Online grads share tales of pandemic perseverance

October 19, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

GCU President Brian Mueller speaks at the virtual ceremony for Fall Commencement. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

GCU News Bureau

It began like any other Commencement ceremony at Grand Canyon University: Dr. Tim Griffin reading from Philippians 2:1-4 on the fully decorated stage in GCU Arena.

GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda shows the new graduates how to do a Lopes Up. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection in sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.

But Fall Commencement this year was anything but normal. The pandemic forced it online, and the Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor was speaking to a camera, not a packed in-person audience.

That didn’t make this Commencement less special than any others, though. Hardly. GCU President Brian Mueller emphasized its importance.

Dr. Lisa Smith, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, records her talk for the ceremony. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

“I couldn’t be more proud of what our graduates have accomplished during these unprecedented times,” he said. “While COVID-19 conditions still prevent us from having large in-person gatherings such as Commencement, we very much wanted to celebrate our graduates’ accomplishments. They have persevered and responded with grace and determination in order to get to this moment.

“The world needs the intellectual talents, ingenuity, leadership and compassion of GCU’s graduates, and I have no doubt they will go on to accomplish extraordinary things in the future. They will always be part of our Lopes family!”

And these online students still feel part of the Lopes family despite having to celebrate at home. Graduates were asked to share their stories of how they persevered through the pandemic, and their responses show why they will accomplish extraordinary things down the road – because they already have, in many cases with some important help from the University.

The videos:


Colangelo College of Business

College of Doctoral Studies

College of Education

College of Fine Arts and Production

College of Humanities and Social Sciences

College of Nursing and Health Care Professions

College of Science, Engineering and Technology

College of Theology


Suheer Blundell

I had an awesome counselor, Patrick Hairston, who I can honestly say I would not have been able to do this without. I had contacted so many schools for so many years, but it was Patrick who God persuaded me to call one lazy Saturday afternoon. He was the angel God used to fast-track me to my diploma. Patrick spent more than two hours on the phone with me, getting every last piece dialed in. At the end of that conversation, I was set to begin classes the following Monday.

When COVID hit, I lost all of my childcare. My husband is an essential worker, so he was working harder than ever. I was left with just me and a toddler at home, with no help, during the one time in my entire GCU career that I took three classes at once. It was excruciating! Every night I would stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. I was exhausted, mentally drained and on top of it I had my own fears about the pandemic. It was so overwhelming.

But God always comes through. My teachers provided me grace and mercy while God calmed my heart and kept me going. I managed those three classes with two A’s and a B. I am so grateful for God, for my counselor and for my family (especially my husband). It’s been a long and rough ride, but we’ve finally arrived! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, GCU!

–Suheer Blundell


The pandemic had been a huge blessing for educational change, and I am so glad to be part of this. God has completely and perfectly orchestrated my experience, and I couldn’t feel more thankful for GCU, my counselors, mentors and site supervisor.

Even with everything being virtual, I have been able to teach in the classroom with a mask. Navigating social distancing during student teaching has been a real challenge; however, it will make me an even better teacher to have this experience under my belt.

–Steve Higbee



I am graduating with my master’s degree in Educational Leadership. The biggest obstacle during the pandemic for me was completing clinical hours during times of school closures. The ability to use virtual meeting platforms and video lessons helped me overcome these challenges and become successful in my coursework. This experience enabled me to connect with administrators and teachers across my district and state and develop a new sense of collaboration. I am thankful for God and GCU to allow me to finish my degree in the face of uncertainty.

–Stephen Roberts


I used the extra time at home to double up my classes and finish my degree earlier so I can be one step closer to achieving my dreams of obtaining a Doctor of Psychology in Child Psychology. GCU has given me the ability to chase my dreams at my own pace even with all the hectic things that go on in my life without feeling as if I was sacrificing time with my friends and family. As Vivian Greene said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

–MiKayla Hayes


My mother had 10 children. I am number 10. I have worked extremely hard to make my family, my community and my church proud. My last semester I lost my father, in the middle of a course! I screamed, I cried, I prayed. My mom pushed me to continue, and I overcame it through the grace of God. Now I understand the meaning of “Invictus.”

–Buffie Strickland



When the pandemic started, like for many others, my world changed in the midst of so much uncertainty. My work life changed. My husband is a nonessential worker and had to provide full-time distance learning to our four boys (ages 6, 9, 11 and 14) while I fulfilled my role as a registered nurse. Also, we had to have some tough conversations with our inquisitive children about racial inequalities (what it means and what to do from here).

It has been a challenge, but by the grace of God, we have found so many beautiful things to be grateful for despite the ugliness of the pandemic. We have come to embrace time with each other, listen more and really appreciate life.

