Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
There was something magnetic about Dr. Keziah Tinkle-Williams’ presence on the Grand Canyon University Commencement stage Monday morning.
Maybe it was the charisma and the relatability of her desire to take a commemorative selfie with the audience.
Or maybe it was the powerful delivery of her Commencement speech as she detailed her journey to finally acquiring her Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology degree.
Whichever it was, it resonated with graduates and their families during the first of seven ceremonies for online learners.
As she looked over the crowd in GCU Arena, her central message of “being the hero of your own story” resulted in multiple outbreaks of applause.
After all, it's hard not to be inspired by Tinkle-Williams’ story.
At age 4, her mother, Kathleen, made it a priority to teach her how to read. That love of reading would only grow over the years. Tinkle-Williams often was left at home with a wide selection of books to read while her mother worked to support the family.
She was a high school graduate at 17, and her love of reading and impressive comprehension skills continued to aid her as she tackled and conquered her bachelor’s in English and her master’s in rhetoric and composition.
But her world as she had known it shifted years later when she started experiencing seemingly unexplainable cognitive symptoms.
“I woke up calling the ceiling fan a lamp, replacing random words in my sentences with numbers, forgetting my sons’ names and walking into door jambs,” she shared with the audience.
She spent months talking to doctors and specialists, determined to get to the bottom of what was happening to her health, but got no answers.
As time went on, she began to suspect that it might be multiple sclerosis (MS). She had known several people who had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease, and she started to connect the dots.
But when she asked several medical professionals whether it might be MS, her concerns were ignored.
“I had one doctor who was as condescending as, ‘Oh, what did Doctor Google say?’” she remembered.
All it took was one spinal tap in 2015 to confirm what she had suspected all along.
“It’s really strange to say that when I was finally diagnosed, I felt liberated,” she said. “I had never felt so empowered in my life as when, finally, after years of suffering symptoms and I didn’t know what they were related to, I had finally gotten this diagnosis and I felt like I could take on the world.”
When her mother learned of her only daughter’s diagnosis, she couldn’t help but be concerned. But Tinkle-Williams’ consistently optimistic attitude constantly reassured her.
“I said, ‘You know what? Honestly, Mom, I really think that any complications that come my way will be a long time from now – way down the road, hopefully after you’re long gone.’”
Then her mother passed away a few months later.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I was really hoping that when I said, ‘After you’re long gone,’ that I’d have more than six months,’” she said. “I just felt that that was my call to action.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m not wasting another second of any day of my life. I don’t want to take my cognitive abilities for granted.”
Despite having no background in psychology, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in that field.
She also started learning ballet even though her only dancing experience came from teaching Zumba and taking occasional classes.
Because that’s just who she is.
“That’s what I do,” she said. “I do hard.
“I am the road less traveled embodied, and it’s been that way my entire life. That was my favorite poem when I had to memorize it in third grade because that’s how I actually am.”
As a wife, mother of four and a residential faculty member at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, she already had a full plate.
But her sights were set on receiving her Ph.D., no matter how long it took.
During her five years in the program, her MS added to the already challenging task that she had taken on, to a point where she considered quitting.
“I thought I was coming in with a higher level of cognitive capability than I was, and as someone with reading as my forte, it was really difficult with me no longer being able to be a fast reader or to retain any information,” she said.
After meeting Dr. Jennifer Waldschmidt during her first residency, she was encouraged to continue in the program.
“She really told me about what great potential she thought that I had and that she had really enjoyed reading my work,” she said. “It was that first time that I had that human connection, and so I really valued the first residency experience.”
She successfully completed her program in December, but the college had more plans in store for Tinkle-Williams.
A few weeks before her Commencement ceremony, she received an email that had her and her husband shrieking and flailing their hands.
The subject line: GCU Commencement Speaker Opportunity.
“I think I answered that email in five minutes. I said, ‘Yes, absolutely, it would be an honor,’ and I am still riding that high a week and a half later.”
It all culminated in a memorable reflection of each of the metaphorical “dragons” each graduate needed to slay to be sitting in that audience on that warm April morning.
And although her struggles aren't over, Tinkle-Williams has no plans to halt her efforts to make the most out of every minute.
If there was one piece of advice she would give, her answer is simple:
“Stop selling yourself short. Be your own hero.”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].
The Monday afternoon student speaker, Dr. Marsha Grobman, talked of how a rained-out tennis match at a community college led to her doctoral degree.
She was 17, about to graduate from high school, didn't consider herself a good student and had no future plans. While she waited out the storm, a woman from the administration checked on her to see how she was doing and wound up convincing her to start the school's nursing program in the fall. That led her to GCU, and she fell in love with learning – thanks in part to her community of online learners.
"No matter where you are, no matter where you end up, may you bring the relationship and sense of community that you built here at GCU with you," she told the audience. "Be that supportive person for someone else. Help lift them up. As Helen Keller said, 'Alone, we can do so little. Together, we can do so much.'"
GCU Today: Commencement speech evokes happy memories