Here's an inside look – we'll hold the door open for you
From the November issue of GCU Magazine
Photos by Ralph Freso
Over a few fall days, the story of Grand Canyon University unfolded, one of joy and kindness that seized the campus. In a time of cultural turmoil and social media snark, a positive vibe can sound blindly optimistic. But in big and little moments on the sun-drenched west Phoenix campus, a default setting to busy-ness or brooding is reset, day after day, into something richer.
Jesi Weeks had been working for months on the production of Midnight Madness. It’s an event that a lot of colleges do in the fall, when basketball teams are introduced in the first official minutes of a season. But GCU goes big on it with choreography, costumes, lighting, music and videos put together by Spirit Programs and Event Services and others.
“It’s a story within a sporting event,” the Spirit Programs Manager said of the Cheer, Dance, band and student leaders who tell it.
Weeks was charging across campus early in the week with a million things to do when one of her program’s signs fell over on Lopes Way. From a distance, she watched a student stop scurrying to class and go out of the way to pick it up. It’s an everyday thing that can almost go unnoticed because it’s so common.
“People are thoughtful in their actions and language,” she said. “I just see how students interact with each other and how kind they are, whether they are friends or not. People always hold the door open for you, even if they are 40 feet away from it. That kindness that everyone carries is what stands out.”
So when the doors to Midnight Madness flung open later that week, there was an explosion of togetherness, born of those everyday kindnesses.
They sang in the stands, full-throated, for more than an hour before the event even started.
“Dooon’t ... Stop ... Belieeevin’.”
The popular Journey song, which could be an anthem for the Christian university as much as it’s played, gave way to hip-hop and the event’s rock theme as dancing in the stands ensued in 7,000 Arena seats filled to the ceiling.
Call it Joy U.
Dr. Paul Danuser is the public address announcer at events and a professor. His voice cracked from yelling into the microphone, but before that he tried to explain this contagious spirit, like so many others over several days.
“I’m 63 and I’m here at midnight because I love this,” he said. “I get so much energy from the kids and the alumni who come back, who know that this is special. GCU, as you know, is a special place. There is something special with the students in class, too.”
Five days before, student Grace Wenerski was among those who set up a tent outside the Arena in a public display of enthusiasm called Camp Elliott. That didn’t stop her from walking across campus, lowering herself to the grass in the Tuesday night dusk, and praying with more than 20 students. They sat in circles with bowed heads in the glow of the nearby baseball stadium.
It’s no secret to her where the GCU spirit comes from.
“I love God and I’ve never had a community that loved God, too, so it’s special to me. It’s been an answered prayer in my life,” the freshman said after nearly an hour of prayer with her fellow students. “We get to know each other with a deeper connection. We see how God is moving in individual people.”
Her friend Chloe Stavolt nods. “It’s the people that make the place.”
It’s not in the water, it’s in the people.
“It’s such a tangible feeling when you are out on campus of positivity and kindness that you can almost feel it,” said Erik Nelsen, Director of Spiritual Life. “From our standpoint, it’s God at work. We couldn’t create that on our own.
“That’s the easy answer – well, it’s God. At the same time, here in Student Affairs and Spiritual Life we see ourselves as stewards of what we’ve been given.”
He said they have been given a campus of students to shepherd, to “equip the saints,” as the Bible says, not into a kind of me-first or selfie culture, but one of humility.
“You don’t see a lot of seeking credit, not a lot of students saying, ‘Check out this cool ministry I did.’ It’s really collective. It’s very shared.”
Students are encouraged to lead the campus in this direction, whether it’s Havocs helping design the rock show that was Midnight Madness or creating a soccer ministry for youth in the nearby community or joining a Global Outreach team that serves children of Afghanistan refugees who settled in Phoenix.
It’s on collective display in the enthusiasm of a packed Chapel on Monday and the next day at an event marking the one-year anniversary of GCU CityServe, a celebration of the dissemination of more than $3.5 million of household items and other in-kind gifts to 6,500-plus families in need.
Or in the Tuesday night student-led spiritual event called The Gathering in Antelope Gymnasium.
Grace and Chloe filed in after their prayer session with hundreds of other students. Greeting them at the door was an impromptu line of students, high-fiving upon their entrance.
“The Gathering is a great place to come together and create this positive attitude,” said Grayson Kredit, part of the Worship team and a high-fiver that night. “The energy, the excitement – we’ve got to show our best attitude, and that is infectious.”
Students stood in the glow of the stage as repetitive, four-chord faith anthems filled the gym, producing crescendos with each passing movement. Students closed their eyes and raised their arms.
“The Holy Spirit is definitely working in so many people here. Hearing all those voices of people all around you is incredible,” said student Morgan Ramseier, who got off work just a half-hour before The Gathering and raced to the gym. “I feel surrounded by love. It’s an indescribable feeling.”
God, they are told by Worship Manager Jared Ulrich, “wants to make us alive.”
Out into the dark night on campus, a young woman stumbles a bit off her scooter, her books spilling to the ground. A young man hustles over and kneels before her to pick them up.
It would be easy to label such actions as “GCU nice” or a sort of surface pleasantry born of an enforced conformity.
“I’m a Christian, but they don’t force any beliefs on you here,” said Elise Whitman, sitting outside her tent at Camp Elliott. “They don’t force anything on you. We just want to love on you, but you don’t have to participate.”
