Doctoral program keeps growing in grads, raves

One of the 140 doctoral graduates receives her stole at commencement Friday evening.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau

Dr. Michael Hayes was in the U.S. Army for 30 years. He knows a thing or two about discipline and protocol and getting the job done right.

So when he came across a Grand Canyon University table at a conference in his hometown – El Paso, Texas – and was intrigued by the idea of getting his doctorate, he sought information. He met with Dr. Michael Berger, Dean of the College of Doctoral Studies. He thoroughly checked out the campus and the program.

Considering how much work goes into a dissertation, doctoral graduates have every right to let out a scream of joy.

Fully convinced it contained the quality he was seeking, he plunged into the academic version of high-level boot camp. Friday night, his tour of dissertation duty ended when he was one of 140 doctoral graduates – the largest class in GCU history – at spring commencement.

Afterward, Hayes felt indebted to the GCU committee that worked with him. Like the military, it was challenging.

“They helped me understand a lot of the curriculum material a little bit better,” he said. “It was difficult – I’m not going to lie. Writing a dissertation is a very difficult process, especially for a soldier. I was in the military for 30 years and never did anything like that.

“They were tough, they were demanding but they were very fair. I praise God for it. I praise God for this institution. It was a great experience.”

Hayes’ experience is indicative of how GCU’s doctoral program quickly has become a game-changer. Just 17 months ago, the University celebrated its 500th dissertation. This spring’s count sent the total hurtling closer to 1,000, a threshold Berger expects to reach this year.

“I do feel like the University’s program is really starting to pick up a reputation,” Berger said.

He hears that from faculty, some of whom work at more than one college.

“One of them said that we’re getting a very interesting reputation – it’s an online program but one that pushes students as much as a trad program,” he said. “The comment was, ‘We don’t like what GCU is doing because we’re really having to up our game quality-wise with our students and do a whole bunch of additional oversight.’

“The extra work we’re doing to get strong dissertations is having a strong brand impact. It’s drawing attention.”

The numbers don’t lie. Berger created an award for dissertation chairs every time they clear five more graduates, and Dr. June Maul is up to 25 and Dr. Cristie McClendon has reached 20.

“We streamlined systems and we’re really looking to improve a lot of the peer review and lots of other things,” Berger said. “Plus our faculty are more experienced. I’ve got chairs who have taught for me for five or six years, so they learn a thing or two.

“As we get that tenure, those faculty just get stronger and stronger and they’re better and better for the students.”

But this involves more than just knowledge. As Dr. Yassamin Ilyavi of Los Angeles reflected on her GCU experience after receiving her degree Friday, she thought about how her committee worked with her during some personal travails – she lost her brother to cancer, and it took her six years to complete her dissertation.

“I had a great dissertation chair – Dr. Larry Featherston,” she said. “He was excellent. He had genuine concern for my success. He demonstrated patience and gave me wise advice.”

Dr. Arthur Sylvester, a Houston resident who needed 4½ to complete his doctoral work, said, “The system and the structure is great. The structure is there. The scholarly work is there. It was a great program. I think it’s a testament to what the organization has done and the work they’ve put in.”

Even the keynote speaker at commencement, Gian Paul Gonzalez, helped the graduates. His “all in” sentiments hit home with Sylvester.

“You’re all in to get through this part, but this is where the ‘all in’ really kicks in because of the difference we can make – how do we pay this forward?” Sylvester said. “What difference does this process make? If you did this just to get your name on a piece of paper, you’re in it for the wrong reason. What’s your end result, what’s your mission, what’s your purpose in being here?

“I think all of us – all 140 doctoral candidates – we’re here for a reason, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to figure out what that reason is. You don’t know what you’re going ‘all in’ on until you figure out why you’re here.”

His “all in” is simple.

“My two sons. At this point in our lives we do everything for them.”

But the family also has to be understanding when a doctoral learner has work to do, which is often. Hayes talked of the sacrifices everyone had to make as he recounted his experience:

“It was very challenging. I have a 12-year-old son – he was 7 when I started. I’ve got a full-time job. I’ve got a family. I’m a den leader in Boy Scouts, I coached him in youth sports. Trying to do all that and the doctoral program, the one thing that sacrificed was usually sleep, and then my family time got cut down.”

But he found a way to get it done, enjoying several trips to GCU along the way for residencies and Promise Keeper events. It put an idea in his head.

“I love this campus,” he said. “I’m trying to tell my wife to let me move up here and try to get a job here. I love this place. I’m not too fond of Phoenix, but I love Grand Canyon University. This is a great school. I would love to work here. This is a phenomenal institution.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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