A different kind of Move-In, a familiar kind of peace

Story by Rick Vacek and Ashlee Larrison
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau

Alison Barstad didn’t hesitate early Monday morning when she was asked what it has been like to be away from the Grand Canyon University campus for the last six months.

“I missed a lot of friends. I missed campus. I missed GCU,” she said emphatically with nary a breath between syllables, as if she had thought about nothing else since March while staying at her home in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.

Students began moving in all sorts of furniture, some of it well protected, Monday at GCU.

But then she said something truly remarkable:

“There’s a certain peacefulness here that I can’t find anywhere else.”

About 4,000 fellow peace-seekers and their parents filled the busy campus on the first day of Move-In, starting before dawn and continuing well into the evening.

The “Welcome Home” signs and friendly greetings from student volunteers only confirmed that coming back to this place after an unprecedented six months away – or coming to live here for the first time – was worth the coronavirus-induced wait.

GCU President Brian Mueller wasn’t surprised to hear what Barstad said. But he knew where the credit lies.

“It is obvious that God is involved in this place. His presence is here,” Mueller said. “I or our team can’t create that sense of peacefulness. God has to do that working through people. But with all the divisiveness that exists in our country today and our inability to put others first and to get along and to live peacefully, for a student to say that about this environment is overwhelming to me.

“I am grateful for that. I feel extremely blessed to be a part of this. But I’m also highly cognizant of the fact that I didn’t create this. It’s God who created this, His presence is here, and I think as a result of that, the sense of community will be even stronger this year in the midst of this challenge.”

The welcome cloud cover Tuesday morning brought down temperatures.

The challenge had relegated most families to a secluded life together. For Barstad, it was just her and her parents, Rob and Nicole, and Lake Arrowhead is a quiet place anyway.

“There’s not a lot to do,” Rob said.

Still, moving her back to GCU, where she’ll have plenty to do, was a day of mixed emotions.

“I’m still in denial that she’s grown up,” he said.

Geneen Martinez echoed that feeling as she and her husband, Rodney, helped daughter Jontelle.

“I don’t want to let her go,” Geneen said. “I love having her at home.”

But there’s a twist to their story that speaks loudly of why Jontelle was moving in at GCU and not somewhere closer to her hometown of Rio Rancho, N.M. She attended another college last year – her mom’s alma mater – and decided to transfer to GCU to continue her studies in graphic design and digital advertising.

“I understand,” Geneen said, looking at the happy scene outside Sedona Hall. “It’s so organized and welcoming.”

At The Grove, which houses freshmen in four residence halls in the northwest corner of campus, there were “GCU Mom” and “GCU Dad” T-shirts with an occasional Grandma and Grandpa shirt. There also were laughs, hugs and even a few tears as a new generation of Lopes arrived at their new home.

Unpacking the rear of an SUV will be a common sight all week.

Freshman Kaetlyn Jeschky and her mother, Kelly, were among the earliest to move in. The family traveled from Illinois to help make the most of Kaetlyn’s first semester – and, oh by the way, enjoy the warm Phoenix weather, too.

“I’m super excited to make new friends and be in a new environment,” Kaetlyn said.

For Kelly, the excitement stems from getting to watch Kaetlyn take this next step in life.

“We’re going to miss her, but she’s going to spread her wings and fly,” she said.

Trent Hawes was another parent excited see what his daughter Taylor would accomplish at GCU.

“She’s ready for college,” he said. “I’m excited for her.”

Taylor, an English in Professional Writing major, said she was eager to snag a spot on the first day of Move-In because she couldn’t wait to start the in-person college experience after beginning the semester with online classes.

“I just wanted a lot of time to settle in,” she said.

On the other side of The Grove, Justin Vergel De Dios and his family also adapted to a change in scenery as they helped Justin bring his belongings up to his room. The fact that he was homeschooled before coming to GCU made the Move-In experience that much more meaningful.

It's never too early to start creating memories.

“I’m really excited about the community here at GCU and just having the ability to study with my peers,” the Sports Performance major said. “It’s a very different environment for me.”

Selecting Monday as his move-in day was not a hard decision for Eddie Duenas. It was all about finally getting to meet his roommates in person.

“I’ve talked to them through Instagram and stuff, but I haven’t met them yet,” he said.

The Finance and Economics major said he’s looking forward to GCU’s basketball season and hopes he can experience the excitement in person at the games.

And while Monday was still exciting for those freshmen, the only wistful aspect for the student volunteers was that the newcomers couldn’t witness what Move-In is normally like – thousands of students singing, dancing and shouting their name as they drive in, then descending on their vehicle to carry all of their belongings to their room.

Not only did the need for physical distancing during the pandemic limit the number of volunteers, it also forced restrictions on how much they can do.

“I wish we could do more,” junior Ashton Hamilton said. “It’s fun to take over for them and let them feel welcome. But I’m glad that we can at least load up their stuff, say hi to them and let them know we’re here for them.”

The lobbies of residence halls were set up for social distancing.

Nothing can change the fact that it’s still Welcome Week at GCU, a place that knows how to welcome people.

“To me, it feels pretty similar,” said Charity Norman, Director of Welcome Programs. “With as much as we changed Move-In, it still really does have a lot of the same energy and a lot of the same vibe – a lot of the same exciting things, a lot of the same challenges.

“It just feels really, really good to have the students back.”

The feeling, no doubt, is mutual. Finally, after six long months, they are at peace in the place they call home.

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

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Related stories:

GCU Today: Earlier than ever, Move-In is moving and grooving

GCU Today: A family's story of joy and goodbyes at Move-In

GCU Today: Going behind the scenes to make Move-In magic

GCU Today: Move-In unpacks emotions of volunteers, too


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Jesus taught his disciples, saying: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

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