Families grateful for in-person Commencement

Parents were thrilled about GCU's in-person Commencement. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

By Lana Sweeten-Shults and Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Kristen Macadamia paused thoughtfully as she gathered with her family outside GCU Arena on Tuesday morning for one of four Commencement ceremonies spanning two days.

Yet she still could not translate the meaning of the words as precisely as she wanted to when she was asked about what it meant to celebrate an important event, such as graduation, in person.

“I’m trying to put it in English,” said Macadamia, a teacher from Hawaii who traversed an ocean to watch her brother Kamalu Todd and cousin Kylie Carganilla graduate from Grand Canyon University “live and in person,” as Dean of Students and University Pastor Dr. Tim Griffin said to rapturous applause later that morning.

To be with your loved ones, especially during pivotal moments in their lives: “That’s very cultural to us,” she said. “Being present and making sure that the knowledge, as well as the celebration, comes through – that’s what ‘aloha’ is.

“You have to be present and be with family and just connect. It’s totally different to do that virtually.”

Gathering with family — and with the GCU community — was something Macadamia knew was fragile in times as uncertain as a global pandemic.

She also knew that being with her family members in person for their special day might not have happened. It didn’t happen, after all, for so many disappointed graduates and their families whose commencement ceremonies were canceled during the pandemic.

Macadamia was thrilled not to have been disappointed.

One tradition they embraced: dressing their graduates, both Biology majors, in leis.

“Traditionally, we have it stacked to the top of your head. You can’t breathe through it,” Macadamia said with a laugh.

Mele Butler, whose daughter, Selena Butler, graduated with an Environmental Science degree, also was grateful to attend Commencement in person.

Environmental Science graduate Selena Butler poses with her family, including her mom, Mele (left), on a traditional Tongan tapa cloth, brought out for important family celebrations. (Photo by Lana Sweeten-Shults)

Her family, who moved to Arizona from Hawaii, wanted to celebrate in a way that honored their Tongan culture, so they unfurled a traditional Tongan tapa cloth. The cloths, made from the inner bark of trees, are a distinctive part of Pacific Island culture.

“She asked us not to do it, but my mom refused,” Mele said with a laugh as the family unrolled a glorious, 25-foot-long cloth on Prescott Field, where families reunited with their graduates after the ceremony.

Butler’s grandmother, who lives in Australia, made the one-of-a-kind tapa cloth.

“You don’t see this until a wedding or a graduation – that’s when they get this out,” said Mele. “This is super hard to make.”

Her mother, Lea Mautofu, placed a half-dozen flower and candy leis over granddaughter Selena’s neck.

“This is my first granddaughter to graduate,” Mautofu said proudly.

With leis hanging from her arms and neck while standing atop her great-grandmother’s Tongan tapa cloth, Selena knew this moment was special: “I didn’t think we would be able to be here (because of the pandemic). I was supposed to graduate last semester, but I didn’t and I’m glad. I wouldn’t have been able to do all this.”

Brenda Suggs of Ruidoso, New Mexico, also didn’t think she would be at an in-person Commencement.

She stood gleefully on the Promenade bordering Prescott Field waving a poster that read, “Our Sunshine: Moriah Floyd” as she scanned the crowd for a glimpse of her granddaughter. Nine other family members, also carrying posters and banners, broke into thunderous cheers when they finally saw Floyd emerging from the crowd as graduates made their way to the field.

“Don’t make me cry,” Suggs said when she was asked how she felt about attending Floyd’s graduation in person. “Even though we were out here (outside the Arena) — her parents were inside — we’re just so thankful that they let them do this. This is a lot these kids go through. It’s four years. It’s a lot of time, and they just really need to get that appreciation and see how much everybody is happy and thankful.”

Moriah Floyd (graduate on left) was thrilled to see about 10 of her family members from New Mexico and Texas who traveled to GCU to see her graduate. Included in the group, her sister and GCU nursing student Mattea (holding banner on right). (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

“I didn’t expect that at all,” said Moriah, a Biology/Theology graduate whose sister, Mattea, is a nursing student at GCU. “It’s amazing to be with everyone. I’m so glad my family could come down.”

While Suggs was on the verge of tears, the combination of gratitude and emotion was too much for Tony Vu as he watched his daughter Marina graduate summa cum laude with her Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

“I cried,” he said.

Is that unusual?

“I have cried this many times in my life,” he said, holding up the five fingers on one hand. “At the end there, I shed a tear.”

Tony’s wife, Viola, was pleasantly surprised when she saw on Facebook that GCU’s Commencement would be in person — and guests would be allowed. They live in Arlington, Washington, where the COVID-19 shutdown has been more severe.

