Commencement begins with emotional morning

April 27, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Slaven Gujic
GCU News Bureau

Commencement is always filled with emotion, but Thursday morning at Grand Canyon University the emotion was decidedly mixed.

The celebration also was a commemoration.

Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s pastor and dean of students, addresses the audience at the start of commencement.

The University has been in mourning since the early morning of April 14, when three young people — GCU senior Karli Richardson, her sister Kelsey, and another GCU student, Keaton Allison — were killed in an auto accident on nearby Interstate 17. Karli Richardson was scheduled to graduate Thursday.

That made the emotions of commencement, always right at the surface, boil over long before GCU Arena was filled to the brim with graduates and their families — and before her mother, Cathy Hocking, came forward to receive Karli’s honorary diploma from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. In what had to be one of the most emotional collegiate commencement moments anywhere in the country this year, Hocking received a standing ovation and acknowledged it by repeatedly and emphatically giving the “Lopes Up” sign to everyone there.

“I’m really impressed by her mom, that she wanted to represent her daughter and walk across the stage,” said Dr. Sherman Elliott, the CHSS dean. “For me, that’s really a powerful statement about her and her family.

Cathy Hocking (right) accepts her daughter’s honorary diploma from Dr. Sherman Elliott, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I’m also really moved by the faculty. They all came to me and said, ‘I really hope she’s coming to commencement.’ They all knew Karli really well. They wanted to make sure the family was part of the celebration amidst their suffering.

“She (Karli) was very vivacious. She stood out.”

Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s pastor and dean of students, has been front and center in dealing with the aftermath of the accident for the last two weeks and had to fight back tears as he talked about it.

“It’s a very emotional time, but this year, especially this particular service, many of us are reflecting on Karli’s death,” he said. “It makes it more difficult. It’s tough. This one’s just different for obvious reasons.”

In his opening remarks, GCU President Brian Mueller congratulated the students for their achievements, both inside and outside the classroom and also in the community.

But he also made note of the tragedy, calling Richardson “one of the best students that’s ever attended this University” and praising the students for the impact of the memorial service in her honor last week.

The graduates watch and listen intently during the ceremony.

Mueller said he and other observers were moved by the way students declared their faith in the perfection of God’s plan, even as they mourned their loss.

“You said it with such certainty that it transformed people,” he said.

Transformation also was part of the message from Jade Simmons, who was back as the keynote speaker because her performance at fall 2016 commencement received such positive reviews.  

Simmons, a classical pianist and former first runner-up in the Miss America pageant, dazzled again with her command of the stage, but she wanted the graduates to hear loud and clear the kind of impact they can have on the world.

Serving others, as so many GCU students do through ministries such as Habitat for Humanity, go far beyond the “you only live once” maxim, Simmons said. They leave a lasting impact.

“When you live a life like that, you never die,” she said. “You get to live on.”

Jade Simmons shares her message with the graduates.

The emotions for Karli Richardson on Thursday morning were the best example of that. But while her memory will live on through all the people who knew her, it also was important to remember that this was a celebration for the students walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

“This is the day they look forward to,” Dr. Hank Radda, the University provost, said as that part of the proceedings was set to begin.

It is, as Griffin noted, the culmination of an experience that students will not soon forget.

“The rhythm of university life at GCU is just incredible,” he said. “You start the year with Move-In, which is a highlight to the collegiate experience, and you end with commencement. It’s an enormous celebration. In the normal rhythm of the school year, this is a great time, and it’s great to watch the families celebrate with their children or their moms or dads or whoever’s graduating.

“It’s a very emotional time, and I’ve got a great seat for all of it, sitting on the platform watching people come up the stairs, getting ready to hear their name announced before they receive their diploma. It’s an incredible time.” 

It was there for all to see Thursday morning. The sorrow will not be forgotten, but neither will the joy. It’s not possible for emotions to be more mixed.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or

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