Lopeville rising: New ‘town’ has grown on residents
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the December issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by GCU Magazine staff
Photos by Darryl Webb
Many people say that the best years of their lives were spent on a college campus. The spirit, the sense of self-discovery, the lifelong friendships — they wrap together into an enduring, beautiful memory.
But events of the last several years have created an even more special feeling at Grand Canyon University. Almost overnight, it has become a large, fast-growing, impactful university that still maintains its small-town feel.
It has a vibrant downtown, with a variety of restaurants and stores and people everywhere. Coffee shops. Sports events with top-quality venues. Plays and concerts. Places to exercise, relax and socialize. A chapel. A hotel. A golf course. A bowling alley. A post office. Swimming pools. Soon, it even will have a beach volleyball stadium.
Everyone talks about it. Students. Faculty. Staff. Visitors. As new building after new building has sprung up, so have new gathering spots, new activities and new additions to the culture. And the sense of purpose that pervades the campus only gets stronger as it gets bigger — as demonstrated by GCU’s $1.1 billion annual economic impact in the community and its commitment to transforming the neighborhood.
In this issue of GCU Magazine, we explore why the 17,384 students who populate it and the 3,650 employees who work here feel so strongly about it. Welcome to Lopeville, a town within a campus, a campus within a city. We’re glad you came.
Part 1: Living here
“It’s a whole different world in the middle of Phoenix. It’s a cool feeling, and the school does a great job of giving you that feeling of belonging from the start.” — Tamara Boyer, senior Christian Studies major
Approximately 55 percent of GCU students live on campus in residence halls and apartments. And, unlike many universities, many of them remain campus residents through their senior year.
Matt Hopkins, director of Residence Life, attributes that trend to GCU’s commitment to creating a cocoon — a safe, inviting place to live.
“We want to do more than just house them,” said Hopkins, who oversees 31 resident directors and an army of student assistants. “We need to care for them. We are building a community for all students, whether they live here or off campus.”
Many of those students are from small towns themselves. Andrea Tims arrived at GCU three years ago from her home in rural Minnesota and immediately noticed stark differences.
The pre-med major had traded rolling Midwestern farmland for a sun-drenched, desert campus nestled in Phoenix, the nation’s sixth largest city, and had left behind a graduating high school class of eight. Yet Tims felt right at home because both her town and her campus share a fundamental trait.
“I know what a small town feels like, and GCU felt warm and welcoming right away,” she said.
Some students need a little more time to get comfortable with being away from home for the first time, but it usually doesn’t take long before they’re spending all their time with their new family on campus — even if they grew up nearby.
Brendan Kaiser, a sophomore majoring in Electrical Engineering, said that as a freshman he often made the 20-minute drive home every other weekend. This year, he didn’t go home until Thanksgiving weekend.
“I’ve built a new life,” he said, one that revolves around class, his roommates, the pool, the library and the Havocs student cheering section.
He now considers GCU his “town.” “There’s always people on the sidewalks, always something to see and do,” he said. Ty Seaton, a junior Sports Management major, noted that the campus now has distinct neighborhoods, from The Grove residence halls for freshmen in the northwest corner of campus to his favorite, Lopes Way, which is akin to a downtown.
“They all come together in a good way with a friendly feel,” he said.
Like so many students, he walks everywhere on the pedestrian-friendly campus. He shops in convenience stores, often filling his bag with his favorite sushi and a natural fruit drink. He plays ultimate Frisbee with neighbors, makes French toast and eggs with roommates, and grills burgers outside for dinner.
He seldom leaves campus because “I really don’t need to. Everything I need is right here.”
Part 2: Eating here
“Most of the students love the food scene and make it a very social time.” — Sara Bachofer, sophomore Biomedical Engineering major
GCU has 26 eateries, four convenience markets stocked with food and staples, a weekly farmers market and a taco cart. Most are clustered in the Student Union, Lopes Way and Thunder Alley.
“We’ve created a campus where students never have to leave to eat,” said Zach Casavant, marketing and communications director for GCU Dining. “We have a one-stop dining district.”
The residential dining experience is one of the most significant elements on campus. So it makes sense that students hunger for Lopes Way — GCU’s food strip — rather than calling it a day at 10 p.m.
Some students close their books and meet up with friends, others pull out their dinners and books to stay up working late. Favorites include Subway, Chick-fil-A, Habit Burger and The Grid, the University’s grocery store.
