Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Rocio Cigarroa walked into the Grand Canyon University Arena on Thursday night with her parents high in the stands among hundreds filling a majority of seats for Commencement.
Alma and Fransciso Cigarroa could see the grateful words glued on their daughter’s mortarboard cap, flanked by colorful butterflies and flowers:
“Gracias Papas Por Su Esfuerzo Y Apoyo”
“I wanted to say thank you to my parents for all their sacrifices,” Cigarroa said. “My family came here (to Phoenix) from Mexico for a better life for me. It’s been very important to me. Now I have a lot more opportunity.”
GCU will confer degrees on some 30,000 students from all walks of life in 11 ceremonies over the next week, and Thursday night’s first featured College of Education and College of Humanities and Social Sciences traditional students (see a slideshow here).
Cigarroa joins the 29% of this year’s traditional ground campus graduates who identify as first-generation college students.
“That is a truly transformational number,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “Those graduates will change the financial trajectory of their families for generations to come.”
GCU made it easier for graduates who don’t have the experience of family members to lean on for advice, Cigarroa said.
“I was happy to find we have first-generation programs and a Latino Student Union,” she said. “As a Latina, I felt appreciated and welcomed. We could find out what is going on within our communities and ways to help.”
It was difficult for her parents to understand what she was going through at first. “They didn’t graduate from high school, so there was a lot of explaining,” she said.
Her degree in psychology is exciting to them now and set an example for three younger brothers, including one who just finished his freshman year.
The students carried the weight of high expectations to campus before wearing the gowns of graduates.
Caitlimme Chenoweth said her Casper, Wyoming, parents, Tim and Dahlia, pushed her to go to college because they couldn’t. “For her I wanted that really, really bad,” said Dahlia. “I know it really opens doors.”
Caitlimme didn’t want to go to college.
“But my parents made me understand that getting a degree was going to be a lot better than the struggles they had without one,” she said.
She was a bit confused when she first arrived at GCU.
“I feel like I had no idea what was going on,” Chenoweth said. “I had to figure out everything on my own, which was hard but also special. I got to share a lot of it with my parents and they were like, ‘Wow this is so cool.’”
The educational studies graduate is eager to begin work as a teacher.
Other future educators were excited to be the first to attend college and pay it forward to teach others the value of education.
Grace Castillo wore a traditional Native American ribbon skirt under her gown.
“It’s important to show who I am and show younger kids they can be a graduate,” said the elementary education major from Tucson, who starts a teaching job there in July.
Her parents, Debra and Patrick, were astounded at the work their daughter put in.
“Every time we called her she was busy, even until two or three in the morning,” Patrick said.
Castillo said she was determined to be one to break stereotypes of Native Americans as shiftless or substance abusers. “We get put down a lot. That’s not what I want others to see us as. Being first generation, I wanted to show a good example for my family members.”
And she will soon set examples for students she teaches, using an ethic she absorbed in COE classes.
“It’s important to know I care for them and love them,” she said of her future students. “I’m not just a teacher. I will be there for them.”
That caring spirit of GCU was a theme throughout Thursday's ceremony, fitting for a group mainly in helping professions of teaching and behavioral health.
Dr. Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor, opened with a prayer that set the tone, citing Scripture:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility. Count others more significant than yourselves.
Mueller echoed it by thanking students for “building a caring community that was observable for anyone who walked on campus” and helping the neighboring community by serving those in need.
He read the University’s new mission statement, which ends with how it endeavors to produce transformative leaders who “serve their communities by placing the needs of others before their own.”
Student speaker Dalton Curtis told the crowd that he and his identical twin brother took a risk by leaving their beloved home in Idaho and coming to GCU. But as he pursued his dual degrees in English and justice studies, he didn’t regret it.
He learned to take even more risks, engage with professors, find a purpose to change the world but do it with the spirit that Griffin and Mueller shared.
“We are called to live honorably as GCU students. I think most of us are no strangers to this,” he said. “GCU students are so nice, in fact, that you often catch us doing an awkward half run on campus because someone waits for them holding a door 10 yards away.”
The gratitude to others was evident in graduates.
Standing in the Quad outside the Arena, Heather Medley said she had been working to get her early childhood education degree since 2014 because life changes led to many interruptions, and she couldn’t have finished without the support of her parents.
“It’s so special to have them here with me today, to finally reach the end,” Medley said.
“It’s super important to them, so I am walking under my married name, but my diploma is under my maiden name – Halican.”
Honoring those who came before was on their minds.
Elizabeth Price’s parents in Wisconsin never went to college and couldn’t make the long trip to graduation, but the psychology graduate’s thoughts were with them and her beloved late grandfather Jeremy Price, who visited GCU when she was a freshman before he died.
“My grandfather pushed me to graduate. He was very wise,” she said, tearing up. “He was my inspiration.
“It’s not just about me. It’s about all my family and representing them as the first to graduate.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
GCU press release: GCU to graduate 30,000 students in 2021-22 academic year
GCU Today: Commencement speech evokes happy memories