Grand total, grander feats of 100,000+ alumni

(Editor's note: This story first appeared in the March 2016 issue of GCU Today Magazine. To view the e-version of the entire magazine, click here.)

Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine

They didn't see it coming.

Not Martha Davis, who was among the nine graduates in Grand Canyon College’s Class of 1952. Not Dr. Tim Sieges, who sampled three other colleges in three years, then finally found his calling at Grand Canyon in the ’70s. Not Dr. David Engstrom, the valedictorian of his medical school class, whose undergraduate experience in the ’90s gave him a strong science foundation.

Not even Grand Canyon University senior Jocsan Tamayo, who landed a job teaching high school math on the strength of his resumé and the College of Education’s reputation. This, before he’d done a single semester of student teaching.

None could imagine their alma mater would ever mark such an occasion, one that speaks volumes about seven decades of hard work, tough decisions and an unwavering love for and trust in God.

“One hundred thousand alumni? Goodness, how can that be?” said Sieges, who has counseled Christian missionaries around the world for 30 years. “Extremely cool.”

GCU’s alumni community became 100,000 strong in December with the graduation of the last Class of 2015. (And in February, it hit 103,284.) It’s a number Alumni Relations director Kimberlee Marlow had been watching expectantly for months.

“It’s a monumental milestone,” said Marlow, herself an alum (MBA, ’15). “We are a community of 100,000 people who have established the University beyond its walls. Our alumni cross country borders, ages, modalities, and they represent a diverse and really caring network of individuals.”

They are bold entrepreneurs at the helm of technology companies, compassionate doctors and nurses who trot the globe on their own dime to heal the bodies and souls of the world’s most marginalized populations, and teachers who give their time, talents and treasures to educate children in trying times. They are brilliant preachers and worship leaders living out John 3:16 every day of their lives and performers who were well-trained not on the coasts, but in the Arizona desert.

“Employers continually seek out our graduates because they represent the academic integrity, strong faith and servant leadership upon which the university is grounded,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “Our alumni have a rich history as Biblical scholars, teachers, nurses and business leaders and are now moving into medical fields, engineering, computer science and information technology.”

They have made their mark.

A track record for the ages

Davis, a sophomore at Grand Canyon when it opened in Prescott, Ariz., in 1949, studied English and Bible. She was joined by a few other young women and many men, fresh off duty in World War II going to school on the G.I. Bill.

The college moved in 1951 to a wide-open space on Camelback Road in west Phoenix, and Davis’ class was the first to graduate there the following spring.

Two years later, Jim Carter arrived on basketball and baseball scholarships, met and married his wife, Ginger, and graduated in 1957 with a physical education diploma. “My professors were interested in Jim Carter as a person, not a matriculation number,” he said.

He went on to earn a master’s in educational administration from Arizona State University and a law degree from The University of Arizona. “My degree from Canyon means more than the other two,” said Carter, a longtime Phoenix city prosecutor, assistant city attorney and Phoenix Municipal Court judge. “I’m absolutely proud. Everybody at the courthouse knows where I graduated from, and my law school class knows, too.”

Sieges is one of those people for whom “find your purpose” is more than just an inspirational slogan. His classes with religion teachers, among them Dr. J. Niles Puckett and Dr. D.C. Martin, helped him earn a behavioral science degree in 1975 and set the table for his career in ministerial counseling.

“I learned about God’s plan for me, and I really fell in love with God’s word there,” he said.

As clinical director of Wycliffe USA Counseling Ministries, Sieges has worked in 20 countries with missionaries who struggle with mental health issues. His contributions earned him a place in GCU’s 2015 Alumni Hall of Fame.

Alumnus Brian Stout (’91) worked for more than a decade in the homebuilding industry before becoming a full-time missionary eight years ago and helping to start Thousand Hills Ministry. Based in Lake Mary, Fla., the nonprofit provides tools and training in agriculture, irrigation and livestock care to church-based projects in Haiti.

