Commencement a magical time for 1,900 GCU grads

Stories by Janie Magruder and Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

It was good to be home.

On Saturday, commencement returned to Grand Canyon University's campus and a more spacious Arena that had been closed for the past two graduations due to an expansion project last spring and summer. The extra seats were a blessing — family members and friends of nearly 1,900 nontraditional graduating students poured into the Arena for morning and afternoon ceremonies.

With great pomp and circumstance, audience participation and a bit of flashy magic on stage, the University conferred degrees to students in two new colleges — the Colangelo College of Business and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the College of Arts and Sciences) — and in the colleges of Doctoral Studies, Education, Nursing and Health Care Professions and Theology.

Following music by GCU's Thunder Big Band and the procession, Dean of Students Pastor Tim Griffin offered a unifying invocation, from Philippians 2:1-4: "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

That selflessness shined throughout the Arena as guests happily traded cameras to take photos of complete strangers and their graduates and, after the ceremony, as dozens of guests who'd been seated in the Arena's second deck waited patiently on the stairs to the first floor, then collectively and widely cheered as GCU's newest alumni emerged.

In introducing the commencement speaker, entertainer Justin Willman, GCU President/CEO Brian Mueller talked about the magic of obtaining a college degree through online coursework, as all of Saturday's graduates had done.

"Some people would say that to go back to college at 28 or 32 or 54 or 62 would require a little magic," Mueller said. "I know you know there is no magic in what you have done. You have written the papers, responded to the discussion questions, carried the people in your group that at times didn't carry themselves.

"But there is something magical about all of us coming together today to celebrate what you have done."

Here's some of what they did and what we saw (click here to see a slideshow) Saturday:

Janie Magruder

Lifelong learner goes the distance

For Susan Ogunnowo, Saturday ended a journey spanning 36 years and about 6,700 miles. She began a nursing career at age 19 in her homeland of Nigeria, then came to the U.S. with her family in 2002.

Education for Ogunnowo’s three children, who now work in the fields of pharmacology, electrical engineering and accounting, and for herself — she also has B.S. in Health Education and a Master of Public Health and is working on a Ph.D. in Public Health — was always important to her.

The Houston woman started classes at GCU in November, crediting the enrollment staff for piquing her interest and, as time went on, alumni for encouraging her. Ogunnowo worked straight through on her B.S. in Nursing. No breaks. It wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t just want to get a BSN, I wanted to make sure I got all the benefits that are attached to that BSN and becoming a nurse in the 21st century,” she said.

Currently working part time as a home-health nurse, Ogunnowo, 56, intends to be a leader in her field, from contributing to health education in her African nation, to helping train tomorrow’s nurses in an American hospital.

“I bless God for all He has already done, and pray He will use me to impact my community more than I've ever done," she said. "I also appreciate my husband of 32 years, Steve. He's my friend and support.”

Janie Magruder    

Life isn't supposed to be a cake walk, speaker reminds graduates

Justin Willman started his commencement address humbly. You know, since not everyone in the Arena recognized the “dude from ‘Cupcake Wars.’”

“I’d also like to thank whoever was their first choice for not being available,” joked Willman, who hosts both “Cupcake Wars” and “Last Cake Standing” on Food Network and has appeared on a variety of TV shows.

The Los Angeles-based comedian and magician dazzled the audience with his magic, even making a banana “disappear” with the help of a rogue Siri on his iPhone after the robot misunderstood banana for “bandana” (forcing Willman to get a squishy handful of fruit all over himself, though the banana did vanish).

With plenty of laughs to guide him, Willman said he started doing card tricks as a kid after he broke both his arms in a bicycle accident, while wearing rollerblades, as he was showing off for some girls. A doctor prescribed card tricks to build his dexterity and hand coordination as he rehabbed the injury.

Just like that, he had found his purpose after winding up in the hospital.