–Charlisse Bennett


I have earned my Master of Science degree in Health Care Administration not only in the face of a worldwide pandemic, but also as my husband and I planned for and welcomed our first child into the world – my graduation day also was my daughter’s first birthday. I am a woman who is now stronger than ever, smarter than ever and a resilient remodel for my family. Thank you, Grand Canyon University!

–Jordan Dodeward



I earned my master’s in Special Education even though I am learning disabled myself and have been teaching in-person classes since Aug. 17. It has been a challenge with special needs children to get them to use hand sanitizer, keep their face masks on and social distance while also learning Zoom and Google Classrooms. GCU has helped me with my archaic academic skills from my college experience 30 years ago.

I tell my students, “If I can learn with my old brain, then you can do it with your young brain!” I couldn’t have done this without the love, prayers and encouragement from my family, friends and GCU’s amazing staff supporting me, and God’s great plan for me!

–Carri Stolteben


I have wanted to obtain my Bachelor of Science in Nursing for many years but couldn’t do it because of family dynamics. I finally made up my mind to go through it in 2019. Even when the world was hit by the pandemic, it did not stop me. I am excited to be among the graduating students. To God be all the glory!

–Elizabeth Ajuronu-Okafor


After a 12-year hiatus from college (it was only supposed to be a year), I am grateful to be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. I am able to show my girls, ages 13 and 7, that my perseverance is only rewarded as a result of the work that was invested into my courses.

Before the pandemic, I home-schooled my youngest child while my oldest attended a local private Christian school. As the pandemic has flipped our educational world upside down, we are now a fully home-schooling household. Education has been the prevalent theme and climate of our home this year. It has been hard at times but immeasurably worthwhile.

–Maria Delgado


I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in February, and she is surviving through a pandemic. That is a blessing within itself, but God didn’t stop there. On Saturday, I graduated with my master’s in Elementary Education. All of the sacrifices and the life changes that I’ve experienced during this journey have paid off. This year I was tested like never before and I came out on top.

–Helen Seifu


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In 1985, my mom graduated with her nursing diploma from the nurse’s training program at St. Joe’s Hospital (first picture). She’s succeeded in many areas of the healthcare field since that time. She’s also said for many years that she wanted to go back to school to get her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN), but she was always hesitant because she hasn’t been in school for so many years. I’ve always known she could do it — and now she’s done it!! Yesterday we celebrated her graduation with her BSN and a 3.98 GPA from Grand Canyon University. Words truly can’t express how proud I am of my mom. While being a full time student, she also worked full time, is a caregiver for my dad, and continues to be a rockstar mom! #GCU2020 #BSN #nurse #badass #ongoingsuccess

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This has been a very tough road, but with Christ at the center, failure was not an option. The daily scriptures that my professors posted really helped me to stay focused and continue to strive, even in the midst of a global pandemic. GCU has been an amazing school, and I would recommend it to anyone. I started this journey back in 2017, and God has brought me to the end. All the glory to God!

–Jessica Miller


While I faced many challenges this past year, such as having a demanding job and being a sports mom, none compared to July 15, when I tested positive for COVID. I was very ill but managed to keep pushing through, completing my assignments to make it through the class at the time. I wanted to make sure that COVID would not keep me from achieving my goal.

I am still not 100% and have faced some health issues and struggles since then. But the good Lord carried me through, which is why this degree means so much to me. It is proof that I didn’t let anything hold me back and that I continued to fight through the challenges to prove to my two sons that with the good Lord, all things are possible!

–Desiree Ontiveros Sanchez


While struggling to complete my B.A. in Christian Studies, I had severely immobilizing back issues. But with the help of the Lord, I was able to finish my degree four days before I had back surgery and am now 100% pain-free, able to walk again and ready to celebrate! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). I am truly blessed!

–Maria E. López


I am a single mother living in Brooklyn, New York, which at one time was the heart of the pandemic. Everything was ordered to close at once. I had to move my preschool classroom online, my 10-year-old fifth grader and my grad class already were online, managing everything was a struggle, and we were working with only one laptop.

The most difficult time was listening to the news each day and talking with family and friends who were working on the front line. I tried to be a listening ear when they got home from work and needed to talk because I could not give them a shoulder to cry on. I thank God I did not lose any family members or close friends. I did have a few close family friends that had COVID-19 and had to be in the hospital on a ventilator for months.

There were many times I wanted to give up on completing my degree because there was too much going on all around me, and I could not focus on schoolwork. I found the time to just keep working at it, taking it one day at a time. And here I am, graduating with the Class of 2020 with my master’s in Special Education. I give all thanks to God!

