Degree unveils new calling for 60-somethings

A mortarboard reflects the feelings of many graduates during Fall Commencement. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Marva, Barbara and Stacy.

Ages 69, 66 and 60.

Three accomplished women who decided to pursue a master’s degree from Grand Canyon University … in a different field from their lifelong work.

Three degrees of inspiration for online students as they participated in the Fall Commencement ceremony Thursday morning.

For Marva Pete-Booker, it was a short drive from her home in Goodyear, Arizona, but could be the start of a long journey to help her community.

For Barbara Wohanka, it came after traveling 15 hours by herself from Germany just to see the campus for the first time and enjoy that golden moment onstage in GCU Arena.

Marva Pete-Booker is going into counseling after a 30-year career in banking.

For Stacy Collins, it was a medium-size trip from Los Angeles after an experience that required maximum determination to reach her goal.

So different, and yet so much in common. Starting with their GCU experience.

Pete-Booker’s educational journey has been a study in patience and perseverance and putting family first.

After growing up in North Carolina, she was accepted at three universities but instead accepted being a mother when she gave birth to her daughter, her only child, at age 19.

Then she went into banking and worked in the field for 30 years, reaching second vice president. She wanted to earn a college degree in the 1990s but put it off again when a grandchild was born with Down syndrome.

But college kept calling, in her mind, and in 2017 she enrolled at GCU. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I said I was going to do it,” she said.

She wasn’t kidding. Even when breast cancer and, later, COVID came calling, too, she stuck with it with a lot of help from her Student Services counselor, Jenna Smith.

“I had a great counselor who guided me through everything so I would not have any anxiety in how I was going to be able to continue,” Pete-Booker said. “She was incredible. She was absolutely incredible. She knew what I was going through. She had compassion, and I think she knew that I was scared. She literally spoke into my spirit. None of my instructors knew. She’s the only one who knew.”

Pete-Booker took comfort in the support of her “prayer team” – one family member and three close friends. She took heart in the daily prayers offered by her GCU instructors. “Sometimes the Scriptures were so on point to what I was feeling that day,” she said.

Her first thought was to pursue a business degree, but she switched to a bachelor’s in psychology when she saw what was happening in the country. And when she obtained her bachelor’s, she didn’t stop there – now she has her master’s in mental health and wellness.

Now the question is what to do with those degrees. She retired from banking to deal with cancer and now is looking for new challenges. She’d like to be a light for young people, particularly single mothers.

“Lord, You have to guide me in this because I’m literally starting a new career,” she said to herself.

Pete-Booker’s last job in banking was wealth management. She said customers often would wait until she was available because they only wanted to work with her.

“I dealt with the wealthiest individuals in Maricopa County,” she said. “They would sit with me and share. I would become a sounding board. I would pray with them.

“So many customers would say, ‘You would be an awesome counselor.’ So I said OK, and here I am.”

Barbara Wohanka came all the way from Germany to be at Commencement. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Wohanka’s talents also have been in demand over the years. When her first husband died, she made ends meet by starting companies that did translation for high-end clients, such as the German government and the European Union. She has arranged the building of various things, including a small hospital in Africa. She has won entrepreneurial awards.

But there’s the obvious question: How did she wind up in the master’s program at GCU?

Wohanka was amazed by the friendliness of her instructors and fellow students. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

This has to be a first: She saw Lady Gaga singing, “That Arizona sky, burnin’ in your eyes,” in the remake of “A Star Is Born,” and became curious about the desert.

Lady Gaga recruits for GCU. Who knew?

After she enrolled, she started singing the praises of a program that at first seemed so foreign to her.

“It’s stunning for me,” said Wohanka, who works as an instructor’s aide at a German university. “Here, everything is so flexible and so helpful. Professors are so helpful and so open. The communication is great. I had an issue with access to the internet while in England, and I had five people writing me emails all the time asking how I was doing. They were all so helpful. Even the students in my group were friendly.

“We’ve got a different system in Europe. Professors are very stiff. You don’t write to them directly. If you do, they don’t answer.”

In one of her first GCU courses, students were asked to write an essay in they shared an opinion about a chosen topic. That’s not done in Germany. She was so shocked, she wrote to the professor and asked for suggestions about what to write. Again to her surprise, the professor responded immediately and had some ideas.

Wohanka isn’t quite sure what she’s going to do with her degree although she already has applied what she has learned to her business dealings. That attitude explains how she dealt with a missed flight and a lost taxi driver on her trip to Phoenix with such grace and humor. She just takes it as it comes.

“Life is for living,” she said. “I enjoy being in America. This is really a dream come true for me.”

Stacy Collins wanted to be at Commencement so much, she put off a birthday trip to Aruba. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Coming to Commencement was such a dream come true for Collins, she postponed a birthday trip to Aruba with her husband, Ken. She loves Disneyland, so they went there instead on Tuesday, the day she turned 60.

Collins has been a judicial assistant in the Los Angeles Superior Court for 30 years and loves her job, which involves tending to the judge’s needs, taking care of the paperwork and swearing in jurors and witnesses.

Collins celebrates with other grads at the end of the ceremony. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Several years ago, she decided she wanted a master’s degree in mental health and wellness.

“No particular reason,” she said.

But there was one particular reason she chose GCU, which she heard about from young people at her former church and from the television ads.

“I love purple. That’s what drew me in, too.”

The online coursework was a challenge after working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, but, like Pete-Booker and so many other online students, Collins raves about her Student Services counselor. Victor Silva was her hero.

“Victor talked me off the ledge several times,” she said.

Complicating her journey was the fact that, only three months into her program, she took a break to marry Ken, her high school sweetheart.

“I was surprised I picked right back up after the wedding,” she said.

And now …

“Everyone is just so proud of me.”

What’s next? Well, she hopes her degree will propel her into administration … and she and Ken are going to Aruba in March.  

Contact Rick Vacek, Senior Manager for Internal Communications, at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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GCU News: Grad shares journey from Australia to GCU

GCU News: Grad balances military training, GCU studies


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