GCU’s ‘11 ceremonies of joy’ start making memories

April 22, 2022 / by / 0 Comment
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College of Education Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield hands out diploma sleeves during Spring Commencement on Thursday night.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

It’s a moment that will play out thousands of times in 11 ceremonies over six days of Spring Commencement in Grand Canyon University Arena.

The graduates line up in the aisles on either side and wait their turn to climb the steps to the stage and accept a diploma sleeve from the dean of their college or another administrator.

One they have it in hand, they turn to family and friends in the crowd, hold up their new prized possession and wave, pump their fist, raise both arms in exultation – whatever fits their personality.

Maybe they rehearsed their reaction. Maybe it was spontaneous. Doesn’t matter. This is the moment they and their families and friends will remember.

This is what makes Commencement higher education’s Super Bowl of achievement.

It’s why GCU puts so much effort into Commencement, right down to reading every graduate’s name aloud as they march across the stage.

It’s also why faculty and administration members onstage never tire of watching this scene play out.

Monotonous? Hardly. Momentous is more like it.

GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda considers Spring Commencement “11 ceremonies of joy.” (File photo)

It began Thursday evening with a ceremony for traditional graduates of the College of Education (COE) and College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS).

The rest of the graduates from the ground campus were set to experience the feeling Friday, and then the adult (nontraditional) learners take the stage in seven more ceremonies next week.

“We’re going to have 11 ceremonies of joy,” GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda said before it all began.

Radda often has had the privilege of handing out the diploma sleeves. He has tried various techniques.

Sometimes, he’ll say, “Congratulations, you did this!”

He loves the reaction.

“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I did! Praise the Lord! I did!’” he said. “And you hear their family scream from the back or a husband or a wife or a grandmother or a son or a daughter.”

College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Dr. Sherman Elliott realizes that it’s the graduate’s moment, not his.

Dr. Sherman Elliott has been doing this drill since being named the CHSS dean in 2014 and got another opportunity Thursday night. He never tires of it “because for them it’s such a joyful moment.” But he also has learned something from it.

“I’ve noticed that even though I’ll stare at them and make intense eye contact, they completely ignore me. It took me years to figure out, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It finally came to me that I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s all about that moment for them,” he said.

“They are just so euphoric, they grab the diploma sleeve out of my hand and turn to their family. That’s what that moment represents.”

Dr. Meredith Critchfield, on the other hand, is relatively new to this process. She was named the COE dean last summer and got her first opportunities to hand out diploma sleeves at the makeup Commencements last fall.

One moment in particular stood out: A graduate with a disability was the last one in line and needed several minutes to get up the steps and walk across the stage.

She loved “the look of satisfaction in that young man’s eyes – that feeling of success that he had made it.”

It got even better when she looked out and saw the crowd’s reaction.

“To see everyone out there with tears in their eyes feeling the joy for this fellow graduate, it was really special. I’ll never forget that. It was really beautiful.”

Critchfield loves watching the graduates’ reactions.

Critchfield found that she was smiling so much during each ceremony, her cheeks hurt afterward. She had to stretch them out to dull the pain – a joyful pain.

“I was just smiling so big because they were all so happy and so joyful in those moments that the only human thing to do was just to feel their joy back and smile as big as you could,” she said.

“I tell people, ‘This is why we do what we do.’ To be anything but joyful is impossible. All you feel is excitement for these students who worked so hard to get to where they are.”

All three administrators smile once more as they think about what leads to this. They think of all the late nights of discussion questions and essays and rewriting these graduates have endured.

“I just feel grateful because after all we’ve been through that make the world a harder place to live in, there still is desire, the human spirit, to go to college and accomplish something,” Elliott said. “It makes life more meaningful.”

The reaction that’s unique to GCU: the Lopes Up.

Radda particularly appreciates what it means for adult learners who had to juggle a family and career.

“People have worked really hard,” he said. “You don’t get that degree online without working really, really hard. That’s why they laugh sometimes when we say to them, ‘Anyone want to do more DQs and rewrite their participation and rewrite the draft to the paper?’

“Every one of those is a story. Every single one of them.”

But it all comes down to that magical moment onstage.

“It’s funny,” Critchfield said, “because joy sits in different ways for people. For some people, it’s tears of relief, and their joy is that they finally got to this milestone – for some people, after 45, 50 years of trying. So for some people it’s crying. Other people it’s dancing. Other people it’s high-fiving, smiling.

“There’s a whole range of emotions, but it’s absolutely 11 ceremonies of joy.”

The joy began Thursday night, but it will live on in the graduates’ hearts for the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s so much more than just one moment … and why these thousands of moments add up to millions of memories.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU Today: First-generation graduates show their gratitude

GCU press release: GCU to graduate 30,000 students in 2021-22 academic year


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