Doctoral graduates triumphed despite trying times

Drs. Alyson Bell and Johnny Fielder were hooded at the first of seven Commencement ceremonies for online learners this week. (Photos by Ralph Freso)

● Monday's Commencement video.

● Slideshow and replay of Monday morning ceremony.

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

“Life happens.”

Every Grand Canyon University College of Doctoral Studies learner hears it some point in their program.

After all, most doctoral candidates spend more than five years in the program.

Anything can happen, good or bad.

But for some, life’s happenings easily could have distracted them or even prevented them from earning their degree.

For Drs. Alyson Bell and Johnny Fielder, the cards they were dealt while pursuing their degrees would be enough to make anyone fold. But when the going got tough, they both proved to be shining examples of endurance, strength and faith.

Both attended the Monday morning commencement ceremony. Here are their stories:


Bell (center) with her father and stepmother.

Being a single mother raising three kids is no small task, but imagine doing that on top of being the primary caretaker for two parents.

Now add a full-time job as a teacher and the pursuit of a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership.

“I don’t know how I did it,” said Bell, who completed her program in December. “All I can say is that it was Jesus all the way who carried me and gave me the strength.  I mean, it sounds impossible when I say it out loud.”

Bell was her father's caretaker when he fell ill near the end of his life.

Not long after beginning her program at GCU in November 2014, Bell learned that her father’s throat cancer, which he previously had overcome, had returned with a vengeance. Chemotherapy was his only option.

Bell’s stepmother, who took on a primary maternal role after Bell lost her mother in her early 20s, soon started developing symptoms of dementia but did all she could to assist her with her father’s caretaking.

As his cancer progressed, he had to use a feeding tube. An emergency tracheotomy made it hard for him to even talk.

But Bell did everything she could to care for her father.

“I had to administer feedings, medications (crushed and given through feeding tube), clean his trache, provide suction to clear his trache, change his inner cannulas and monthly change out his entire trache,” she recalled. “I had to set up and give him breathing treatments, check his blood pressure, pulse ox (oximeter), schedule and take him to all his appointments and much more.”

There came a point where Bell essentially ran her parents’ household. She shopped, cooked, cleaned and even took care of the yard work.

Bell says her children were her biggest cheerleaders.

She never once wavered, and caring for her father created memories that will endure.

Her father lost his battle with cancer in 2017, and Bell's stepmother passed away two years later. To say it was a challenging point in Bell’s life would be an understatement.

“He was my rock; he was my everything,” she said. “He’s the one who always encouraged me to pursue my education.

“I wanted to make him proud.”

Now, as she celebrates her doctoral degree with her children, whom she calls her biggest cheerleaders, she has done just that.

And she hopes others can use her story to find the strength to push through whatever obstacles stand in their way.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” she said. “I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and that it was never going to get off, but all a sudden everything came together. All the puzzle pieces fit and the light was there at the finish line.

“Don’t give up.”


When Fielder attended his second doctoral residency and heard his instructor caution learners about the life changes that could happen during the doctoral program, he had no idea how much it would resonate with him.

Fielder enjoyed time outside with his dog at his house before the fire.

At the time, he was focused on his Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Special Education program, which he had begun in 2016. With so much on his mind, he felt as if he didn’t have time to predict any “life happens” scenarios.

That was until a wildfire left the Washington native and his wife homeless in the middle of his program.

What started as a seemingly normal fall morning in 2020 grew into a day Fielder will never forget.

As the Evan’s Canyon Fire devoured the areas near his home, Fielder and his wife, Melissa, grew suspicious of the growing presence of smoke surrounding the neighborhood.

The Fielders could see the smoke and fire approaching before they evacuated their home.

The couple was sure that if it was something serious, fire officials would evacuate the area, but no one ever came. And as the air conditions got worse, they decided to grab their overnight bags, some of their jewelry and their dog and head for their daughter’s home out of town.

That was at 5 p.m.

According to a neighbor, by 7:30 p.m. their house was engulfed in flames.

“We came back the next afternoon thinking everything would be fine, and our house was completely gone,” he recalled. “We really did go through those stages of grief.”

The Fielders lived in five residences before settling in a new home near the end of his 5 1/2-year program. The fire consumed all of the books he had purchased for his doctorate, but, fortunately, had saved his course work online in the cloud.

What was left of Fielder's home after the fire.

As a language pathologist, Fielder also could work remotely from anywhere he could find an internet connection.

“I kept working even though we had to put our whole life back together,” he said.

His drive to complete his degree never wavered.

“I had come so far, and I just wasn’t going to let anything stop me,” he said. “My dissertation chair, I told him right away what had happened. He was very empathetic, but we never discussed slowing down or taking a break.”

Fielder credits that drive to his dissertation committee. He liked its members so much, he wanted to continue on because he didn't want to work anyone else. He successfully defended his dissertation in February.

Fielder enjoyed his time at residency.

Now, approaching two years since that fateful evening in 2020, the Fielders can celebrate their new home as well as Johnny’s doctoral degree.

“I’m really excited, really happy, but also kind of feel like, ‘Is this real?’” he said.

Much like Bell, Fielder hopes to encourage others to persevere when life’s “happenings” get them down.

“Believe in yourself,” he said. “If somebody has gotten this far in their life and they are in a doctoral program, they must have some ability already to get them there so it’s just that final push.

“People are going to help you along the way. All you have to do is ask.”

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


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