Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
When her own students look up to her with hope and fear in their eyes, Kayla Peterson said she sees herself.
"I have decided I want to cultivate in my students the same phrase that was stamped on me: Find your purpose," said Peterson, the student speaker during Monday morning's Spring Commencement ceremony at GCU Arena, for graduates of the Grand Canyon University College of Education (COE) and College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS).
To Peterson, who has been a student teacher through most of her senior year, “Find Your Purpose” isn’t just a GCU marketing motto. You make it personal and pursue it continually, even after graduation.
"It's more than what you do, it's who you are," she told the crowd during the first of four commencement ceremonies over two days.
It’s especially relevant for graduates of COE and CHSS, whether they become teachers, counselors or social workers, she said in an earlier interview.
“All of us are really getting people relationship jobs. We are all pursuing the betterment of people and humanities,” she said. “These are jobs that are outside of us. They are service jobs. I’m calling students to not just leave here with a diploma and that’s it but pursue who you are so you can be strong enough to lead others to their purposes as well.”
Peterson’s journey to her purpose as a teacher was not typical. But neither was it for this graduating class, which will likely go down in history as enduring the most months of COVID-related adjustments.
“We have been the class of COVID, and (student teachers) have also taught the class of COVID,” she said. “It has proven that we are a generation that is tenacious and irrepressible. We are flexible and driven, and not just to complete our own degree, but also when it comes to educating the future.”
Indeed, COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade told the assembled that this class contained her most flexible students. They had to adapt to make the unusual year work during a pandemic.
GCU President Brian Mueller said it was a group that didn't complain about what they couldn't do but worked hard at what they could, such as serving the community as volunteers in helping the University issue more than 100,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to citizens.
Monday morning's speaker exemplifies adaptation.
Peterson wasn’t all that keen on education. She remembers standing in the hallway in middle school, asking her cousin this question: “Why would you ever graduate from school, then go to school, then teach school? You’d always be in school.”
“That was my attitude. I didn’t get it.”
Good grades didn’t come easily, especially in math, and she had to work hard to get a passing grade to continue playing sports at Jefferson Preparatory High School in Phoenix. She later would learn that she had dysgraphia, a learning disability that can lead to difficulties in writing and math.
But she loved her English and literature classes. “If my English teacher talked to my math teacher, they wouldn’t think they talked to the same student.”
It hit her one day that, difficult as it was at times, she wanted to help others succeed in school, and she needed a college education to do that.
That’s when she faced another hurdle. Her parents hadn’t gone to college, and as the oldest of their four children, she didn’t know how she could afford it.
She toured GCU and loved it. Sitting at a table on campus, her dad, Matt, looked at her and she remembers her joy at hearing him say, “Well, do you want to go here? We will work it out.”
Just weeks before he’d landed a better-paying job. Peterson called it a “God thing.”
She threw herself into GCU and loved connecting with professors, who she said talked as much about character as rules. “They put themselves out there, being vulnerable, showing us how to be teachers. They are teachers at heart and want to know their students outside of graduation.”
She met professors such as Dr. Paul Danuser, who she learned taught her dad at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix in the 1990s. “Little did I know she would become a superstar,” said Danuser, who nominated her to give the Commencement address.
Peterson said GCU clicked right away because her classes toward an English for Secondary Education degree directly applied to what she wanted to do with her life; there was no wasted time. By her sophomore year, she entered classrooms for practicums. By this year, she was teaching at North Valley Christian Academy and has a position there lined up for the fall.
“I literally had to get a sub for Monday because I graduate,” she said.
What she learned in teaching special education classes came from her own experience. She had been though learning struggles, so she could see on their faces the panic when they didn’t understand.
“I really do think it made me a better teacher,” she said. “Looking back on your trials that come up in your life, you can touch people with them or empathize with them. That is my heart with students, even with English students who say they don’t like to read.
“For students who say school is not natural for them, I just have a connection because of the way I learn and things I went through.”
On Monday her parents, Matt and Karri Peterson, were proud to see the first in their family graduate from college, as she told the crowd: "I stand her telling you the impossible is truly possible."
She hopes to follow a slogan that drives her every day: “Relationship over rigor. At the end of the day, students may not remember grammar lessons, but they will remember how they felt in my class, how they were treated and respected.”
She learned at GCU that a teacher can reveal Christ-like character in everything you do, and in the Christian school where she now teaches, she can share that story.
“At the end of the day, if the test scores aren’t there, it’s less important than the type of students that come out of my classroom,” she said.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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