By Bob Romantic
GCU Today Magazine
When Denise Devine walks across the stage for commencement at GCU Arena on May 4, her dreams fulfilled, she’ll do her best to tune out the thousands of people in attendance and focus on the task at hand.
But not for long.
She’ll have a cheering section waiting to embrace her afterward.
“It’s going to be surreal,” said Devine, who will be getting her master’s degree in professional counseling. “I’m starting to have a panic attack just visualizing it in my head.”
For Devine, 51, the excitement surrounding the 2,600-mile trip from her home in Billerica, Mass., for commencement is understandable. It will complete a journey she first envisioned as a high school student more than 30 years ago but had plenty of obstacles along the way.
She initially postponed her goal of becoming a therapist, opting instead for a more financially viable plan to get an associate’s degree and go to work as a psychiatric nurse.
On Feb. 3, 1998, that all came crashing down when Devine was kidnapped by one of her patients, tied up, strangled and sexually assaulted. She survived the ordeal, thinking only about her children David and Jamie, who were 4 years and 6 months old, respectively, at the time.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Devine said. “God was with me on that trip and He protected me and I was able to come back safely and be with my kids. … I still think about that every day, but it doesn’t rule my life. I didn’t let him get the best of me. I went to counseling and did what I needed to do to get myself better.
“That’s what I hope to do with other young women (as a therapist) is help them work through their issues and not give up and think their life is over because someone did something bad to them.”
Recovery was difficult initially – “I didn’t even want to leave my house,” Devine said – but a friend, Dawnmarie Zeller, was instrumental in getting her back on her feet.
“She was like a pitbull,” Devine said of the prodding and encouragement of Zeller, who eventually persuaded her to meet with the executive director of Merrimack Special Education Collaborative, a public school in Massachusetts for students with behavioral issues.
Devine initially worked just one hour per day, but by September of that year she was back to full time.
“I love my job,” said Devine, now the lead nurse at MSEC. “We get kids who come to us kind of angry, with low self-esteem and don’t want to buy into the program. But by the time they’re done, they don’t want to leave us.”
Devine’s life took another turn when her husband, Mark Johnson, died in July 2007. That prompted her to return to school to make a better life for herself and her children. She completed her undergraduate work online at Ashford University, then turned to Grand Canyon University to work on her master's and fulfill her dream of becoming a therapist.
She called GCU in April 2010 and connected with Enrollment Counselor Amy Starr.
“Honest to God, her voice is so soothing to me,” Devine said. “I was nervous and anxious and didn’t know if I could do it. But she has contacted me every week since then to check on me. She has been my constant, my cheerleader and my confidant. Without her, I don’t know if I would be sitting here today, preparing myself for the greatest event of my life, besides my children.”
On May 4, Zeller’s cheering section will include Starr, Zeller, her two children, her mother and her fiancé as she makes her way across the GCU stage.
“She is an amazing woman with all of the things she’s gone through and still been able to accomplish,” Starr said of Devine. “And she’s a 4.0 student. She deserves it; she is such an awesome lady. She will make big difference not only in her state but the lives of all the people she touches. To say she was able to accomplish her goals and go to school here, it's amazing that we had a part in that.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 602.639.7611 or [email protected].