And then the ceremony itself made them even happier they got to come to Phoenix to participate.

“(GCU) did a great job on the graduation,” Viola said. “It was simple, but God was in every part of it. It was awesome. The speaker they had for the students – she was amazing.”

Student speaker Elaina Marchegger, a Worship Arts/Graphic Design graduate, said she pictured her senior year differently. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

That student speaker, Worship Arts/Graphic Design graduate Elaina Marchegger, reflected, too, on a senior year — and a graduation day — molded by the pandemic.

“I pictured my entire family getting to be here. I pictured being able to see my mom was crying without just having to just assume she is under her mask,” she said.

Marchegger also expressed how she thought GCU picked the wrong girl to speak at Commencement. Certainly, God meant someone else to be called.

She had to remind herself, “It does not matter if you are equipped; it just matters that you know who equips. Everything I have been given, every accomplishment, every award, has been because God equipped me and blessed me with all that I needed to go where He asked.”

She added, “That’s not to undermine the hard work that we did, because the fact that we made it this far means that you worked hard. … Heck, we graduated college in the midst of a pandemic, so I’m pretty sure we can do anything.”

For Breanne Ramirez, the tears flowed when she heard that Commencement for her daughter Patty would be in person. “I was very emotional, excited beyond belief that we were able to attend, she said.

Then the tears came on again during Marchegger’s talk.

A dad didn't hesitate photobombing a selfie moment. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

While the Ramirezes are from nearby Glendale — their daughter attended high school at Bourgade Catholic, less than a mile from GCU — Jeff and Catherine Swetland came all the way from Winter Springs, Florida, to watch their son Jordan graduate with his Bachelor of Science in Information Technology.

In a way, it was a homecoming. The Swetlands spent 15 years in Arizona before moving to the suburb of Orlando, and Jordan had maintained his Arizona ties before deciding to return for college.

“Obviously, GCU is really important to us as Christians, that he have that Christian worldview education,” his mom said. “The IT program that he is in was really a big decision factor for him. The teacher-student ratio, the involvement on campus — it just was a no-brainer after me and my husband came out here and visited.”

The Swetlands had been to other GCU events, such as Move-In, but this was their first Commencement. To them, it was the proper culmination to how GCU dealt with the events of the last year.

“We were so impressed with how GCU handled everything with COVID,” Catherine said. “We have a daughter who’s at a very big state university, and it’s just way different. Everything here has been seamless – great communication, extremely impressive.”

Families reunited after the ceremony on Prescott Field. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

The smiles outside GCU Arena were everywhere you looked Monday and Tuesday. “You can tell people are very excited to be here,” said Amy Hilliard, who came from Hesperia, California, to watch her son Jonathan traverse the stage to be conferred his B.S. degree in Biology.

Her husband, Christopher, a retired police detective, said, “I think it was a breath of fresh air when it was opened up. If it was all on video, it’s not the same thing. I think the students appreciate the amount of people that turn out.”

Michelle Nasternak of Buffalo, New York, who traveled to GCU with husband Ken to watch their son Zachary graduate, said of the in-person Commencement: “Being able to go to something after being locked up for a year, and then it being such a momentous thing as a graduation, it just makes it that more special.”

What Ken was looking forward to the most during Commencement: “To see him actually walk across the stage and just realize how fast four years went and appreciate every moment,” he said, the words seeming to mean more during a pandemic. “It’s bittersweet.”

“It’s way better than anything I ever expected,” said Zachary, who received his degree in Health Care Administration with a minor in Business Management. “I watched my brother when he graduated — he didn’t have one, he had it online. It (an in-person ceremony) really does mean a lot because it shows, after putting in all this time and a lot of hard work, it’s finally nice to see it pay off. … to finally get that little bit of recognition, it feels great.”

Nursing graduate Juan Lorenzo Caridad (left) celebrates on Prescott Field with friends and family.

Nursing graduate Juan Lorenzo Caridad, whose family drove in from California, said graduating in person felt "surreal," but he felt for others during the pandemic who didn't have a ceremony or whose ceremonies had limited attendance: "I feel so bad and empathetic for the other students that didn't get that. My friend here, he graduated last semester and his parents weren't able to come. I'm excited but I feel for them."

Stephen Moore, on hand to cheer on his son Eric’s B.S. in Computer Programming, seemed to speak for a lot of parents.

“We’d have been here whether they would let us in or not. We would’ve been out on the street with a sign or something. If you’re not proud of your children for graduating from college, there’s something wrong with you.”

And that’s something that doesn’t need translation.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or 602-639-7901 and Communications Manager Rick Vacek can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-8203.


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