By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau
There was pride but also just a touch of sadness Thursday as the Honors College at Grand Canyon University bid farewell to the last 21 of its inaugural class of 59 graduates.
Since its inception in the fall of 2013, the Honors College has grown exponentially to 1,200 students. The college anticipates having 1,600 this fall.
“It is a bittersweet moment in that we are so excited that these students successfully progressed and made it through in their rigorous degree programs and are now ready to venture out into the workforce or on to graduate school,” said Breanna Naegeli, Honors College assistant dean. “We are beyond confident that they will make incredible contributions to their local and global communities, and within their respective career fields. At the same time, it is a little sad that they won’t be coming back.
"These students have been have been ambitious and extremely willing to commit to the Honors College throughout all of its growth. We’ve been really blessed because without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The feeling is mutual.
Jacqueline Thomas, who recently earned the Distinguished Achievement Award after four years in the Honors College, was crowned the 2017 Miss Grand Canyon and now works at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, credited the Honors College for her achievements.
“As a freshman you’re often unsure about where to get plugged in, and the Honors College was crucial to enhancing my life on campus, connecting me to people with my similar drive and directing me to the right resources,” Thomas said.
But first, like the dozens of others who entered the Honors College without precedents to pave the way, the Business Management major took a giant leap of faith.
“Basically, I challenged my dad’s word,” Thomas said. “My parents were afraid that I would be a guinea pig to an experiment, and while that ended up being true, it ended up being a really great experience.
“Sometimes, you just have to do what you know is right even if your parents don’t agree. Now my dad laughs.”
Thomas, who grew up in Chandler and attended a private Christian high school, said GCU immediately became a fitting college home.
“It was far enough from home so that I could start my own life and be my own person, but close enough that I could go visit my family,” she said.
It was through the GCU Honors College that the self-proclaimed history buff was able to take a 14-day trip through Europe and explore its history along with her peers, Naegeli and her favorite history professor, Dr. David Dean.
“Because of Dr. Dean I learned much more than I otherwise would have,” Thomas said. “It was such a great bonding experience and some of the fondest memories I look back on.”
But it is within internships that Thomas found the opportunity to fulfill her dreams.
“I found my purpose in American politics and public policy as a senior in high school, but GCU molded me into the person I am today,” she said.
At her first internship at a small, nonprofit lobbyist firm, then 19-year-old Thomas was the youngest intern the organization had ever hired. Then, after an internship with at the Arizona State Legislature and as a reporting fellow for the Daily Caller in Washington, D.C., she visited the White House. As Miss Grand Canyon, Thomas invested more than 5,000 hours of volunteer work hosting and attending community events and raising money for charities.
“I’ve been very blessed in my 22 years of life, and I want to continue taking advantage of every opportunity I possibly can,” Thomas said. “I invest in everything I do for those people who can’t.”
Next up? Law school.
Another Honors College graduate, Andrea Hamilton, found that an active role as an advocate for the students of GCU came naturally.
“I was a student council kid in high school, and that passion followed me at GCU,” she said.
It is a vocation to which the Communications major rose to through the Honors College and as administrative vice president for the Freshman Leadership program within the Associated Students of GCU. Hamilton has been active on a number of campaigns on campus such as "It’s On Us," a national movement aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault on college campuses.
While GCU creates a positive living and learning community, Hamilton said, it is still necessary to shed light on the issue and make sure that the University is doing right by its students and providing them the information and the resources they need.
“Leading the student body has been the biggest part of my college life,” Hamilton said. “I’d like to think that I have left a legacy as a student leader because I believe so much in being relational-oriented. This has been my heart this entire time.
"If you look at my Outlook calendar for the past year, it is just stacked with work, meetings, ASGCU hours ... and I don’t regret any of those late nights, early morning and three cups of coffee a day. In fact, some of my favorite memories have to do with student leadership, whether it’s with Lost Canyon (our first leadership retreat at the beginning of the year in Williams) or Welcome Week (the best week of the year on campus with the return of students) and struggling together in the heat to carry boxes up flights of stairs. Those are moments that make everything worthwhile.”
Hamilton said she appreciated GCU’s efforts to see that everyone felt accepted into the campus culture.
“As a follower of Christ going into the real world, I’ve definitely learned and have seen that where people are valued first, business tends to succeed more. That is going to be a huge factor in how I live my life regardless of what I end up doing.”
Hamilton hopes to one day become a Foreign Services Officer for the U.S. Department of State. In the meantime, she is looking forward to a stretching period to catch up with her family and friends in her hometown of San Diego.
Contact Jeannette Cruz at [email protected] or (602) 639-6631.