By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Time after time, they would march out of Grand Canyon University Arena after yet another commencement ceremony. Waving to family. Smiling. Laughing. Heads high. Some even towing the confetti that had been sprayed over them.
Then they would go through the tunnel into the lobby and turn the corner.
To applause. Loud applause. Raucous applause, from the commencement volunteers, from members of the GCU executive team, from family and friends stacked up on the stairs to the second level.
The looks on the faces of the new graduates – shock, tears and the biggest smiles you’ll ever see – told the story of why commencement is so cool.
“What I love is when they make that turn how surprised they are when they see us and that we’re cheering for them,” said Sarah Boeder, GCU’s Executive Vice President of Operations. “It’s just really fulfilling. I cry sometimes when they’re passing through because they’re so surprised and they feel so loved and accomplished.”
The “tunnel walk” tradition began out of necessity and common sense. There was a problem with getting everyone out of the Arena in an orderly fashion as graduates comingled with guests. Traffic jams were inevitable.
Dr. Michael Berger, dean of the College of the Doctoral Studies and one of the many volunteers who worked at all of the GCU-record eight ceremonies, was one of the helpers who came up with an idea: How about cordoning off the walkway and letting the graduates leave first – and giving them a proper sendoff?
“The moment they walk out of that Arena, they’re graduates, they’re done,” he said. “This is their last time as students. It worked out really well because it became more about the cheering. They’re literally cheering you out the door.”
Even better, it quickly became one of the best parts about being a volunteer.
“It brings chills up my spine,” said Fritz Bordes, a volunteer who’s a university counselor. “They know that they’re not just a graduate – they’re appreciated by the staff. A lot of them will tell you, ‘Thank you for making this a family. You care about us.’”
That notion was seconded by GCU President Brian Mueller, who was right at the front of the tunnel walk line after all eight ceremonies, raising the applause meter. He pointed out that it is particularly important to make it a special experience for online students, many of whom are visiting the campus for the first time and might even be here all alone.
“We’re cementing the fact that we really care about who they are as students and we want to be a big part of their celebration,” he said. “We want them to know how proud we are of what they have accomplished, that this is more than a university that gives you your degree online. You’re a person who’s very important to us, as important as the students who show up on our campus, and I think they probably are a little bit surprised by how much the people here care about their success.”
The online graduates noticed.
Kathryn Edic, attending her first GCU commencement, got a little emotional as she walked through the cascading applause.
“It felt very intentional, just like everyone here throughout my journey,” said Edic, who got her MBA.
Another MBA grad, Dominic Patrick, came all the way from Chicago for the ceremony and said afterward, “The energy was fun. They just make it a great atmosphere for us.”
The applause even caught students from the ground campus by surprise.
“I was not expecting that!” said Jedidiah Woods, a Colangelo College of Business graduate who walked the walk Thursday morning. “It felt for a moment that all the hard, long, hours, late nights, early mornings and everything in between was seen. It was seen and recognized by those I value most, in an overwhelming way. It made me almost cry as I thought through the last four years of my life, and how life-changing and beautiful they have been.”
What makes the tunnel walk even more meaningful is that all of the graduates just heard their name announced over the loudspeaker as they received their diploma. Dr. Tim Griffin, Pastor, Dean of Students and leader of the processional and recessional at commencement, sat on stage for all eight ceremonies and watched as they walked up the stairs.
“You can see it in their eyes,” he said. “Most of them probably have never heard their name spoken publicly in front of thousands of people. I could sit there all day and watch it. It’s just the coolest thing.”
He just about sat there all day and night. There were three ceremonies per day Thursday and Friday, starting at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and two more Saturday. GCU had never had this many in one commencement week.
It made for some logistical challenges for Jennifer Girl, Director of Campus Events. For starters, there was the simple challenge of getting enough volunteers – about 120 per ceremony – to staff all eight events. But she was struck by the fact that, at her volunteer meeting Saturday morning, only a dozen or so volunteers said they were doing commencement for the first time. The returnees make it a priority.
“It’s so meaningful knowing that they love being part of this. I couldn’t ask for anything better,” she said. “We couldn’t do the ceremonies without all the assistance and without all the campus departments.”
