Story by Doug Carroll
Photos by Zane Ewton
Grand Canyon University gave a rousing sendoff Friday afternoon to the Class of 2011 and to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, in the final Commencement to be held at the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
With the opening of the 5,000-seat Arena in September, Commencement will be on campus next spring. An estimated 2,200 degree candidates participated Friday in the ceremony at the baseball stadium, which hosted GCU for the third consecutive year. The University conferred more than 8,000 degrees, and those included the first members of its College of Doctoral Studies.
Herd on Campus arrived early to watch the spectacle take shape, and there was no shortage of interesting stories from the graduates and those involved in making their day a special one.
Beating some long odds
Graduation day was plenty significant for Sara Ford of Globe, but she’ll never forget July 25, 2005 — the day her six-year drug habit landed her in jail.
“My 8-year-old son refused to talk to me,” Ford recalled. “He was done with me. I decided that something had to give.”
Through inpatient and outpatient rehab programs, she became convinced that counselors didn’t completely understand the life she led. One of those counselors, Judy Lopez, challenged her to do something about it, and a subsequent visit by representatives of GCU to Eastern Arizona College changed everything for Ford.
She graduated Friday with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Health Sciences. Her career goal: counselor and psychiatrist.
“I want to be there to tell people, ‘I’ve learned it and lived it and I know you can overcome it,’” said Ford, 34, who now works as a crisis counselor at Horizon Human Services, the place that first took her in. “I know what it’s like to sleep on the streets and in jail.
“This is monumental for me. As I watched (master’s degree candidates) get hooded at convocation, I said, ‘That’s next.’ I thank God every day that He brought me out of it.”
Her children — Dominic, 13, and Cheyenne, 11 — were on hand to see their mother graduate.
Getting what she came for
In 2006, Karen Rudin of Mesa arrived at GCU as a music major, only to see the music program shut down shortly thereafter.
“I started praying it would come back,” she said. “This was an excellent music program, known all over the country. I was sad, and I wanted God to bring it back better than ever.”
Forced to change plans, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from GCU. Then she got the news she had been waiting for: The University was restoring the music program as part of a new College of Fine Arts and Production in the fall of 2010. Rudin did some checking and discovered she could complete a bachelor’s degree in music education in a year.
Friday marked the accomplishment of her mission.
“My heart’s desire is to have this degree,” said Rudin, who hopes to land a position as a K-8 music teacher. “My passion is music, and I really want to teach it. This campus has been like a family. I found my purpose here.”
The Voice of Commencement
Most at GCU know him as the director of athletics, but Keith Baker has been calling names at Commencement for so long that he can’t remember when he started.
Nowadays, he splits the job with Keith Chandler of Event Services. They alternate reading the names of degree candidates over the public-address system after being handed an index card for each graduate. On Friday, that amounted to more than 1,000 index cards apiece.
“I stand the entire ceremony, and that’s probably worse than the voice part,” Baker said. “At the end, I just want to sit down.”
Lacking a phonetic spelling for some hard-to-pronounce names, Baker said he just gives it the old college try.
“I was once told by a missionary at my church that most Chinese know that Americans can’t pronounce their name correctly — and they’re OK with that,” he said.
Rallying for a victory
Driving into downtown Phoenix on Thursday night, Shannon Landers had a chilling thought: What if the Diamondbacks game went into extra innings and delayed setup for Commencement?
It happened — the game went 11 innings and four hours — and the Event Services team, under the direction of Helen Bleach, couldn’t take the field until after 2 a.m.
As you might imagine, the folks in Events aren’t shedding any tears over next year’s move to the GCU Arena, where the individual college convocations will replace a University-wide Commencement.
“It’s going to be so much more intimate,” Landers said of the Arena. “It will be easy to have it in our back yard.”
Judging from the haggard looks on the faces of Diamondbacks personnel, they won’t mind, either — although video producer Rob Weinheimer insisted he likes the change of pace supplied by a graduation.
“It’s fun doing something besides baseball,” Weinheimer said from the control room in the recesses of the stadium’s second level. “Besides, we don’t want anybody else coming in and using our (video) toys.”
Dressing them for success
With her tool apron cinched about her waist, Debi Parris looked straight out of Home Depot on Friday. Inside were the supplies — Kleenex, bobby pins, safety pins, Band-Aids — needed to help the graduates look sharp for the big stage.
Parris, whose daughter Catherine was part of the Class of 2011, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, has volunteered at Commencement for six years. She assists the cap-and-gown crowd with their academic regalia and assembles a team of 40 to help her.
Those hoods have to go on a certain way, you know, and there’s a steady, 90-minute crush of students just before the procession.
“This is so satisfying,” said Parris, who works on campus with GCU’s international students. “You see students you’ve walked through all the stages of school. You get to see them from beginning to end.”
For the students, Commencement is a last impression of GCU — and a lasting one.
“You want them to have a good experience,” Parris said. “It’s a mothering thing. You want them to look good and the school to look good. The students sometimes say, ‘My gosh, GCU has thought of everything!’”
Parris said she knew of families from Malaysia, Scotland, Australia and India that had made the trip for Friday’s festivities.
Father’s Day arrives early
Michael Kellerman Sr. and Michael Kellerman Jr. walked together as graduates, one with a master’s degree in executive fire science and the other with a bachelor’s in nursing.
Michael Sr., 45, a firefighter and paramedic for the Surprise Fire Department who studied online, never gave much thought to participating in Commencement until his wife mentioned the rare father-and-son opportunity.
“Because of my work schedule, we weren’t sure until about a week ago that it would work out,” he said as he waited for Michael Jr., 23, to arrive.
Michael Sr., who has a bachelor’s in electronics from Southern Illinois University, has been in the Marines and the Border Patrol and had his own business for a time. The master’s, he said, is for “when I get too old to get out of the back of a fire truck.”
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].
Click on the photos to view the slideshow.