“But how do we find our purpose without breaking any bones?” Willman asked the audience, alluding to the GCU slogan that every graduate knew so well. “We do it by living, loving and believing.”

Belief, he said, is what makes life a magical experience, and enables us to live and love, and to make the most out of our fleeting time on Earth.

“It’s not fun when it’s simple,” Willman reminded the graduates. “We want it to be magic, right?”

Michael Ferraresi                      

New grad bleeds purple — with glitter

If Webster’s had an entry for “GCU cheerleader,” a photo of Vanessa Jones would appear alongside.

And she somehow would be wearing three hats: one as GCU’s disability services administrator, one as commencement captain and one as a new University graduate. On Saturday, when Jones wasn’t helping grads and guests with accommodations in the Arena, she donned a cap and gown and received a master’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in general psychology. Then she got back to work.

Disability services manager Beth Jamison, Jones’ supervisor, recalls the intensity of the 27-year-old as she was telling a new worker about GCU’s all-employee meetings and oozing enthusiasm about everyone cheering and doing the “Lopes Up” hand signal.

“Vanessa’s absolutely an employee who not only bleeds purple, but bleeds purple with glitter,” Jamison said.

Jones also has a personal connection to students who may struggle with various disabilities because she has Muscular Dystrophy.

“When students talk to her about struggling to get their work done and having all these other things to do, she shares her personal experiences as student, and it’s just very inspiring,” Jamison said.

Jones joined GCU as an unpaid intern in 2010, then worked in ground enrollment until 2013 when she moved to Jamison’s team. She has worked one-on-one with students to  support and ensure their access to programs and also helped improve their learning tools. For the past four commencements, including Saturday’s, she's led the team that provides disability services at graduation.

“Vanessa worked so hard at a time when GCU and our office were growing so fast, and she didn’t miss a beat,” Jamison said. “She’s outstanding and she exemplifies our working adult students who face all kinds of challenges in life — working, family, personal issues — and still achieve amazing educational goals.”

Janie Magruder

Virginia math teacher earns (sleepless) doctorate

Just earning her bachelor’s degree and master’s was a huge accomplishment for Cindy Norton.

She was the first member of her family to earn a college degree. But after working 27 years in public schools, primarily as a math teacher, she dedicated herself to GCU’s online Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership.

Norton and her husband traveled from their home in Jonesboro, Va., to rendezvous with a friend in Charlotte, N.C. then flew to Phoenix for Saturday’s commencement ceremony. She had already been to campus for doctoral residency programs but was thrilled to be recognized for her accomplishments with the other graduates.

For the 57-year-old teacher, it was the end of a long journey, but the beginning of a new one, too. She hopes the doctorate will help her secure a job at a Virginia university developing math curriculum and educating novice math students, issues around which her doctoral experience was tailored.

“You don’t sleep,” Norton joked about doctoral studies. “But I’ve never slept much anyway, so that wasn’t a big problem. There were nights when I worked until 2 or 3 a.m. on assignments, but I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the research too.”

Her dissertation was focused on remedial math in higher education and the need to address shortages in math-oriented jobs in the U.S.

“The residencies were great, they were very helpful,” Norton said. “The instructors and professors were always offering help. You’re working on your dissertation from Day 1.”

Michael Ferraresi

‛Little’ Carla motivates grad

When Carla Johnson looks at her sons, Joshua, 10, and Isaiah, 8, memories and feelings of protection and perseverance come flooding back.

She remembers growing up with parents who had been brave enough to leave the Tohono O’Odham Reservation to go to school, but were challenged by the transition from small village to big city. Her dad was a construction worker with calloused hands and sunburned skin, and her mom struggled with raising the children and working outside the home.

“I would stay up with my legs over my little brother to keep him warm and think to myself, ‘He deserves better.’ We all did,” said Johnson, 32.

She worked dead-end jobs for 10 years while raising her babies and then, it hit her.

