves in youth ministry at Living Room Community Church in Kennewick.
“We’ve had a crazy couple of years,” she said. “There were a lot of late nights, but I’ve been blessed by a lot of great professors at GCU.”
On the right track to fulfill her purpose
Emily Nickerson believes her online degree from GCU is something worth a trip to Phoenix from Colorado.
“I’m the only one in my family that has ever gone to college,” Nickerson said. “So for me to have my bachelor’s and now my master’s, it’s a huge success.”
Nickerson, 30, who graduated Saturday with a master’s in special education, has worked in the field for seven years. While she completed her degree, Nickerson taught children with severe emotional disabilities at Plum Creek Academy in Colorado, underwent a 10-hour jaw surgery after a year of chronic pain and managed to get a 4.0.
How did she do it? “By God’s grace. One day at a time,” she said.
Nickerson said she spent a lot of time thinking that she wanted to be speech pathologist, but when she pursued that career she felt as if she was only addressing a tiny portion of the child’s education. She wanted to be there in all facets of their learning.
Today, she’s most proud of one particular student who struggled with anxiety and feared getting on the school bus. Nickerson and her colleagues visited the boy’s home for a month until he got used to touching the school bus and eventually got on.
“That’s my purpose — to make every child feel safe, give them an education and make every parent feel that they are supported,” Nickerson said.
He knows what it means to serve
When Shane Everitt of Peoria decided to get a master’s degree in Leadership, GCU was the only logical place for him.
For one thing, he looks to hire GCU students in his position as a claim service director for USAA, the financial services company.
For another … well, he just likes the place.
“Servant leadership is a big deal to me,” he said. “That’s why I chose GCU. I really connect with the University’s pillars.”
Everitt, 47, grew up in Phoenix and graduated from Shadow Mountain High School. He’d love to bring even more students on board at USAA.
“We want to make a footprint here,” he said. “We want to be a strong partner with GCU.”
The color purple is just one reason GCU shines
Saturday couldn’t come soon enough for Sally Dorpfeld.
She has enjoyed getting both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees online from GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, but completing them has been a long time coming.
She is a full-time student, full-time wife and mother of three, and full-time therapist. It will be a relief to shed one of the roles.
“It’s been six long years,” said Dorpfeld, who brought her family from Lakeworth, Fla. to celebrate her Saturday graduation. “I’m super-excited to be done with school.”
Dorpfeld entered GCU after getting an associate’s degree, and six years later she has earned both her bachelor’s in addiction counseling and master’s in counseling degrees.
“I hammered right through both of them,” she said.
She will continue her career as a therapist, working to get homeless drug users into treatment, detox programs and halfway houses.
“They shoot up heroin,” Dorpfeld said. “They are mostly considered the hopeless population that is never going to stop (using).”
She says the work doesn’t get her down.
“I have faith in God and I have an awesome church family. My family is supportive of me, and I also like to do taekwondo.”
Dorpfeld praised the online program’s flexibility and organization and the extent to which GCU invests in each student.
But her favorite thing about GCU? “It has the color purple, and purple is my favorite color.”
Little Lopes came to cheer her on
Clad in GCU cheer garb, two of the littlest Lopes came to see Kimberly Dewey receive her online bachelor’s degree in sociology.
The youngest was Dewey’s daughter, Kennedy, age 14 months. Then came Dewey’s sister, 3-year-old Lyce Testa.
They were joined by Dewey’s husband, Greg, and her brother, mother, mother-in-law and grandmother.
It’s easy to see why Dewey had to earn the degree online. Not only is she a student, wife and mother, she also works full-time for GCU as a University development representative.
He traveled across the country to graduate
Kevin Foster, 53, traveled from Boston to visit GCU for the first time and graduate with an online bachelor’s in substance abuse counseling.
He was accompanied by his wife, Antoinette, and three of their five children: Jasmina, 13, Jeremiah, 10, and Jacob, 10 months.
He enrolled at GCU following a 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force. “I figured I’d get smart after I got out,” Foster quipped.
He said that in reality, the road to this degree has been long and not without hardship, but he never lost his faith.
“I believe it’s a challenge that God put into my life. He opened the doors for me and helped me financially and with His strength,” Foster said. “The Lord, Jesus Christ, gives me my strength.”
Here through the grace of God
Josina Fletcher, 33, from Texas, felt God’s presence Saturday before she graduated with an online master’s in psychology degree.
Fletcher was in the U.S. Army as an interrogator for four years and is now a district parole officer for the state of Texas.
“I’m very blessed. As a mother of two, it has not been easy for me to get here,” Fletcher said. “Through the grace of God I am here and just overwhelmed.”
As she spoke, her mother helped her arrange her robe, and she held the hand of her Nadia, 2.
It was her first visit to campus, and she was impressed with its beauty.
“I love it,” she said. “I love the atmosphere.”