Story by Karen Fernau
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The 3,375 online students getting diplomas from Grand Canyon University during ceremonies this weekend are bringing more than their gowns and mortarboards.
They’re also bringing their hopes for the future.
An African immigrant plans to use his diploma to help his native Liberia mend from years of war and corruption. A Navy recruiter hopes to create a nonprofit to lift disadvantaged children from poverty. A former IBM manager is committed to helping others find their workplace passion.
While their GCU degrees, experiences and post-graduation plans differ, the 2016 online graduates share a singular trait – gratitude. These nontraditional students who juggled full-time jobs, families, and homework credit the flexibility of GCU’s online program and supportive teaching staff for their degrees.
Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s pastor and dean of students, understands first-hand the importance of support. He’s receiving a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership and gives much of the credit to his doctoral chair — Dr. June Maul, who retired recently.
“I was lucky to have a rock-solid chair,” Griffin said.
Dr. Hank Radda, GCU’s provost, said supporting online students is a top priority.
“GCU is dedicated to rigorous programming delivered through an online classroom that is faculty led, highly interactive small group discussion based and writing intensive,” he said.
“GCU’s leadership, with over 20 years’ experience in high quality online education, has invested in the faculty, counseling staff and technology to deliver education and assess learning for dedicated adult learners.”
Graduates also share an appreciation of the unwavering backing of family and friends.
As proof, nearly 17,679 guests were expected to attend the four ceremonies Friday and Saturday at GCU Arena. Nearly 550 GCU staffers serving as volunteers will join them in applauding the graduates.
As Radda said, “We are proud of our graduates who, while working and raising families, spend nights and weekends earning their degree, developing themselves intellectually and professionally.”
The following is a sampling of graduates and the stories behind their degrees and hopes for the future. In addition, they offer sage advice to undergraduates, especially those just beginning their online programs:
Ready to lead
Harry Ar-toe Gkornean grew up with unrelenting violence, political turmoil and civil war in Liberia. When he was 10, his father was killed, slamming his family into grief and poverty.
By the time he entered the University of Liberia, he’d decided his life’s mission was to help Liberia recover from its traumatic history. After graduation, he emigrated from Africa to the U.S. to further his goal.
“The destruction of my home country was a result of lack of leadership,” said the 31-year-old Minnesota banker, who was drawn to GCU for its Christian foundation.
“The leadership was weak and mismanaged the country’s wealth and resources. My country needs good leadership to transform itself, and my dream is making the world a better place.”
His GCU Masters of Science in Leadership brings him one step closer.
“I want to learn as much as I can before returning home,” Gkornean said. “My country needs leaders, and I want to make sure I am qualified.”
His advice to online students: Time management is critical. The lack of it increases your chance of failing. On the flip side, efficient time management makes it easier to participate in discussions and meet deadlines, and it reduces stress.
Doing homework alongside her kids
Ten years after graduating from high school, Marlene Armijo made the decision to enroll in GCU. She made the 2012 decision for herself and her two children.
“I wanted to set the example for my children by going to college, showing them the importance of education,” said Armijo, a Chief Petty Officer for the U.S. Navy’s Denver Recruiting District.
“College helped me get closer and stay close to my children. We all had homework.”
On Friday, after nearly five years as a GCU online student, Armijo will receive her Masters of Business Administration.
Along with building a bond with her school-age children, GCU strengthened her faith.
“I appreciated the classes that included the Christian perspective, and all the professors who acknowledged and encouraged their students to submit their prayers in classroom forums,” she said. “This made the class feel more like a family and less like work.”
Advice: Embrace online learning. Before enrolling, Armijo considered herself a classroom learner and worried about her ability to learn via the computer. The help from GCU teaching staff and camaraderie from fellow students proved her fears wrong.
Better late than never
When Tony Reed graduated in 1982 from Morris Brown College in Atlanta with a degree in psychology, he planned to soon earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology.
A 30-year career with IBM Corp. got in the way. At 54, the North Carolina resident finally took action on his youthful goal. He enrolled in GCU and is graduating with a Master of Science in Industrial Organizational Psychology.
“During the early years in the ’80s, there were no online graduate programs for psychology. I just couldn’t quit my job to go to school full-time,” he explained.
After researching different online programs, Reed selected GCU for its academics and flexibility. That was two years ago, and Reed now plans to combine his career experience and graduate degree to mentor others.
“I would like to help young people become more of who they are or can become, helping them accomplish amazing things without fear or procrastination,” he said.
“I am so incredibly happy to have begun this journey, and perhaps others may learn from it.”
Advice: Be honest about your commitment. Do you have the time and the discipline for reading, studying and taking tests? If so, schedule classwork like you would book a doctor’s appointment. And don’t cancel.
Nothing could stop her
The challenges Kimberly Allen faced as a GCU online student paled in comparison to her personal life.
While in college, both her parents became ill and died. Her husband, a former minister turned speaker, traveled frequently, leaving the Wisconsin piano teacher in charge of their three children.
“I faced crazy life struggles, but I am stubborn. I wasn’t going to quit,” Allen said.
She worked hard to overcome anxiety over technology. Nap time was study time.
Her goal was to graduate with an education degree and teach in a nearby school.
“I made it,” she said. “When I get my diploma at graduation, I’ll know for sure that it was worth the work.”
Advice: Avoid the naysayers. Well-meaning friends often told Allen to wait until her children were older and her husband traveled less. “I just didn’t listen, and neither should you,” Allen said.
Contact Karen Fernau at (602) 639-8344 or email@example.com.