Just around the corner of Lopes Way at Thunder Alley, students gather around a fire pit. Some bring their meals, others bring their guitars and some close their laptops to engage in quiet singing.
On most days, Peter Barranco eats breakfast, lunch and dinner at a table in the Student Union. He calls it his “kitchen table.” It’s a gathering spot, a break from classes and the dorm.
“Whenever I want to meet someone, it’s almost always here or at another one of the restaurants,” the pre-med major from San Diego said. “It’s not like my kitchen table at home, but it’s pretty close.”
Daniel Pennington, a senior pre-med major from Sacramento, admits he’s not exactly a five-star chef. But he’s a good enough cook to prepare most of his meals, preferably healthy, in his campus apartment.
Pennington owns a car, so he has the luxury of leaving anytime to eat out at Phoenix-area restaurants. But he seldom does.
“There’s everything here,” he said, sipping a white mocha iced coffee in Grand Canyon Beverage Company. “I’ll never go hungry.”
The student-run GCBC, which opened in August on the second floor of the Student Union and now has another outlet in Roadrunner Apartments, quickly has become a popular place to gather.
“An independent coffee shop run by students is my generation’s badge of honor,” Tims said. “We are a coffee shop culture.”
Part 3: Praying here
“I feel comfortable here being open about my faith. I can pray openly, I can talk about my faith in class. I am surrounded by people who I can share my faith with, and for that I am grateful.” — Kirie Taillon, freshman Digital Design major
Junior Rachael Proby began her freshman year walking to class with books in her backpack and uncertainty in her heart.
The Los Angeles native finally had reached her goal — attending a top-tier, out-of-state university. But she felt caught precariously between missing home and not feeling at home.
Her salvation came on a Monday morning. A student she had just met invited her to Chapel, one of two weekly services along with The Gathering on Tuesday nights.
The next hour was pivotal, an “aha” moment that erased Proby’s nagging doubts.
“I knew sitting in Chapel that I had made the right decision, that I was in my new home, the place I would live for the next few years,” she said.
Although she was touched by the speaker’s talk, that alone didn’t calm her freshman jitters. Instead, it was the nearly 6,000 students in GCU Arena’s seats. They made her realize she was in the right place at the right time.
“It was such a welcoming feeling, a touching experience like never before,” Proby said.
Today, GCU fits her like a favorite pair of shoes. And, yes, at 11:15 a.m. on Mondays she attends Chapel.
“It still makes me feel calm,” she said, “and it always makes me feel like I am home.”
For many students, GCU’s Christian and academic missions are equally important.
They want to build their faith while earning a degree. They want to pray before a meal and listen to a professor weave religion into the business curriculum. They want to spend Saturdays repairing homes for families in the neighborhoods surrounding campus and mentoring junior high school students.
Miracle Williams, a junior Sociology major, chose GCU for all those reasons. “That is why I am here and why I am at Chapel on Mondays. My faith is that important,” she said.
Christian Taillon, a sophomore Information Technology major, likes being able to attend a university with others who share his deep faith.
“I like being able to talk about my faith and the scripture with so many other students. GCU encourages this connection between students and encourages their faith.”
Faith also is encouraged by Life Group leaders, who meet weekly with small groups of students to pray, share the ups and downs of university life and read the Bible.
Sam Anderson, a junior Film Production major, considers it an honor to be in a spiritual leadership role.
“It allows me to get an insight into the Christian faith of others, the beliefs that shape who they are,” he said.
Allison Rodzen, a sophomore Exercise Science major, became a Life Group leader to encourage other students to embrace their faith.
“I came here for the Christianity,” she said. “And with Chapel and Life Groups and all the other places I can express our faith, it feels like my community and family. I know that I’ll never be judged for my faith.”
Part 4: Playing here
“I like to say it’s always a good day in Lopeville. We’re our own interesting world here.” — Slate Herman, president, Associated Students of GCU
They can be seen along the Promenade on Wednesday nights, swinging their hips, spinning, gliding and smiling to the Latin tunes of Luis Enrique and Prince Royce.
Students stop to watch. Those on the “dance floor” call out to familiar faces and wave at spectators to join.
A student chats with her friend as they watch from a table just a few feet away. A friend walks by, grins and holds out a hand. “Who’s going to be my dance partner?” he asks.
It’s an hour of free salsa and bachata dance lessons coached by a local professional dance couple. The instructors stand over a stage deck to teach students the basic steps of Latin dancing. It’s a night of social dancing that brings together all levels of dance lovers and connects people from all over campus.