–Carmeal Gumbs      


I am a hospital nurse at one of the worst hit COVID-19 hotspots, the Rio Grande Valley. It was exhausting working in shifts of 12-14 hours in full PPE gear, coming home to my husband and three kids, staying up to do homework, and repeating it all over the next day. However, I managed to keep my 4.0 GPA throughout my BSN program and was on the President’s List twice. I could not be where I am today without God and without the full support of my husband and my family. After 16 years of being an RN, I am proud to say I am now an RN-BSN.

–Diana Ortiz


I was able to continue my studies during the pandemic because of the online platform provided by GCU. My classes were not disrupted, which meant that pressure was not an issue. I am proud to come to the end of this program, for continuing to study and for being determined to finish strong. Thanks to the GCU faculty and staff as well as my cohort for this wonderful experience.

–Suzette Robinson


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Today I celebrate every little girl/boy/adolescent/woman/man who comes from humble beginnings. Who carry hopes and dreams that seem forever out of reach. I celebrate those that are afraid to go to sleep knowing what tomorrow will bring. Those that are unsure of themselves and their worthiness. The women who suffer in silence and carry their mistakes as their identity. The men who feel pressure every day to wake up and fight. I celebrate the flaws, obstacles, tears, mental illness, and imperfections. Most of all, I celebrate the journey and everyone that is part of it; both past and present. Thank you to my beautiful family for motivating me to keep going. Today, I prove to the little girl in gold that our life experiences were worth it. Every bad moment, good moment, and indifferent. We did it… and with a 4.0 no less. I don’t know what’s next, but whatever it is I’m glad you all are with me. I’M DONE! ☑️ 💜✌️#gcu2020

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I always heard, “There goes Monique with that backpack. She always carries that backpack to every party or event.” To all my kids, there’s one word I would like to give you: dedication. Do not let any roadblock stop you from your dreams.

–Monique Keeles


After 31 years, I retired from the school district and decided to return to school to complete what I started in 1982. Not only did I do it for myself, I did it for my deceased mother. I wanted to make her proud and I wanted to be an example for others, showing them that you are never too old to return to school. I love learning and I love GCU.

–Deloise Trotter


I am one of those old-school nurses and was scared to go back to school. But when I talked to Jeff at GCU, I was in and the rest is history. I would like to thank the GCU staff, professors and my classmates who were with me during this journey. It was not possible without all the help and support provided by each and every one of you. If I can do it, you can, too, and I am sure GCU will make it possible for you.

–Ravinder Kaur


If the graduation ceremony had been in person, I still wouldn’t have been walking down the aisle after earning my Special Education degree with honors. Because of the pandemic, it wasn’t possible for me. I feel as if I have worked so hard to get this degree but am not able to get recognized for it. But I’m very fortunate that GCU was there with me every step of the way. Thank you, Grand Canyon University, for all that you have done. You made my dreams come true.

–Heather Phelps


My decision to change careers at this stage of my life was quite interesting but has taken quite a turn this year. After the realization hit of how the “new normal” will be, it was an adjustment for me and my family — particularly when I was laid off because of the pandemic. I reorganized my educational approach, asked for help from my family and friends and, with a clear focus, was able to conquer this obstacle. The journey seemed so long, but now I am starting a new one.

–Sarah Pierre


During the pandemic, I lost my youngest sister and, within weeks, my younger brother. But with the help of family and friends and the understanding and empathy of my instructors, I was able to see it through. Rather than mourn death, I celebrated the life of my siblings and the future life for me. Moving forward can be hard, but it also can be therapeutic. I am moving forward, thinking how proud my brother and sister would be of me right now.

–Rebecca Robinson


I come from a Spanish-speaking family with few English language skills and am the mother of five children. I decided to pursue a master’s in Special Education because I want members of my community to know that I have been in their place – two of my children have special learning accommodations. I want people to know that everything is possible.

–Brenda Verdugo


Being a single mother of five small children, working a full-time job and earning my degree was definitely a challenge. God has granted me strength, courage and faith to keep moving forward and provides me with supportive family and friends. This has been a tragedy for many families experiencing losses in many forms. I pray and mourn for all Americans who have suffered any loss because of this pandemic.

–Christy Pope


I was a little skeptical about doing online classes because I am more of an in-person learner. I had just gotten married a few months before I started school and moved to a new city. I work full time and got pregnant early last year – now we have a 9-month-old baby girl. I have been in school the whole time, and let me tell you that it was quite a journey. But at the end of it I am so proud of myself. I am the first in my family to have a degree and am so thankful for my husband’s support. I was very sad that I couldn’t walk for my graduation, but I am glad GCU made it happen virtually.

