GCU community was beacon of light in dark year

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

The story of 2020 starts and ends with one event, and anyone who has heard of COVID-19 knows what it is.

But at Grand Canyon University, it wasn’t a lost year. Not at all. From the moment people understood that the pandemic was going to be a lot more serious than a short-lived inconvenience, GCU faculty and staff sprang into action to continue the educational and outreach processes, and students showed their spirit amid the disappointment of campus life being curtailed.

So when it came time to put together the list of the year’s 10 most meaningful GCU stories, there was only one way to do it – by telling the coronavirus story through memories and milestones. "We've got to adapt but keep moving forward," GCU President Brian Mueller said, and here’s how collaboration made that happen in the face of a worldwide calamity: 

Students marched down Lopes Way in mid-March in an impromptu "ceremony" after learning that Commencement would have to be postponed because of the pandemic.

Students find a bit of joy amid sorrowful goodbyes

It happened so suddenly. One minute, students were looking forward to spring break, and then they were told they needed to go home for the final four weeks of the semester and finish their classes online.

The shock wave swept across campus. Students were crying as they said goodbye to each other, but a group of them decided to do something about it: They organized an impromptu commencement “ceremony” at the Student Union, complete with caps and gowns, and then strode down Lopes Way in a rare Arizona rain that was oh so fitting. It was an extraordinary scene.

“If it was easy, nobody would be crying right now,” senior Robby Yamaguchi said. 

The set of what would have been the production of "The Drowsy Chaperone."

Students bid sad adieu to show that couldn’t go on

The sudden departures left behind other casualties: All campus events the rest of the semester were canceled.

But the cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” after learning the news at the final rehearsal before starting dress rehearsals, couldn’t just leave without performing the Ethington Theatre play.

The set was only half-finished and the students weren’t in costume, but they ran through the entire show anyway. Other theatre majors heard about it and formed the audience, then cried with the cast when it was over.

“I think it was really cathartic and important for them to get through it once to be able to say goodbye to it like that,” said William Symington, Assistant Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production

Leslie Magallanes (right) and her mother, Mireya, react to the Zoom announcement of a GCU scholarship.

Students virtually surprised by GCU scholarship

The awarding of the Students Inspiring Students full-tuition scholarships has become a neat annual rite at GCU, but the pandemic made it impossible to hand them out in person.

But once again, improvisation overcame impediments and determination trumped despair. The staff quickly organized a Zoom call with the candidates under the guise of “interviewing” them about their application, then slipped in the happy news at the end.

One after another, the shocked faces of students and their parents filled the screen. Most touching was the reaction of Yareli Orozco as she struggled to explain it to her mother, who speaks little English.

“I had to stop crying to tell her,” Orozco said. “Then she started crying.”

Each face mask had to be carefully pieced together, as Ruben Connolly did here.

GCU faces up to challenges to make masks, shields

As the weeks wore on, what we wore in the store changed – masks went from recommended to mandatory.

GCU’s Emergency Preparedness Task Force saw the need and turned to Canyon Promotions, which normally makes T-shirts, and the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, which normally turns out bright students.

Within a few days, cloth masks and plastic face shields were being produced in mass quantities for use by GCU’s community partners, its staff and, when they returned to campus for the fall semester, its students.

The effort also produced this memorable quote from Renate Spilger, Enterprise Division Manager for Canyon Promotions: “I’m German – I’m stubborn,” she said. “They say it can’t be done and I say, ‘Watch me.’” 

GCU, GCE employees nearly double fundraising goal

It was as if GCU and Grand Canyon Education employees also said, “Watch me,” when they were asked to provide monetary support to the personal protective equipment quest.

With each donation being matched by GCU and GCE, the goal was $100,000. But in a short time, the final figure was $196,452, enough to manufacture 15,000 cloth masks, 10,000 face shields and 10,000 respirator masks.

The idea of turning to employees came from Dr. Kale Gober, who was so new as the Vice President of Advancement, he hadn’t even moved from Arkansas to Arizona yet. But even from a distance, he got a clear look at how the University operates.

