GCU went the extra mile this fall, and so did grads
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the November 2021 issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
They came from Nigeria and from Glendale. They came from Florida and Afghanistan, Peoria and Nebraska.
They came wearing graduation gowns with family who wore sparkling dresses or flip flops – old and young, black and white and brown and every skin shade between. They came wearing prosthetic limbs or new hairdos and mortarboards with messages to the world. (Here’s a slideshow with some of the best ones.)
They came to Grand Canyon University on Mondays this fall for seven makeup Commencements to make up for the pandemic’s delays, to make up for lost time, to make their mark on the world – 7,000 online students marching in waves onto campus with pride and unpacked baggage, healed hurts and pure exhilaration.
This was more than 20 seconds on stage, your name called out after a long flight or ride in the car with the kids.
“Walking down that stage,” said Jacqueline Garcia, her voice breaking as she headed into GCU Arena in early October, “is just everything to me.”
On her mortarboard was a message: “Dreams Do Come True.”
The Los Angeles woman always wanted to get her master’s degree, but a husband, children and career delayed it. Graduates often talked of children, little or not yet born, when they started. Garcia’s are 17, 14 and 7. They talked about our troubled times.
“We had a lot of family members die of COVID. There were times when I didn’t want to get on the computer,” she said. “I was just emotionally drained.”
She was a full-time mom, full-time employee in human resources at the University of Southern California and a full-time student. But with support from her family and coworkers and GCU counselors, she got her master’s in public administration.
“I wanted to show my kids it could be done, and hard work pays off,” she said of driving five hours to Phoenix with her husband and children. “Anyone can show you a piece of paper.”
Dr. Excel Theophilus Ukpohor endured 28 hours of travel from Nigeria. It cost him $2,815.
“This means a lot to me. It has always been among my life goals to get to the pinnacle of my education, and this was it for me,” he said of his doctorate in Business Administration with an Emphasis in Management.
It took him six years, but that late September day when he heard his name called, “I felt very proud of myself. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Others came to get bachelor’s degrees, a goal that Jose Alvarado of Fontana, California, said took 16 years of starts and stops. He works in refrigeration and just wanted this day to be something tangible to hold on to for all that hard work.
They came from other parts of the globe in war and stood on the lawn outside GCU Arena just looking around with smiles that could not be wiped free.
“This is a special day,” said Naimatullah Mohammadi. “She always wanted to be with me at this special moment.”
His wife, Saeeda, was at his side, smiling, not fully understanding English.
Naimatullah came to the U.S. with a work visa five years ago from his native Afghanistan, torn by war. He had worked there for seven years for the U.S. Agency for International Development, providing training and development for the Afghan government.
He returned four years ago to marry Saeeda and since then had worked in the corporate offices of CVS Health in Phoenix, studied at GCU and tackled the immigration paperwork for his wife to join him in Glendale.
“Once she got the visa, all this craziness happened in Kabul,” he said.
As the Taliban began its takeover, she had to quit her job in a marketing firm and wait for an opportunity to get to the U.S.
“There were no flights, but once she heard the U.S. government said it would help people who have a green card, that’s when she went to the airport,” he said. “She was going into a crowd. It was difficult because she was alone and there was no one there for her. It was dangerous. We were scared.
“Finally, she got to the airport and waited a day for a flight. I went to Washington, D.C., to pick her up. It was an exciting time when we saw each other after going through difficult times.”
Naimatullah still talks to family in Afghanistan every day and prays for them and his country. “The Taliban are not good people. We belong to a tribe, Hazara, they are especially against. They are not sure what will happen in the future,” he said.
But it was a day, at last, to celebrate his master’s degree in accounting with his wife.
“She had to go through a lot for me,” he said.
The graduates carried those stories into the Arena, gowns flowing, friends and family filming and photographing with phones, and sat before GCU President Brian Mueller.
“Students from all over the world come to GCU, which is always exciting,” he said. “But it’s especially exciting for the weight of what you had to endure.”
Dr. Breanna Naegeli, Associate Dean of the Honors College, told the students they’re “one of the most ‘grit-full’ classes” ever.
It’s part of the reason GCU went to great lengths to arrange in-person makeup Commencements, which run through Nov. 15 and were sandwiched around three days of regular Fall Commencements for an additional 6,000 online students.
“Those graduates and the guests are very ecstatic and thankful we’ve been able to do this,” said Jennifer Girl, Senior Director of University Event Services, whose team worked tirelessly to pull it off She sent out notices to all those who missed ceremonies in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic and was flooded with responses.
“Oh, it’s absolutely worth it,” said Christy Williams, a Florida woman who flew in from Indianapolis, where she was working as a traveling intensive care nurse on the front lines of COVID care.
“A lot of suffering because of COVID,” she said. “COVID is bad and sad. I couldn’t think of anything else to do but fight it.”
She started working in the kitchen of a nursing home at age 19 because she watched her grandfather slowly pass away and didn’t know what she could do to help. She eventually became a medical assistant but dreamed of becoming a nurse.
Years later, she finally got her bachelor’s degree last April and came to Arizona to celebrate, including a trip to the Grand Canyon, where she fell off an ATV and wrenched her knee.
Williams hobbled across the stage anyway, then took a flight back to Indiana to resume trying to save patients.
The beating heart of the ceremonies were the graduates — from all walks of life. Teachers of Spanish to English speakers, and vice versa. Social workers who help children in foster care, such as Shanetra Chisolm of Sacramento, California.
“I mean, it was hard,” she said of her bachelor’s degree in social work. “But it’s icing on the cake to come to the ceremony.”
There were counselors from Colorado, such as Brandi Grein, who started college at 30 and studied for seven years, the last four in memory of a lifelong friend who committed suicide.
“She had a lot of demons and lost to those demons,” said Grein, a behavioral health specialist at a hospital.
There were enough nurses to heal a weary nation. “I’m in Florida on a COVID floor; you see people die every day,” said Valery Clairvil.
“I want this memory for my children. With an education, you can do anything.”
There were enough moms with kids that a stroller station was set up outside the Arena.
“This is my chance to finally show my kids,” said Kassandra Wise, who missed her undergraduate ceremony because she was pregnant but strolled her 3-year-old daughter into her master’s degree Commencement.
There were middle-age graduates such as Kim Smith, who was told long ago in high school that she never would be more than a C or D student yet could now tell her Texas doubters she had an MBA.
It was, many said, important to celebrate.
They were reminded of that through the past 18 months.
Christopher and Manami Newberry of California got bachelor’s degrees on the same day in early October, inspired by each other, supporting each other.
“I know we finished, but coming here, it feels more like we have done this,” said Manami.
They came with new hope, wearing GCU’s purple, riding shotgun with dad through the desert, or like the Nigerian, Ukpohor, alone on the airplane, looking out the window and recalling when he was told the doctoral journey would be so rigorous he might join the many who quit.
They came to the campus having not quit.
They came because they said it was once in a lifetime.
“Absolutely,” said the nurse, Williams, “it was worth it.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.