That kind of buy-in can’t be enforced. It begins long before a student arrives on campus.
“Part of it is the pool of students we attract to GCU,” said Executive Vice President of Operations Sarah Boeder.
She said GCU recruits students through personal meetings and conversations so that even before they set foot on campus, they know where to connect to find community. They also get a taste for it on Discover GCU campus visits, where they are exposed to the University in an authentic way. Students who choose GCU typically want to experience a deep connection with community.
“The kind of student who says, ‘I only want to go to class and I am not interested in making friendships or anything outside of that,’ is not likely to choose us,” Boeder said. “It’s a big part of who we are. That spirit of community amplifies year after year because the people we are attracting to campus are saying, ‘Oh yes, I want to be a part of that.’”
Senior Camden Marasco, president of GCU’s student body, felt it the first day on campus as a freshman during Welcome Week.
“I was really surprised that upperclassmen wanted to get to know me and cared about me,” he said. “They wanted to go out and get coffee or go hike the Grand Canyon or go to Chapel. The biggest thing was seniors caring who I was, and I try to do that now.”
GCU has maintained a small feel, he said, despite the estimated ground campus enrollment growing to nearly 25,000 students, because so many meet at common events such as Chapel and are unified by causes of faith and service.
Welcome Week sets that tone with everyone cheering their arrival, from staff to seniors.
“Students come into their experience with their own good attitudes because they know GCU’s reputation for high energy and strong community,” said Charity Norman, Director of Welcome Programs. “And the ones responsible for that reputation are our current students and the student leaders on campus – we just help them channel it during Welcome Week.”
New employees feel it, too.
Lauren Thompson left an East Coast university to join GCU this fall as a resident director.
“There was something different about GCU that pulled me out here across the country for a job I already had,” she said. “Realistically, it was the students and managers who were truly hospitable. There is still a hustle here, but it’s not something where they don’t take the time to acknowledge the people around them.”
When Brandi Turner joined GCU a few months ago to lead the new Fostering Futures Scholarship, she was astounded by the outpouring of support for the new program, which offers year-round housing and tuition for students in the foster care system.
Without being asked, the Lopes Shop donated gift bags, Spiritual Life offered prayers for incoming students and University fundraisers reached out to donors for materials to decorate rooms.
“I believe the positive spirit of GCU starts with staff and trickles down to students,” Turner said.
|ESTIMATED ATTENDANCE FOR RECENT EVENTS|
|Lope-A-Palooza: Approximately 7,000 turned out for women’s volleyball match, then stayed for annual pep rally.|
|Midnight Madness: Raucous crowd of approximately 7,000 turns out for late-night event.|
|Chapel: Largest weekly campus gathering regularly draws approximately 6,000 students.|
|Ignite: Worship service to kick off academic year drew about 6,000 students, most of them new to campus.|
It also works in reverse. Employees say they are inspired daily by students who come to GCU. Many enter its foundational programs, such as education, nursing or the growing behavioral health fields.
They are called the caring professions for a reason, and there is a lot of care going on around campus – led by students. “Our administration puts in so many student leadership opportunities on campus,” said Cole Baker, president of the Havocs, best known for their exuberance at basketball games. “So when students come to campus, they have students representing them.”
The Havocs are one example. It’s a name given for all students on campus, and it’s an apt description of enthusiasm.
“My first experience on campus was people yelling my name. You really feel special. You really feel that positive energy,” he said.
Make no mistake, events such as Midnight Madness and routines at games don’t drop out of thin air. Baker said they want it to feel organic, but a lot of work goes into it, led by students who are encouraged to execute their own ideas.
“So we have a huge turnout. It seems like no matter what we do, students turn out,” he said. “They are bought into this.”
At Midnight Madness, they wanted rock. They got rock. Basketball coaches Bryce Drew and Molly Miller wore leather pants and rocker mullet wigs and even smashed guitars on stage to the delight of students.
“We want to thank you for making us feel like rock stars tonight,” Drew yelled to the crowd after mascot Thunder played it up to none other than the AC/DC song, “Thunderstruck.”
It’s a marriage of cross-generational good vibes that is the mark of GCU. Even a middle-aged GCU security guard at the Arena, in her 11th year on campus, couldn’t stop dancing. “The kids, they have it right here,” said Denise Alexander, placing her hand to her heart.
As the weekend gave way to the start of a new week of classes and homework, the hearts kept pumping.
Hundreds of students gathered in the middle of campus to carry flags and march into the night in the One Lope Unity Walk – to celebrate each other and their differences.
“I feel you can find beauty within diversity and unity within diversity,” said student Hannah Trescott, who was born in China.
Sophomore Lizbeth Oliva held the flag of Honduras, where she lived for 15 years. She holds no fondness for Arizona, where she said everyone seems so busy scurrying to work all day to buy stuff and return home alone. But she found a warmth of community at GCU that reminded her of home.
“It’s like family,” added tennis player Adrien Coulome, who came to GCU from France. “Everyone is so nice, not like in France, where this event wouldn’t have two people. I’m just discovering here that it is nice to see everybody involved.”
They marched shoulder to shoulder and cheered through campus. The shouts echoed between the residence hall buildings.
Then they folded up their flags and went back to their rooms, where someone likely opened a door for them and bid them goodnight.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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