'So you walk out with a degree and friends'


By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

The group of master's students from the East Valley became friends during the pandemic and graduated together in October.

Sometimes friendships bloom in what at first looks like a troubled landscape.

“It was right at the beginning of the pandemic when we all signed up,” explained Bailey Isenberg of the Master of Arts in Reading Education cohort at Grand Canyon University. “We though, oh, it would be a few weeks or months, not realizing almost the entire 1 ½ years would be online.”

Instead of the East Valley elementary school teachers meeting in person for evening classes in Tempe …

“We were staring at each other through a computer screen on mute,” said Ryan McCormick. “It was like, ‘What am I signing up for?’ “

Then something happened to this cohort of 11 students, who together celebrated their degrees at fall Commencement on Friday at GCU Arena.

McCormick said they began to talk openly. They had the same jobs, same homework, same issues with navigating the pandemic by juggling virtual, hybrid and in-person classes in their schools.

“It was the intersection of a lot of hard things in our lives,” Isenberg said.

They began to open up, encouraged by College of Education Assistant Professor Dr. Nydia Palomino. They got into virtual breakout groups and talked.

“They were sharing their ups and downs and everything going on in the field of education,” Palomino said. “Unless you are in it, you don’t get it and it sounds like complaining. It’s not a complaint, it’s more of a passion statement.”

The classmates began to stay online after class and even scheduled virtual “hang-outs.”

“A lot of us thought of quitting a lot of times, and we were just there for each other,” said Hope Tedrow, who also earned her undergraduate degree at GCU and became the group’s social leader. “Everyone in the cohort was so honest about what we were going through, whether it was struggles or celebrations.”

Among the cohort of reading teachers who sat together at Commencement were (from left): Tammia Jones, Katie Perez, Michelle Paschke, Hope Tedrow, Julianna Martinez and Taylor Smith.

Two in the cohort, Megan Angell and Caitlyn Dornick, planned weddings and got married. Tedrow bought a home.

“A lot of big life things were happening that we got to share with one another,” Tedrow said.

Julianna Martinez faced two deaths in her family, including her mother, and she also got COVID, while students returning to her classes got sick in droves.

“Like journal writing in class, we did little things that you missed because you don’t even talk to your family. Then we always had prayer because this is GCU,” she said. “I know I couldn’t have done this without this cohort.”

It wasn’t just social hour. The group of teachers, many in the Kyrene School District and others near Tempe, said they started to pick up methods that would help their young students become better readers at a time when everything was changing.

Isenberg said she learned that comprehension wasn’t the problem for most fifth graders that she teaches but instead knowing the words. And because they spent even more time on electronics during COVID, their stamina for reading for longer than a few minutes was declining.

“This program inspired me to not give up on the idea that you are going to sit with a physical book, and you are going to read,” she said.

Instead of wallowing in teacher self-pity, they fed off one another’s passion for an important mission.

“A lot of my kids don’t have the opportunity to travel or do fancy things,” Tedrow said. “But they can read a story about a person that looks like them or doesn’t and learn about other cultures and backgrounds.”

One student hated reading books, she said, but she kept recommending one after another in her vast library of 900 books in her classroom. Finally, she found a book about a boy who loves soccer and happened to have a similar name.

“Oh my gosh,” the boy asked her, “does the author know me?”

“To see him fall in love with reading … I know it can change their lives,” she said.

They needed that shared inspiration. In July, when they faced a tough time in the return to classrooms while finishing up their university coursework, the group could finally get together in person.

“We had been in class together for more than a year but none of us had seen each other,” McCormick said. “It’s something I’ve never experienced before.”

Said Isenberg: “It was like a reunion. It didn’t feel like were meeting new people. We had spent a lot of hours and a lot of blood and sweat and tears together.”

Palomino “saved us,” added Martinez.

“We had food.”

They had pizza night and salad night and Costco cupcake night.

Then one night they also went around the table and everyone said what they loved about a member of the group, which also includes Michelle Paschke, Taylor Smith, Shelbie Deatherage, Tammia Jones and Katie Perez.

“It was so genuine. Everyone’s responses were the things you don’t believe about yourself, but they believe about you,” Isenberg said. “Just to hear them say those things made us feel so empowered. Even though part of the experience was taken away by the pandemic, we gained so much more in relationships.

“It was the most meaningful experience I’ve ever had.”

Much was subtracted from people’s lives during the last 18 months. This group found that much could be added.

“I was thinking this was going to be just another class,” Palomino said. “It turned into a small little family. They truly blessed me.”

On Friday, they sat together and congratulated each other and talked of new husbands and new homes and new school years, just like old friends.

“So you walk out with a degree and friends, which is kind of cool,” McCormick said.

“Which one is more valuable? I don’t know.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: It’s a deluge of doctorates for GCU faculty members

GCU Today: When going got tough, counselor kept him going

GCU Today: God is star of graduate’s ‘supernatural encounter’


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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