GCU’s students on target for campus togetherness
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the November 2020 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by David Kadlubowski
When the students came back, they wanted a comeback.
A comeback from months of uncertainty because of a worldwide pandemic. A return to talking face to face and learning. A rally for togetherness in a time of racial unrest and election year divisiveness.
Or, maybe they just wanted to toss a sandbag in a hole with other people who weren’t on a screen.
“Students are like, ‘I don’t care if we have just four intramural sports. We have cornhole!’” sophomore Charles Weed said while helping set up a field of slanted boards with holes on the Grand Canyon University campus this fall. “I was locked up half a year with my parents. I’m happy to get to play anything.”
The sun was setting over the GCU campus, another beautiful night when the desert cools just enough. As far as the eye could see was a playground of young adults on the basketball and tennis courts, on fields kicking soccer balls and hacky sacks, jogging and skateboarding and adapting to a time when the best we can do is be together apart.
“It was pretty clear students are excited to be together,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor. “Six hundred students sign up for cornhole, it tells you how excited they are.”
Cornhole is a new intramural sport, a perfect distancing game born of an airborne virus — 27 feet from hole to hole.
GCU Outdoor Recreation dreamed up something, too.
A couple of weeks later, outdoorsy students were doing what they do in Chacos and Patagonia sweaters, hauling camp stoves and sleeping bags to … camp out on a campus field. Trips off campus were postponed to limit exposure to the coronavirus, so they lit the stoves to make pulled pork sandwiches, sit by a firepit and dream they were on the Mogollon Rim.
“I didn’t just pay for classes, I paid for the campus experience,” said the evening’s guide, Lauren Damour. “What are you gonna do, sit in your room and be depressed?
“Are we really camping? No. But it’s keeping a community for students and that’s a difficult thing to do.”
The campout, like the crate-stacking or log-rolling competitions, introduced events to a whole new demographic that just wanted to try outdoor offerings without taking a longer trip, student leaders said.
There was more activity on campus this semester than last year because students didn’t want to venture out into the wider community and risk spread, said another student, Promise Lattimore. “People are just craving a connection with people.”
It hasn’t been all easy. There was the hassle of mask wearing. For the most part, students complied, especially in the areas of campus where it was strictly enforced, such as classrooms, Chapel and other indoor gatherings, said Griffin.
But some students can feel invincible elsewhere, he continued, while others felt anxious early on: Are we gonna be OK?
They made it OK.
There were clear nights with lights shining on campus fields and courts, where the distant bounce of basketballs and the thwap of a volleyball on the sand courts were welcome sounds of the evening.
There were sunsets washing over students sitting outdoors with their laptops, spaced along Lopes Way on tables and under colorful shade screens, added to provide ample outdoor spaces to gather, study or dine.
There were comic spills into the pool in log roll competitions. One night, the team Lucky Charms was satisfied with its average score of 4.7 seconds.
“You add some time if you jump when you’re falling off,” said freshman Jared Kahn, who did a spectacular belly flop.
They were humbled to hear one young lady danced on the log for two minutes.
There were display tables on the Promenade, a nod to normalcy, to showcase clubs or organizations or causes, the hand sanitizer container on a steady pump.
At the Associated Students of GCU table one day, Chloe Campbell said the adaptions to the virus were full of a creativity and innovation that she hopes will survive after the pandemic is over.
Everyone was creating that same feel of community, she said, especially for new students.
Look no further than the Theatre Department’s production of “The Comedy of Errors,” performed outdoors after hours of building an outdoor stage. Alex Cavanaugh, an actor in the play, said it was important to offer a sense of normalcy, so he worked right alongside shop workers to build the stage.
“It provided me with a lot of hope and optimism,” he said.
Personal warmth also emerged from the ways we are kept apart.
Campbell said she could remember strangers like never before — just from body language or the suddenly expressive eyes above a mask.
Edgar Moreno felt it, too.
“Even though we are 6 feet apart, people will still open the door for you,” he said at the National Hispanic Heritage Month table one afternoon. “Our generosity wasn’t finished.”
He recalled the One Love Awareness Walk upon students’ September return to campus, where students stood on a field, apart but one, “singing the same song, singing the same message.”
The societal strife couldn’t tear them apart, the politics couldn’t separate them.
“We aren’t always going to have the same mindset, the same upbringing, the same beliefs, but we’re reminding people to celebrate our differences and our unity,” said Joseph Bazezew, a student whose parents came to the U.S. from Ethiopia.
“I have personal friends who are conservative. I have certain beliefs and they have certain beliefs, and it doesn’t mean there is a right side or wrong side. If I’m celebrating different ethnic backgrounds, why not also celebrate different political stances?”
A Canyon Activities Board event that said much about our times was the Silent Disco in mid-October, when students were issued headphones on the Quad and in GCU Arena. Looking across the silent Quad as students danced in their own circle to music on headphones, you could sense an inner joy communicated through the distance.
“It’s been a senior year I didn’t expect,” said Nathan Lake, who was dancing with his girlfriend about 10 feet away. “It’s been so awesome. I really love things like this because it feels like we are getting back to normal.”
Organizers said approximately 800 students danced the night away in three shifts. It was odd fun to witness near silence amid bodies gyrating in the dark as colored lights washed over them. One could hear off-key, can’t-hear-my-own singing to Pink: “Don’t be fancy, just get dancy … why so serious?”
Others found similar joy in smaller groups, in quieter venues. Life Leader Christiana Hurtado led seven freshmen from Roadrunner to a safer outdoor Life Group meeting in the courtyard, sitting in a circle with Bibles, their snacks and sandals tossed in the middle.
“It helps to seek out God in these really crazy times,” Hurtado said, adding that it was even more spiritual outdoors. “God created the trees and sky and grass – and us.
“This is a time we are feeling all super overwhelmed with COVID, with school, with the election. It is even more important for us to be a community.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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