On another night, students gather on the Promenade for Java Jam, a coffee-house-like setting filled with the sounds of funky jazz, dazzling lights, coffee, donuts and passionate musicians.
Frank Ngoga says it’s a great way to unwind after a long day. He likes how welcoming the students are.
There is a small but eye-catching stage with a backdrop and pumpkins that add a touch of fall. Students quickly fill the rows of chairs. Others line up for their GCBC coffee. And still others watch from the tables outside the Student Union.
Indie singer Scot Madison Quiggle, a junior at GCU, sings solo and plays her mandolin. Even though the Phoenix native’s parents live a few minutes away from the campus, Quiggle said GCU is the perfect home away from home.
“Here, it really is a family,” she said. “So many people that I meet are encouraging, and the good thing is that when we put on events like this it’s cool to see the students rally around local artists.”
Ethington Theatre, with plays, dance recitals and other performances, and GCU Arena, with a variety of concerts and shows, also offer plenty of quality entertainment. And, of course, GCU sporting events serve as a rallying point that attract more devoted fans — and students — with each passing year.
This year there are 1,500 students in the Havocs, a jump of 500 from 2015-16, adding even more noise, energy and purple-painted zaniness to what SB Nation has called “the biggest party in college basketball.”
“The team is growing, the school is growing, and the students are creating a kind of pride in where they go to school,” said Abigail Ploeser, marketing manager and liaison for Havocs with Heart, the group’s community-outreach arm.
Students who want to play sports but aren’t on one of GCU’s 21 Division I teams have plenty of other options. There are 30 club teams at the University, and 11 intramural sports also are available.
As the University has grown, so have the places to play. The many basketball courts (both indoor and outdoor) and artificial-turf fields are full well into the evening as students unwind from classes and homework.
“Everyone is on an IM team sometime,” said Michael Egeberg, who has helped manage the program the last two years. “It’s something people see or hear about and want to be a part of. You go to class, work, homework, sports, repeat.
“I knew at GCU I could play a couple sports. I never thought it’d be this big.”
Part 5: Hanging out here
“I hardly ever leave. There’s food, there’s stuff to do, you can hang out with friends, go bowling, do just about everything. It’s like your own little home away from home.” — Brenda Ochoa, junior Business Administration major
It doesn’t have a catchy name, like GCBC. But the cozy new outdoor furniture under the trees in front of Kaibab Hall, on the north side of GCU Stadium, quickly has become a preferred place to study and relax.
“I call it the ‘couches outside,’” freshman Jannah Gaudia said. “Sometimes I take a nap here. It’s actually very comfortable.”
Faith Brandt, a senior dance education major, was lounging on a sofa with her laptop, the branches of the tree providing shade. She was the picture of late afternoon contentment.
“I like that it’s outside but still has comfy seating. It’s usually pretty quiet unless there’s a soccer game,” she said.
Daniel Hull, a sophomore majoring in Marketing, calls the outdoor lounge “the patio by the taco stand,” referring to its proximity to the Taco Trueno cart.
He said such new hangout spots are one of GCU’s many homey improvements. “I don’t have to get off campus a lot,” Hull said. “I think they’ve done a good job with it.”
Another new hangout area that has caught on is an even more shaded spot between Thunder Alley and the Lopes Performance Center. “It’s cooler and shadier,” Desiree Rey said while studying math with another freshman, Vernon Williams.
One of the most social spots on campus, Rey said, is The Grove at night. Students fill the lawn, playing sports, watching sports and other shows on laptops, picnicking and just hanging out.
But there also are plenty of other places to get away from it all. Basketball player Joshua Braun, the most high profile athlete on campus, appreciates that.
“Sitting on my balcony in my North Rim Apartment is nice,” he said, “just to read and relax and quiet down, get in the space, spend some time with the Lord.”
It doesn’t take long for visitors to get caught up in the GCU culture.
When more than 2,600 high school students from across Arizona came to campus in early November for Health Sciences, Engineering and Technology (HSET) Day, Ashley Rios of Tempe High School realized that her dream of entering a scientific profession is within her grasp — and GCU would be a great place to pursue that goal.
“I feel like these are my people, like it’s a place I could fit in,” she said. “I am seriously considering applying.”
Ariana Iturbe gazed at the purple-clad crowd on a near perfect day and said, “I see a happy environment. It’s clean, beautiful.”
A whole different world.
Jeannette Cruz, Karen Fernau, Mark Heller, Laurie Merrill and Rick Vacek contributed to this story.