Family surprises grad with backyard Commencement

Monica Peterson's family, including husband Michael (right), surprised her with a backyard Commencement ceremony.

GCU News Bureau

The family wore GCU gear and arranged a drive-by parade, set up a stage, and put together a program.

When Pasco, Washington, teacher Monica Peterson entered her master’s degree program in Elementary Education at Grand Canyon University, family members decided they would all travel to Arizona to see her walk the stage at GCU Arena. She would be the first in the family to earn her master’s, after all.

“Then COVID hit, so it was all going to be virtual. She was really sad that she wasn’t going to be able to walk and have all of us cheer her on,” said her sister, Stephanie Zeiler.

So they did the next best thing. They threw her a backyard ceremony as a prelude to her actual Commencement, a virtual ceremony coming up 10 a.m. Saturday, Phoenix time. 

It happened to be Peterson’s birthday week, so her husband told her to get ready – they were going out. Little did she know the destination: Zeiler’s house, where family members welcomed her wearing GCU gear.

Peterson is receiving her master's degree in Elementary Education.

They asked her to put on her cap and gown, which they had brought to the house earlier that week, so she would be dressed properly for her own drive-by graduation parade. A little more than a dozen guests cruised by and brought her flowers, released balloons and shot a few confetti cannons.

The parade was followed by a COVID-sensible backyard ceremony, complete with a full stage set up, patio seats for a few spectators, a backdrop with a custom GCU banner and Commencement programs with her face on the cover.

“I actually found a real ceremony script and edited it to fit our occasion,” said Zeiler. “We made it as if it were actually a ceremony. There were speeches, a poem read by her husband and a lot of crying because we were so proud of her.”

She teaches in Pasco, Washington, and is the first in her family to receive a master's degree.

The ceremony was capped by the presentation of her “diploma” – a poster board rolled up and tied with purple ribbon. A dinner followed.

"My favorite part of my surprise graduation was hearing the speeches from my family members," said Peterson, who shared that she is also a DACA student and was raised by a single mother. "I didn't realize what an influence I am on their life. I had happy tears and I was so surprised. It was something so special, since I knew I wasn't going to be able to walk." 

Zeiler shared that Peterson, like many other teachers, traversed the year of COVID as best they could. Classes were collapsed, so she had to switch schools, and she also had to change classrooms four times.

“It has just been a wild ride,” Zeiler said. But, “She’s an incredible teacher and has endured all of if with such a gracious heart toward every student she’s had, all while getting her master’s degree.

“Monica is resilient, and her journey to be a teacher has truly been guided by God. … We wanted to see her walk to get this degree, which we know, without God, would not have been possible. We give Him the glory and felt like we needed to do our part to celebrate what He has done in her life.”

Peterson said, "Completing my master's has been one of my greatest accomplishments."


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