–Sheena Medley


GCU came to my school’s beginning-of-the-year pep rally and offered me a master’s program completely online. I said, “Let’s do it!” That very same week, my husband got a job offer nine hours away from home and took it. “Now what do I do?” I thought. I kept going! Then spring break rolled around and the pandemic shut down schools. But the pandemic was a blessing in disguise. I was home with my kids, teaching/working from home and taking classes from home. Here we are 11 classes later – we made it!

–Valtie McKnight


I went through a year of debilitating back and leg nerve pain before having a double spinal fusion. Five months later, my car was rear-ended and I had post-concussion syndrome. Three weeks ago, my father passed away and I broke my hand. Through it all, my wife has been my rock and greatest supporter. I would not have made it through the program otherwise.

–Bill Rainey


What got me through this journey was not only strict determination, proper time management and prayer, but unprecedented perseverance and absolute dedication. I went through so many tribulations to achieve this dream and this goal. I gave up a lot. What I am gaining in return is so much grander. I did it!

–Carissa Sahlsten


I am so grateful that my GCU education continued without interruption during the pandemic. Some of my peers at my practicum site are attending different universities, and their courses were paused because of COVID-19 restrictions.

I appreciate the diligence, flexibility and coordination of the administration and faculty at GCU in transitioning throughout COVID-19. I had no idea that my practicum would be spent conducting telehealth while also working full time remotely, yet it has prepared me in more ways than I anticipated and is reflected in my refined counseling skills. Lopes alumnus 2020!

–Shae Williams


I live in Louisiana and faced getting laid off because of COVID, then had to survive three hurricanes. I pushed through doing my schooling online and still persevered and made A’s and B’s. The Lord has helped me push through.

–Krystal Rich


The pandemic challenged families in ways we would have never imagined, but it quickly brought into full focus my vision for how I could help others by earning my master’s in Professional Counseling and becoming a therapist. I became instantly recognized in my community as a vital worker although I was only a student working to gain hours of supervised experience. GCU supported my efforts, the amazing people in my life encouraged me through the difficulties and long days, and God’s grace carried me across the finish line as I approached a different kind of exhaustion. I pushed through and I DID IT!

–Rachelle Kitchen


Even though Commencement is virtual, it is still an awesome accomplishment, especially for me. Over the past year, I have had major health issues and still do, but when the pandemic occurred it made me push even harder through it all. The pandemic is something we cannot get around, so I made the best out of it and on my way to becoming a future educator, and that is all what matters at this point!

–Ellisha DeShazer


My degree is Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. When I imagined my student teaching, I thought I was going to be in a brick-and-mortar school, but I am doing it virtually. Yet I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to learn from and teach among some of the most supportive and helpful online teachers. I am also thankful for the counselors who helped us all find placement during these hard times. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

–Kimberly Walton


I earned by Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from GCU in 1996, so when I finally decided to come back to GCU to earn my master’s degree in Communication with an Emphasis in Education, there was no question where I would attend. I have always been a Lope! I have worked hard as an online student this past year while also teaching my seventh and eighth grade science students online and in person during the pandemic. My motto the last 18 months has been, “Actually, I can.” And I did.

–Stephanie L. Smith-Goodson


I live in Canada and enjoyed the spiritual and academic support in my well-organized program. The support team I had was awesome. I got a call weekly to see how I was faring, and if I needed extra help, my permission was obtained for every transaction. My wonderful instructors took time via phone calls, Zoom, etc. to ensure all my questions were answered. Best of all, I had people to pray with — and for — my success. That was really important to me. I am grateful for GCU and its staff and surely would recommend this university.

–Olubukunola Akinwuntan


Obtaining my master’s in Elementary Education wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my family and my friends. I was working full time when the pandemic hit and had to home school a first grader and a preschooler and stay home with my toddler.

With child care centers closed and not wanting to risk our children’s health, my family stepped up to help watch them. They have stepped up even more now since I’m student teaching in another city three hours from home and I’m able to come home on weekends only. My friends provided me with someone to vent to when I’m feeling stressed and helped me to study for the teaching licensing state test.

I’m a first-generation college graduate, and none of this would have been possible without the support of my husband, Kile, my Aunt Jennifer and my friend Jordyn. Thank you all so much. 

–Traci Nazario-Davis


Although I tested positive for COVID-19, my God never left me. He provided me the strength and guidance that brought me to this point in my career and life today to be virus-free. I am graduating because of the love of my amazing savior, Jesus Christ, my family, my site supervisor and the GCU staff. I know I couldn’t have done it without all of you.

–Carolyn Jenkins-Walker


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