“This vocation God has me in certainly did not come from a book on how to be a missionary,” said Stout, crediting Grand Canyon with teaching him to “think and not just memorize” and to dream big.

Uganda, not Haiti, captured the hearts of Engstrom and his wife, Jamie, who graduated from GCU with human biology degrees in 1999. They both went on to Midwestern University, where he graduated from medical school and she got her degree as a physician’s assistant, then opened Pinnacle Family Medicine in Litchfield Park, Ariz.

Along with other medical professionals whom they met at GCU, the couple has traveled several times to Uganda to bring health care and God’s love to people desperate for both. In January, the Engstroms, who have three daughters ages 11 to 6, brought home a 4-year-old Ugandan boy whom they adopted. Just as he prayed over the decision to expand his family, Engstrom prays with and over his patients at his practice and only gives medical advice that aligns with his Christian values.

GCU is in their DNA

Engstrom also has hired GCU alumni. “I feel very comfortable and confident with their science foundation,” he said, “but equally important, I know their values and integrity because a Christian background is interwoven in them.

“The seed was planted in all of us who went to GCU — learning to incorporate our schooling, our science and our faith and knowing that all three can blend together. It was in our DNA.”

And it’s in the University’s, said Lamont Yoder, CEO of Banner Gateway Medical Center and Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Ariz.

“You can see it in GCU’s nursing students and its nurses,” said Yoder, a member of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions community advisory board. “The consistency of their behavior and their attitude truly sets them apart from other programs. In the real world of health care, there are a lot of skill sets and knowledge that are critical for clinical care and patient care, and GCU has always been at the top of that.”

Because of the college’s reputation, Banner employees working on advanced nursing degrees at GCU automatically have Yoder’s attention. Students in residency at Banner as part of the college’s Transition to Professional Nursing Practice program are on his radar, too.

“We talk a lot in the workplace about transition into practice, and that transition for GCU graduates has been extremely smooth,” he said. “They are well prepared — the level of critical thinking, the ability to learn but to ask when there are things to be asked and not assumed. They are very highly skilled.”

Every time Dr. Betsy Hargrove interacts with GCU-trained teachers in her school district or encounters University faculty and staff while on campus for professional development and other opportunities, her impressions are the same.

“The piece that comes through is a true sense of purpose and a true sense of service,” said Hargrove, superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District. “From the first person you encounter, the security guard at the gate, to the groups of educators who are sitting down to talk about the teacher shortage in Arizona and what to do about it, there’s a positive, constructive vibe that’s happening all over campus.

“We could build an organization around GCU. GCU attracts a certain type of kid, and an added bonus is that many are local kids who already are established somewhere in the Valley.”

Casey Miller, Enterprise Holdings

“Members of the GCU education community come to the table every time with solutions: ‘How can we work together to build programs for community members? How can we get collaborative conversations started with partnering school districts to help support the teacher shortage?’”

Hargrove also appreciates the College of Education’s Promise, in which assistance to graduates of the educator and administrator preparation programs is provided during their first year of teaching or leading.

“GCU is saying to its graduates, ‘We’re still here with you,’” she said. “And that is such a wonderful, powerful opportunity for GCU graduates to know they have the full support, not only of their school district, but of their preparation school. I don’t know of another teacher or leader preparation program that does that.”

GCU alumni employed by Enterprise Holdings, which operates three rental-car brands, excel at aligning themselves with the company’s morals and business practices, said Casey Miller, group talent acquisitions manager. They also are self-driven and not hesitant to ask questions, Miller said.

“We give a great measure of autonomy and decision making, and GCU candidates are able to take that and run with it,” she said. “Their problem-solving skills, weighing what’s best for the consumer and the business, is advanced.” Enterprise also has noticed that GCU alumni have GCU DNA.