“I made a promise to the little Carla that still lives in me that I would fulfill everything she prayed for all those years ago and that all those tears she cried for, wanting better for her family, was not for nothing,” the Phoenix woman said.

Johnson enrolled in GCU in 2012, visiting campus as often as she could to take advantage of its library and tutoring center. While working full time and being a mom, she earned top grades and was named to the President’s List, then inducted into Delta Mu Delta, the International Honor Society in Business. She graduated with a B.S. in Business Management on Saturday.

“I’m so glad I chose GCU — I always wanted to go to the school with the palm trees that I remembered as a kid,” Johnson said. “It amazes me every time I walk on campus of how blessed I am to have my sons to motivate me, a family to believe in me and a university that pushed me.”

Janie Magruder   

Bucket list: check, check and check

Among the items on Alice Aschenbrenner’s bucket list: travel, take up golf and earn a Master's in Business Administration. Pencil ready? She recently got her first passport and visited Israel, is improving her skills on the links and walked across the Arena stage on Saturday to receive her MBA with an emphasis in health systems management.

Aschenbrenner began her degree program while employed in the University’s financial planning and analysis office from 2010 to 2013. She had to suspend her studies when she moved her two teenaged sons home to Minooka, Ill., to be near her parents and their family farm.

“However, I turned 50 this year and decided that completing my MBA was a bucket list item and it needed to happen this year,” Aschenbrenner said.

She credits her older supervisor, Rick Volk, former vice president of finance, with encouraging her to go for it, and her professors and classmates for their support. Aschenbrenner plans to put her degree to work, but for now she plans to just enjoy life.

She’s earned it.

Janie Magruder

Odyssey from Florida caps counselor's degree

Sure, commencement is the end of an academic journey, and it was for Howard Diamond. But the event also marked the end of an exhausting 30-hour car ride.

Diamond, 45, who graduated with an M.S. in Addiction Counseling, made the trek from Bradenton, Fla., with his wife, father and 3-year-old daughter. It was the first time he had visited Arizona, so the family drove up to the Grand Canyon on Friday, and back down to Phoenix to rest briefly before Saturday's ceremony.

Rest isn't a necessity for Diamond, who works from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. at one of his two jobs and is lucky to get three hours of sleep each night. But he still found time to study and complete his degree.

Now, Diamond said he has the professional experience and degree to advance in the field of counseling mentally ill clients. It’s often a thankless job, and funding for programs can be irregular, but Diamond said he loves being able to connect with people in need.

“I enjoy just helping people improve their lives, to become more independent, and not to rely entirely on others, or programs, or the system,” said Diamond, who’s also been a probation officer.

Working two jobs and having a young child added to the challenge of graduate school. Diamond is a vocational rehab case manager for persistently mentally ill patients in a nonprofit organization and also as a mental health tech for troubled children in a separate medical center.

The online degree enabled him to work and study flexibly, he said, and he completed his practicum work in his home area.

“It was different, since it was my first experience with online,” said Diamond, who still has one final course to complete for his degree. “It was challenging, but I enjoyed it.”

Michael Ferraresi

GCU staff maintain streak of volunteerism

By now, Scott Busch is a seasoned commencement veteran.

The associate director of GCU's Office of Academic Records was one of several captains to lead teams of volunteers during Saturday’s ceremonies.

Busch’s team from OAR’s class operations group used the experience as a team-builder. They were set up on the second floor of the Arena, greeting graduates and handing out regalia and honors cords.

“It’s a great experience for our team,” Busch said. “We’re spread out … at 27th Avenue and on campus, so it’s a great reason for us to get together and work together as team in person.”

Busch said he volunteered to work the 2011 commencement in which he was set to walk when he earned an MBA with an emphasis in leadership. But he didn’t mind. Since then he’s volunteered to work all of them. There’s just something about being there.

“It’s fun to see people at the end of their program and see them get to their goals,” Busch said.

Michael Ferraresi


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