Grads go far to applaud in-person Commencement
Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
The first two makeup Commencement ceremonies at Grand Canyon University have shown that no distance is too far when it comes to celebrating a proper in-person graduation.
Bachelor of Educational Studies graduate Pamela Summers and her family traveled 15 hours by car both ways from their home in San Antonio, Texas, to celebrate the momentous occasion Monday. And yet the recent graduate and current Master of Leadership student wouldn’t change a thing: It meant her two sons finally got to see her complete her degree.
“It means a lot for them to see me cross the stage,” she said. “I’m also the first grandchild to get a degree, so it’s a really big accomplishment.
“I went through a lot of trials to get this degree. I struggled a lot with my personal life, so just this accomplishment alone is huge for me.”
Summers’ parents and sons joined thousands of other proud families and friends of graduates to celebrate 2020 and 2021 graduates whose original in-person Commencement was put on hold because of the pandemic.
Fellow San Antonio, Texas, commuter and bachelor of Elementary Education graduate Gloria Banda was nearly brought to tears while reflecting on the journey that brought her to GCU Arena.
After 13 years, the degree she had dreamed of was finally hers six months ago when she completed her coursework. Like any graduate, having an in-person ceremony was her light at the end of the tunnel.
But when the pandemic broke out halfway through her program, that light seemed to dwindle. She almost had given up on the possibility of an in-person ceremony until her husband, Oscar Sanchez, and daughters Natalie, Valerie and Aubrey helped motivate her to sign up when options were made available.
“I was supposed to graduate in 2020, but COVID happened and I couldn’t do my student teaching until after COVID because schools shut down,” she said. “I didn’t want to walk the stage because I just thought, ‘For what?’ After COVID, the girls were like, ‘Mom, you have to walk the stage.’ My husband, who’s been a huge support for me, he was like, ‘You have to walk the stage.’
“He finally convinced me, and I’m so glad that I’m here.”
It was a sentiment felt by numerous graduates as they posed for photos in front of GCU signs and landmarks.
For Kenneth and Ailen Liong, the six-hour drive from their home in Rio Rancho, New Mexico was a small price to pay to celebrate the completion of their degrees. Ailen graduated with her Master of Science in Nursing/Family Nurse Practitioner degree while Kenneth was conferred his Master of Education in Special Education.
“We worked hard for this,” Ailen said. “I think this is the icing on the cake because we did everything last year and this was just the final part of it. We just wanted to do this once and for all.”
Like Summers, the Liongs hope that having this opportunity to participate in a traditional Commencement ceremony can set a positive example for their three daughters.
“We want our children to see that they can also do this,” Kenneth said.
Their whole experience, Ailen said, can be summed up in Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
While some made the journey to the Commencement stage for their children, Bachelor of Business graduate and Army sergeant Dylan Rolen said it was about setting an example for his fellow recruits.
It also was an opportunity for the San Diego native to finally come face to face with his new alma mater.
“I was an online student the whole time, and I’ve always been told the campus is such a nice location and I never got to experience it,” he said. “I just wanted to go through the ceremony. I always see people walking, and it seems like it’s such a great experience. I just figured, ‘Why not have that experience with my fellow students?’”
Rolen drove five hours with his girlfriend to celebrate his degree, which he earned earlier this year.
Another first-time campus attendee was Master of Public Administration graduate and New Orleans politician Anthony Jackson Jr.
Like Rolen, having the opportunity to get the full GCU experience was a priority for the Louisiana native.
“I just felt that desire to walk across the stage,” he said. “I wanted to feel that same intensity that the locals feel. I just had to do it.”
Sure, he completed his program at the beginning of the year, but it was never too late for Jackson, his mother and sister to come out and celebrate in style.
It’s all about going out with a bang, and that’s exactly what he did.
“Like we say in the bayou, ‘You got to throw a little seasoning on it, baby,’” he said with a smile.
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].