Degree of success: Online program changed his life
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Three days of Fall Commencement ceremonies began Wednesday, which means three days of honoring graduates – most of whom have overcome significant challenges to reach the stage in Grand Canyon University Arena.
Those challenges might be as simple as working a full-time job and juggling other responsibilities while taking online classes and completing assignments.
But some of these achievers also have had to deal with personal issues, sometimes serious. People like Grant Friedberg – he wants to be an example to others with similar afflictions, and he also wants the world to know what GCU did to help him obtain his degree.
Friedberg has suffered from depression and anxiety issues most of his life, ever since he moved with his father, a business executive, and mother to Singapore at a young age, then to Sydney, Australia, a few years later. Living in three such different countries in such a short time led to social issues.
“I just didn’t know how to fit in,” he said. “Things didn’t start to improve for me until my junior year in high school. I was socially awkward. I had anxiety being around other people my age.
“You’re a 16-year-old kid and you feel alone. You feel like you don’t have any friends even though that’s not true. So that’s scary – feeling like you have nobody your age that you can talk to.”
He twice tried attending college after his high school graduation, but he couldn’t navigate the on-campus experience. “I was never really comfortable,” he said.
Then he discovered GCU, and he made a command decision about his life to go along with the decision about his education: He decided to stop taking antidepressants – which he emphasizes is not something everyone should do. It’s just what worked for him. Everyone’s different.
“I couldn’t live a normal life because the medication knocked me out,” he said.
So he told his mother, Amy Morley, that he wanted to try going without them, then consulted with his psychiatrist.
“And four years later here we are. I’m graduating and work 45 hours a week on top of it,” said Friedberg, a GNC store manager. “I’m not saying stop taking your antidepressants – that’s just my story.”
But an important piece in his newfound educational and developmental success was GCU’s online program.
“These past four years at GCU have easily been the best of my life, and that is mostly because of the success I have had during my time as a Lope,” he said. “The online options that GCU provides have given me the ability to gain an education while working full-time and not being immensely overwhelmed.
“GCU has managed to make an online campus feel like home, and I believe that feeling is so important in finding academic success.”
Friedberg liked the structure of the online classes, which encouraged him to respond to classmates’ posts regularly. He liked the way professors were actively in touch with and responsive to students daily.
“It keeps you engaged,” he said. “It makes you log in. It prevents you from doing everything in one day if you are a person capable of doing that.”
But what he liked even more was the way his counselor, LeeAnn Hudgens, stayed in touch with him.
“She called me every class I was in to make sure I was doing OK,” he said. “It’s just stuff like that that made me feel like people on my team went the extra mile to make sure I succeeded. I had never really had that through a university before.”
He was so moved by that caring communication, he made it a point to visit the GCU campus a little more than a year into his classwork. He was on a visit to Tucson, Arizona, to visit his father and decided a drive to Phoenix. It was worth it, just to walk around.
“I was shocked – the food chains that they have there, the size,” he said.
He had heard about GCU’s high rankings for its campus on niche.com, and now he saw why. “I believe it,” he added.
Now that he has graduated with his bachelor’s in business administration, he wants to raise awareness for people with mental health issues, to believe that they can do what he did. Last week was Mental Health Week at GCU, and the statistics make it clear that Friedberg certainly wasn’t the only graduate Wednesday morning who has overcome some form of anxiety and depression.
“The biggest issue surrounding anxiety and depression is people feeling like there’s nobody to talk to, and I also think there’s a societal stigma specifically around men, that we are supposed to be the protectors in the family,” he said. “That’s what the Bible says. But with that, I feel that in some cases it’s taken too far and we’re not allowed to show any type of sensitivity.
“The message I want people to understand is, that’s not how it should be. It’s 100% OK, and reach out to people if you feel they’re not OK.”
Wednesday morning, Friedberg got the full Commencement experience, complete with the “tunnel walk” — graduates are greeted by the sight and sound of University leaders and staff applauding as they walk out of the Arena.
“We were definitely surprised!” he texted afterward.
He had accomplished the first part of his mission: obtaining a college degree. Now he wants to continue his education by shooting for a master’s and also continue to be an example for others.
GCU’s online program helped make it possible … by making Grant Friedberg feel as if there was no question about whether he fit in.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].