“It was important for me to see that the mission of GCU is really lived out by the people who work there,” he said. “It’s not just something that’s on a website. People in a state of gratitude were able to dig into their own pockets and make a difference for those who may not have been so fortunate.”

Jamie Bettis set up her remote work station in the bedroom of her apartment.

Student workers grateful to keep their GCU jobs

As layoffs became the norm across many industries, including higher education, GCU employees kept operating at a high level. And that included student workers.

Nearly two months after the COVID outbreak, GCU had kept on board almost a third of its 1,778 student workers and GCE was still employing 85% of its 798 student workers. Like their full-time counterparts, nearly all of the students were working from home – students like Jamie Bettis, who called her work-in-the-bedroom setup a “a refugee camp situation.”

Like more refugees, she was grateful.

“They are giving me as many hours as I can get, so I have that security,” she said.

A resident at the Arizona State Veteran Home sends a message to parade visitors.

Employees salute veterans, those who care for them

Year 10 of Salute Our Troops, GCU and GCE employees’ annual tribute to residents of the Arizona State Veteran Home, seemed like a candidate to become a pandemic casualty. No visitors had been allowed for three months as its normal time around Memorial Day approached.

But these employees don’t take no for an answer. They joined in a 50-vehicle parade that included the veterans’ families and also served a Canyon 49 Grill lunch to the home’s employees.

“People in this situation deserve attention and love,” Military Division student services counselor Jen Boyd said. “They deserve to be celebrated since they have given so much to serve our country.”

Counselors ring up big numbers on students’ behalf

Those GCU and GCE employees also kept producing on the job even though the pandemic forced about 95% of them to work from home starting in March.

Take, for example, the Student Services counselors. Their activities, defined as talking with a student by phone or taking action on a student’s behalf, increased 31% in May over the same month in 2019.

“The call volumes and the actions they take to surround these students with support is unlike anything I’ve seen. I’ve been in higher ed for 22 years, and I’m going to tell you that GCU does it best,” said Michelle Nuckols, Senior Vice President, Student Services Operations.

Similar results were reported across the University, and Mueller talked repeatedly about how impressed he was by the employees’ resolve.

In a year-end email to employees, Mueller wrote, “Grand Canyon University would like to thank its employees for their diligence in serving our students and their dedication to making this yet another remarkable year during a challenging global pandemic.”

Public Safety personnel devoted their time this summer to helping with GCU's effort to produce personal protective equipment. 

Employees’ PPE assistance is multi-dimensional

Members of the Public Safety and Event Services departments weren’t hired to run 3-D printers, and the people in the College of Fine Arts and Production never thought they’d be sewing cloth face masks.  

But there they were last summer, pitching in wherever they were needed to help GCU reach its goals of making 20,000 masks and 15,800 plastic face shields.

“I’m really thankful they stepped in and supported us because they enabled us to produce so much more,” said Jude Fernando, Engineering Lab Supervisor for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Students load food boxes onto a truck at the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program distribution.

GCU-CityServe partnership delivers to those in need

GCU found another way to serve the community when it partnered with CityServe International to help distribute about 2,000 food boxes to people in need on consecutive Wednesdays in early December.

Not surprisingly, student volunteers were on hand to help move boxes into the vehicles representing church, outreach and social service organizations. They were eager for the opportunity after the usual off-campus community programs, such as GCU’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity, were curtailed.

"I think everyone was just jumping at the opportunity to actually serve people instead of just encouraging from a distance,” sophomore Jannika Pope said.


The giving didn’t stop when the fall semester ended. University officials made it possible to hold socially distanced ceremonies at Winter Commencement, and Mueller made the occasion even more special with the announcement of a four-point plan that led off with GCU and GCE hiring up to 125 of the graduates if they didn’t already have employment lined up.

That figures to unfold as the first big story of 2021, a year that will start with COVID-19 still very much in the picture. But, as GCU has shown, a collaborative spirit can see to it that isn’t the end of the story.

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


Related content:

GCU Today: Mueller announces creation of 125 jobs for graduates

GCU Today: 'Henry V,' basketball, Mr. GCU to grace the spring


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