For some families, commencement is doubly good

April 25, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

By Mark Heller
GCU News Bureau

When a student is looking for the proper motivation to earn a college degree, families often play an important role.

That’s especially true for online students who have been out of education for a while. And the family factor is even more evident when two people in the same family are working toward graduating at the same time.

Many of the graduates who will be participating in Grand Canyon University commencement Thursday through Saturday have great stories to tell. Here are two families who each have two reasons to celebrate:


It’s only fitting a married couple that lives together, has two children together and works together will graduate together.

If only they’d met at work …

Nate and Haylee Bunnell

“That would have been the cherry on top of the story,” Nate Bunnell said.

The real story is that Nate and Haylee met nearly two decades ago as church camp counselors, have two children (9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter) and both work at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Pa.

As part of a partnership between GCU and Conemaugh, they both signed up for the online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program two years ago.

With help from their parents, the church and their patient kids, the couple squeezed in assignments, reading, discussion questions and tests in between work, church activities and shuttling the kids to sports.

“The carrot we’ve been looking for at the end of this road,” Nate said with a laugh. “The kids ask us, ‘How did you make it?’ That was a blur.”

Nate has worked with cancer and oncology patients at Conemaugh for 17 years, while Haylee has done nonclinical nursing for 12 years. Looking to expand their future opportunities and recognizing that a BSN could be essential moving forward in health care, the Bunnells were sold on GCU’s online BSN program by University Development Counselor Jessica Stephenson and Student Services Counselor Rick Liguori. The couple found much value in reading, studying, learning and challenging each other nightly at the kitchen table.

“It was online, but we never felt out on an island,” Haylee said.

The Bunnells haven’t seen GCU but planned to arrive Tuesday and immediately head for the Grand Canyon and a hot-air balloon ride in Sedona before returning to Phoenix for their 9 a.m. Friday commencement.

Meanwhile, the grandparents are hosting their grandchildren and others for a big-screen, live-streaming, TV viewing party back in Pennsylvania.

“It’s almost as much a celebration for them as us,” Haylee said. “… We certainly had reservations to get through this project, but at the end it’s a good example for our kids to see even if there’s a cost. If it’s a goal and what you want, get started and have faith you’ll get there.”


Lisa Baker’s passion for teaching music brought her back to school, and her influence reached her younger sister more than 2,000 miles away.

Lisa Baker

The 43-year-old teacher from California will graduate Friday afternoon with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with an Emphasis in English and a 3.9 GPA. Nearby will be Monica Dani, her 42-year-old younger sister from Champaign, Ill., who earned a Bachelor of Science in Applied Management from the Colangelo College of Business.

Having gone from full-time to part-time teaching (plus full-time parenting), Baker needed a degree and teacher certification to resume teaching music full-time to students from preschool through third grade.

“They took a total gamble on me, but I knew it was God’s plan,” she said.

Baker toured GCU’s campus with her son in 2014 and was hooked on the online program because it offered an additional path toward certification.

Monica Dani

Baker’s enrollment at GCU influenced Dani, married and a mother of four, a grandmother and a manager of Olive Garden restaurants in Illinois, to get her business degree online. Baker occasionally took two classes at once so that she and Dani could graduate at the same time.

“Even though she’s my younger sister, she’s my hero,” Baker said.

They have 16 family members coming for the 2 p.m. Saturday ceremony (including their parents, who live in Prescott). They’ve rented a house for the families this weekend, having not seen each other in at least a year.

“It’s so exciting. It really is,” Baker said. “I want to shout from the rooftops.”

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