By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Your worth is not determined by the grade you get on an exam. Your worth is so much more than that.
It is one of the lessons Billie Eltringham will remember long after she takes her last step on the Grand Canyon University promenade, long after she gives her last “Lopes Up,” and long after she sat in on her last class with Dr. Tiffany Mealman.
“She (Mealman) was very influential,” Eltringham said just minutes after receiving her bachelor’s degree in forensic science at GCU’s Thursday afternoon commencement ceremony. “She always used to say your worth isn’t in the grade you get on this exam – your worth is in God and in you.”
She was one of a group of 60 or so College of Science, Engineering and Technology students who delayed their reunions with their family and friends, anxiously waiting outside the Arena after commencement, so that they could share with Mealman’s family how much she meant to them. They all gathered to take a photograph to send to the family.
The beloved biochemistry professor was just 33 when she died Jan. 28 after a 5½-year battle with cancer.
The CSET photo session was organized by a few of her students who got the message out through word of mouth, emails and text messages. Several remembered her on their graduation caps. “Love God, Love People,” a couple of the caps said, alongside “Mealman 2018.”
“We were working in the lab and we just said, ‘Let’s do this,” said Natalie Elliott, who received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. “I talked to (CSET professor) Dr. (Rebecca) Socia because she was still in contact with the family and got the staff behind us. And we contacted President Brian Mueller.”
“We really wanted to show our love and support to the family to show them the impact she truly has made on all of our lives,” said Rachel Kawakami, who graduated Thursday with a biology degree with an emphasis in premed. “She’s such an inspiration and she always encouraged us, so we want to be able to kind of use this and encourage the family to know we’re right behind them, supporting them.”
Mealman was not much older than Eltringham and the other students she taught at GCU. Maybe it’s one of the reasons she connected so easily with them.
Ask any of them. They’ll tell you how much they loved her. How much she was a positive light in their lives.
Socia shared an office with Mealman when she first started working at GCU in 2013, just a year after her cancer diagnosis. They spent many hours side by side grading lab reports and would become good friends.
It was Socia who spoke about Mealman at GCU’s recent Celebration of Life ceremony April 17, sharing with those at the event how much Mealman loved her students. She would still teach even as she was going through her chemotherapy treatments.
“When her body was not strong, she would still be here, and she would still be worried about how her students were doing, not how she herself was feeling. … She would teach and go through long days even if she was so tired and so worn out,” Socia said at the Celebration of Life.
Socia confirmed how much Mealman’s students loved her back.
“She meant a lot to everybody,” she said after commencement.
Elliott credits Mealman for changing the course of her academic career.
“Professor Mealman was a huge mentor in my life,” said Elliott, who decorated her graduation cap with something Mealman would appreciate: “When life gives you mold, make penicillin,” and “Mealman 2018.” “She was one of the first people who told me I should do research and that was a path that I could take, and so she directed me to going toward graduate school and getting a Ph.D.
“She put me on her research team. It was the first research I ever got to do, so she was massive in directing my life. She actually convinced me to change my major. I was biology, and she convinced me to change to the biochemistry degree.”
While the course of Kawakami’s academic career hasn’t undergone the same kind of dramatic shift, she said of Mealman, “She really just inspired my passion for biochemistry even more so, and just her faith in God and that she always was encouraging us. She was truly impactful.”
Mealman wasn’t the only one in the GCU community who was remembered at Thursday’s afternoon ceremony.
Keisha Nicole Oyola Perales, who died in a vehicle accident on New Year’s Eve, was awarded a posthumous degree, given to her parents.
And speaker Rick Rigsby, returning to campus after speaking at GCU’s commencement in December, remembered his first wife, Trina Williams – “a nursing student,” he said, to cheers from the graduating students from the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions (CSET and the College of Theology also graduated at the same ceremony).
His talk often was bright, shining and humorous as he spoke about the common-sense words of wisdom he learned from his third-grade dropout father. Rigsby encouraged the graduating Lopes to arrive an hour early instead of one minute late, to do any job – even if it’s cleaning toilets – with excellence, to love everyone and to always make sure their servant’s towel is on display.
He closed his talk honoring his first wife, who, like Mealman, died of cancer.
Just as Mealman’s students will remember her lessons – that your worth isn’t in the grades you get and to have faith in God – Rigsby remembered the lesson his first wife taught him, that it isn’t how long you live but HOW you live.
Students were encouraged by Rigsby’s talk and by the lessons of those who have gone before them on how to live life well.
Despite Mealman’s short life, Eltringham, with tears in her eyes, said of the biochemistry professor, “The time she spent here was good; she did good things with her life.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at 602-639-7901 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.