After 40 years of valleys, woman commences to peak
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Jo Harper was the last person to arrive for Commencement on Monday night at Grand Canyon University. The photos and pomp were done, the speeches wrapped up. She hustled in and sat next to an empty chair toward the back of hundreds of graduates on the GCU Arena floor just as names were about to be read.
She was not rattled one bit.
When the College of Humanities and Social Sciences students’ names were called, Jo Harper was the last to walk across the stage for her bachelor’s degree in psychology – against all odds, and after 40 years of peaks and valleys.
It’s all she wanted to do – drive to Phoenix from Los Angeles and walk that stage.
In many ways, Harper represents many who arrived from near and far for seven Monday makeup Commencements, wrapping up in two weeks. (Here’s the slideshow from Monday.)
She showed determination during a pandemic, never gave up and endured.
The exuberant graduate issued high fives to every hand in the cheering line outside the Arena.
“After all the ups and downs,” she said, “this is the best I’ve felt in my life.”
Harper said she has endured dyslexia, attention deficit and post-traumatic stress, survived an accident at age 25 when a drunk driver caused the death of three friends, conquered alcoholism and homelessness and yet walked across that stage.
It was as if the sweep of more than 50 years was in her teary eyes outside the Arena, describing an idyllic childhood with 11 siblings: Mom yelling on the porch at dinnertime, all the kids running from every direction to make it on time – “There go the Harpers,” the neighbors said. A childhood with a father who taught at University of Southern California and “was all about education,” who loaded them in a “Scooby-Doo van” to travel to a San Francisco opera or a Washington, D.C., museum.
Yet his daughter couldn’t understand words because “I had things backwards,” Harper said.
Her dad, Earl Harper, taught her a way to learn despite dyslexia, even after he got sick and lost his job, and the family moved to a poor neighborhood of gunshots.
The trials were relentless. An accident killed her friends in 1986, leading her to the military, when in Iraq she witnessed a soldier’s suicide. She came home a bit broken, only to face her father’s death in 1990.
“I went on a drinking tirade. I was the biggest alcoholic in the world,” she said. “I ended up on the streets for a couple of years.”
Her family intervened, and she got sober for a while but went back to it. “I was in a black hole, always at the bottom.”
Harper said the defining moment came in 2006 when she rolled her vehicle three times but survived with minor injuries. Her son, Dwayne L. Smith Jr., who was in high school then, told her God had blessed her.
“From that day on I did not drink,” she said.
She read the Bible, and one day tears just streamed down her cheeks.
“I felt the Holy Spirit. It was the best feeling I had, and right then I knew I was going to be all right,” she said.
That’s a lot, she knows.
But after all that, her dad’s words on education still echoed inside. She reached out to GCU in 2017 and talked to university counselor Tabbatha Heritage, who would become her confidant, her “sister from another mister,” through four years.
“I’m thinking in my head I am not worthy,” she said.
Heritage pointed her to GCU’s Student Disability Services to help her deal with her medical diagnosis while meeting her requirements.
Heritage and Harper talked for a half-hour each week about everything happening in Harper’s life and education.
“I know she says I helped her out so much,” Heritage said. “Really it was all her, her persistence, her ability to overcome all these obstacles she had in her life.”
At times, Harper wanted to quit but encouragement filled her ears, from Heritage and many others.
“You had PTSD, dyslexia and ADHD, you can do this,” her son told her.
When she encountered trouble while studying online, she got on the phone.
“I called everybody at GCU. There was not a mean person. They would do their best to find out what you need,” Harper said. “Tech support? Those guys know me by heart: ‘Hey, JoJo, what’s new? Please don’t tell me, PowerPoint?’”
That’s why she drove all the way to Phoenix, fought some last-minute traffic, rushed to the Arena and heard her name called.
Outside afterward, she almost whispered, looking around at the crowd in gowns that filled the lawn.
“Look at all those people,” she said. “Isn’t it something?”
Each carried their own stories to GCU, creating an aura of spirit throughout the fall.
“I’m not done. I want to go for my master’s degree,” Harper said. “I want to give back. If I can help people, I’ve done my job.
“I am taking that degree and going out to help my brothers and sisters, because I struggled and I know. I am not done.
“If I can do this, anything is possible.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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