‘All In’ talk is a 100% hit at fall commencement
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University commencement ceremonies have featured a string of great keynote speakers over the last few years. But Gian-Paul Gonzalez might be ranked No. 1 in audience appreciation after his talks at the five ceremonies this weekend.
Not only did each presentation repeatedly draw applause for his message and laughter for his wit. He also received standing ovation after standing ovation and, when he went to the lobby Saturday morning to witness the greeting the graduates get as they walk triumphantly out of GCU Arena, he was overwhelmed by thank-yous for more than 45 minutes.
Yes, “All In” is more than just a slogan, it’s a lifestyle, as Gonzalez likes to say. And it’s infectious, too.
(To watch his Saturday afternoon talk, particularly significant because the graduates were entirely members of the College of Education, click here.)
“All In” – the message Gonzalez now famously delivered to the New York Giants during their Super Bowl run nearly seven years ago – was on point with the nontraditional graduates at fall commencement: They’re the ones who struggle to hold down a full-time job, tend to their family and handle countless other responsibilities while also tackling the challenge of completing the work toward a college degree.
“I know what that feels like,” Gonzalez, a ninth-grade world history teacher in Union City, N.J. who was discovered by the Giants because of the goodwill he has spread beyond his classroom, said after his talk. “When I finished my teaching degree and then when I got my master’s, it’s hard enough having a profession and then being married and having a family and then to say, ‘OK, now, 20 to 25 hours a week, if it requires it at times, you’re going to devote yourself to something that people don’t see.’
“People just see you working at a computer. It’s not like a tangible profession where they see you maybe building something or getting paid for it. It’s hard. I resonate with that difficulty but also resonate with the abilities and opportunities that will open up to make a greater impact.”
Gonzalez’s talks are so emotional, you sense that he’s taking it to heart as much as his audience. His words just keep grabbing you, even if you hear them five times in two days.
“That’s how I share,” he said. “I remember how, in preparation for a TED talk they wanted me to do, they said, ‘OK, some of our TED speakers have PowerPoints or they do stuff a little more analytical or they go into the science of it.’ I tried to, but I speak best when I speak from the heart. That’s how I speak to my students in the classroom, and that’s how I speak to my students at the youth center.
“I’m not a great theoretical speaker. Some are really awesome at that. They can talk about theory. I’m only going to share from experience what God has brought me through, and hopefully it can help you – maybe you’re going through the same thing. I just want to be an encouragement.”
Gonzalez’s experience is one of those God things that cannot be fully explained, only appreciated.
He played basketball for Montclair (N.J.) State University – he actually was at GCU for a game at the old North Gym in 2003. Montclair won, but coming back to see such a different place 15 years later meant a lot more to him.
“From that experience to now, being here and seeing all that God has done, so many amazing individuals, like President Brian (Mueller), it’s truly inspiring,” Gonzalez said.
He was set to try to play pro basketball after college but had a change of heart and decided to become a teacher instead. Enter the string of coincidences that led to the phone call from the Giants: He prepped for teaching by working at juvenile detention centers, was asked to start a basketball team at a center five minutes from the Giants’ practice facility, and team officials heard about his efforts.
“I thought nobody was watching,” he told the audience. “I was trying to do it for the ‘least of these.’”
Sometimes, that’s how teachers feel – less valued. No wonder the COE grads in the Saturday afternoon session all got up to give Gonzalez a standing ovation. All 725 of them.
“It was the perfect message for teachers,” said Katherine Lyons, who came all the way from Lacrosse, Wis., to pick up the diploma for her master’s degree in Elementary Education. “It was good to hear someone tell us, ‘You’re here for a reason.’”
Sitting right behind Gonzalez, beaming, during his talk at that ceremony was Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, the COE dean.
“The message was not only inspirational but also very validating for our faculty, staff and students,” she said. “He is one of us, a teacher, and he gets it. To be a great teacher you have to be ‘all in.’ Sometimes the public portrays teaching as an easy job, with summers off. We know better.
“He resonated with our students, as evidenced by the standing ovation. His pride and passion for teaching was infectious. We could not have had a better message or send-off for our graduates. When you look out from the stage at all the graduates’ faces and realize the number of classrooms this impacts, teachers do have the power to change the world, one student, one classroom, one school at a time.”
Gonzalez has become a busy man thanks to his speaking ability. He estimates that he does 80-90 talks a year, mostly in the summer so as to avoid a conflict with his main job. After his last talk at GCU, his flight to Atlanta – where the Giants play on Monday night – was scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m. And he will be back in his classroom Tuesday morning.
But before he left Phoenix, he hoped he had made a difference.
“I just want to inspire them to live to their God-given potential,” he said. “I feel oftentimes we limit ourselves so much in constraints and boxes because we don’t give our all. We choose to go halfway, and if things don’t work out we can always have the excuse that, ‘Oh, we didn’t really try,’ or ‘It wasn’t in the plans.’”
Maybe those were more than standing ovations. Maybe that was all those graduates showing that they intend to stand up and be counted. They’re all in, too.
● For more on how the graduates reacted to Gonzalez’s talks and the overall experience, click here.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.