The volunteers handle the simple tasks, such as shepherding guests who need assistance and cleaning up the Arena after each ceremony. Invariably, it looked pristine within a half-hour of the last guest leaving, right down to using a long pole with tape on the end to bring down the confetti hanging from the rafters.
But then there are the more difficult challenges facing the Events team — servicing 5,765 graduates who came to commencement (out of 9,009 degrees conferred this spring) and 30,654 guests in three days.
There were the cart drivers shepherding grads and guests to and from the parking garages in 95-degree heat. There were the Events team members jumping from one task to the next, from regalia to cleanup. There were the security personnel and Jack-and-Jill-of-all-trades volunteers.
In some cases, the logistics were in the larynx. Critical Mass, GCU’s outstanding choral group, had just sung in Carnegie Hall a few days before, and now it was doing a 45-minute performance, including the National Anthem, before every commencement ceremony. Then there was the challenge for Dave Smith and Jaclyn Cripe, who read the names of the graduates as they come forward to get their diploma. Now they had to do it eight times.
Smith, GCU’s Director of Academic Excellence for the College of Education said his initial reaction to doing that many was “Oh, dear Lord,” but then he realized he would have to take steps to make sure there wouldn’t be a return appearance of the laryngitis he battled three years ago before and during spring commencement. His antidote: oil of oregano pills.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t help what was really bothering him. When GCU’s Provost, Dr. Hank Radda, asked how his voice was holding up Friday, Smith replied, “My voice is fine. I’m not sure about my knees with all that standing.”
But the grand-prize winner for fancy footwork came Friday afternoon when Paige Estrada of Apple Valley, Calif., was so determined to walk on stage, she did so even though she was in labor – her contractions were six minutes apart. She got her diploma and went straight to the hospital. (Here’s the story.)
And it gets better: A woman at the other end of the row also was right at the end of her pregnancy. Oh baby, are these people determined or what?
Maybe they simply were determined to hear Dr. Rick Rigsby speak. His incredibly energetic, hand-clapping, foot-stomping keynote address at each ceremony never wavered and earned standing ovation after standing ovation.
“Watch this!” he would say over and over as he shared another life lesson about displaying excellence.
“Make an impact … an impact … an impact … not just an impression, an IMPACT!” he would say in his powerful bass, once again clapping his hands and stomping his foot.
It got to the point where, listening to his talk eight times, you start tying your shoes and brushing your teeth with excellence. But the correlation of Rigsby’s talking points to GCU’s mission also was impactful – particularly, again, for online students.
“He talked about having generational impact, and this is a generational thing,” Mueller said after an online ceremony. “Their children will remember watching their parents do this. He talked about lecturing versus modeling – well, these parents have modeled for their family something very significant.
“For us to share that with them, it never ceases to amaze you – it really doesn’t. There were a lot of tears in the audience as he was telling his final story (of how his first wife died of breast cancer, leaving him with two young boys to raise). He touched them, and I think it’s because of how family oriented this experience is. You look up in that crowd and you see their parents there, you see their children there, and his message becomes especially meaningful.”
It had to have made an impact on the graduates hearing it once, but it even affected the executives behind Rigsby.
“Even though I’ve heard him multiple times, every time I’m brought to tears when I’m reminded of something that establishes even more purpose for what we do,” Boeder said. “To me, it’s a time of celebration, not just for the students but for the employees as well.”
And one of those employees is Boeder, who was moved to prayer as she looked at the commencement program, filled with the names of graduates.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, indirectly in some way, things that I have done are impacting all these lives,” she said. “I just felt compelled to pray over all those names. That’s the thing that you don’t always get to realize when you’re in the thick of it. It just feels like work. But when you can see purpose attached to it, it’s overwhelming.”
It was overwhelming right through to the last ceremony. Rigsby continued to keep the volume and the messages cranked up high, again tailoring his message to the crop of graduates before him — future teachers this time. Graduates continued to wave their newly received diplomas as they exited the stage. And then they made that walk, to the strains of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and got that loud surprise as they turned the corner.
“It makes me very happy to see them so happy. They’ve gotten to the end of their goal, and I feel a small part of what has helped them achieve that,” said another volunteer, Director of Library Services Nita Mailander.
“It makes me cry. They’re coming out, they’re crying, I’m crying. It’s amazing.”
Talk about making an impact. Eight ceremonies might seem like more than enough, but for GCU, eight was great.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.