“The benefit to an applicant coming from GCU is us understanding what kind of a university they are coming from — the culture, the training, the academic attention they receive,” Miller said. “It’s really those things that make GCU alumni more attractive candidates.”

Northwestern Mutual, Southwest, which offers financial planning services in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas, recruits employees from the six major state universities in that region and from GCU. The quality of its graduates, their work and business ethics, and its ties to the community have made GCU a go-to campus for managing partner Ben Miller.

“We could build an organization around GCU,” Miller said. “GCU attracts a certain type of kid, and an added bonus is that many are local kids who already are established somewhere in the Valley. They’re better in communication skills and relationship skills, too, and for us it’s not all resumé building, it’s about community building.”

So when he’s flooded with hundreds of resumes for one position, the GCU resumes land in the “yes” pile, he said.

“If you’re from another school, you’re just another candidate,” Miller said. “But a GCU kid? It’s like if I see someone was an Eagle Scout. Right away, that’s goes in the ‘yes’ pile. It’s the same with GCU.”

Building the future

Through its applied management degree, GCU gave Phil Colon the leadership skills to take his career in technology to the next level. Today, the 1997 graduate is senior director of IT, Global Infrastructure Services at ON Semiconductor, an international company headquartered in Phoenix.

Colon joined the President’s STEM Advisory Board at GCU last fall and is working to develop an internship program at ON Semiconductor for students in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. They would learn and work in operations and infrastructure design, he said.

“Being on campus and seeing the enthusiasm of the kids motivated me to want to give back to the school I love and enjoy so much,” Colon said.

That’s music to Paul Rodriguez’s ears. The GCU sophomore, an information technology major with an emphasis in health IT, is the founder and president of Innovative Computing, a campus club. He and other students are developing an internship program with club adviser Steve Powelson, a CSET faculty member.

The students are hungry to immediately start applying in the real world what they learned in their classes, Rodriguez said.

“I absolutely love GCU, the one-on-one with faculty and the fact that most of them are more mentors than people who just regurgitate information at me,” the 19-year-old said. “Experience matters the most, and there’s no reason not to get a jump on it.”

That’s what Jocsan Tamayo, 23, was thinking when he approached COE faculty member Jim Mostofo last year about getting a teaching job before student teaching. Mostofo was supportive, and not long after Tamayo had a job interview with Holly Foged, principal at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Phoenix. And a job offer, on the spot.

“I feel great, confident, the students respect me and I really love them,” said Tamayo, who is employed at ACAA as a teacher-in-residence. He is teaching geometry and pre-calculus while taking his last semester of GCU courses online and plans to graduate in April.

“They (ACAA) knew GCU had the greatest program in the state when it comes to preparing teachers,” said Tamayo, grinning.

You won’t get much of an argument from Foged, who had a position she was unable to fill last fall. “I can rotate substitute teachers while I continue my search for a teacher that meets the highly qualified status,” she said, “or I can hire a teacher-in-residence now who has a passion, who wants to be a teacher and will accept the position.”

More recently, an unexpected opening for an English teacher arose. After an extensive search for a highly qualified teacher who would accept the position, Foged called Tamayo, who reached out to GCU and got a recommendation: senior Lindsay Bledsoe. Bledsoe was interviewed by the administration, got the position and started her teacher-in-residence in January.

“I walk into Jocsan’s and Lindsay’s classrooms, and there’s a good energy,” she said. “My students are in good hands with them. They get a lot of support from the teachers here at ACAA. They know they can walk into the classrooms next door, at any time, to get answers to their questions.”

In December, Jen Smestad addressed her fellow Class of 2015 graduates from the dais in GCU Arena. As a student, she had benefited from GCU’s small class sizes, its welcoming environment and myriad opportunities to grow her faith. As an alumna, she wants to stay connected.

“I feel we made history,” Smestad said of the 100,000 milestone. “And at the rate it’s growing, we’re going to be at 200,000 in just a few years, not another 60.”


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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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