My LopeLife: Tales of doctoral, nursing challenges

GCU News Bureau

Editor's note: Of all the ceremonies in any group of Grand Canyon University commencements, the one for the College of Doctoral Studies produces the most emotions. These are the people who often worked the most years and did the most work to reach the highest degree of scholarship. In this version of My LopeLife, the GCU Today feature in which students, faculty, staff and alumni share enlightening experiences, we hear from two doctoral graduates with a lot to say about that journey. The 9 a.m. Friday ceremony also included master's graduates from the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, so their chance to reminisce and advise is here as well. For a full replay of the ceremony, click here.

College of Doctoral Studies

Twenty years ago, my husband was a 38-year-old minister working on his master’s degree. I was a full-time Human Resources professional with three years of college, all completed in my 20s, and planning to return once Ivan was finished with his program. Our two sons were in their late grade school years, busy with school, sports and friends.

Ivan, always athletic, started missing shots in his pickup basketball games. Kids he coached noticed he was slurring his words. “Mister Huff, did you do drugs?” one of them asked.

Dr. Christina Huff (right) and her husband, Ivan, during their visit to GCU Arena for Commencement on Friday.

After five months of testing, a Mayo Clinic specialist informed us Ivan had Probable Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, and should get his affairs in order and be prepared to give up preaching within the next six months.

After the shock subsided, we decided we would live life, not live ALS. While we’d certainly take advantage of all options to treat the ALS, we’d continue our focus on the life God had given us and care first for our relationship with Him, each other, kids, work, church, vacations, school – all the wonderful life we had in front of us. This focus on life let us fully experience the peace of God that comes with trusting Him with our life outcomes.

Faced with an impending loss of income (and no disability or social security benefits to replace it!), I realized I could either work two jobs or return to school and get my master’s degree and grow. So back to school I went, earning my bachelor’s degree in Human Resources within a year and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) two years later.

During these three years I continued working full-time, moved into a new job with more responsibility and travel, and cared for a husband, who had growing mobility issues. Although school had always been easy and a joy for me, there were moments along the way where I thought – how will I get through this class?  As I look back, God was faithful and met my needs even before I knew I had them, providing the support I needed to get to the finish line.

With an MBA under my belt, I was certain I was finished with school. The additional education paved the way for continued career growth into executive HR leadership positions, making the MBA so worthwhile. I also received opportunities to pass along experience to others, teaching HR-related courses at the undergrad and graduate level. However, the more I did the more I realized I wanted to know, to be an expert, in the “how and why” of people success at work.

This desire to know more culminated seven years ago in the start of my doctoral journey. When I saw the Ph.D. in Psychology with an Emphasis in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (I/O) offered at GCU, I knew this was the opportunity to accomplish my goal.

The courses were a pure joy. When I completed my B.A. in HR, I already had been in the HR field a good 10-plus years and knew much of what was included in the courses. The MBA was great knowledge to have but had very few courses dedicated specifically to understanding people success at work.

However, the doctoral I/O classes were finally discussing my passions and were exactly what I had hoped to cover! Even the dissertation journey, although so much longer than anyone can imagine at the start, allowed me to explore areas of interest that brighten my eyes to this day!

What about Ivan, you ask? Ivan continued preaching for five years after his diagnosis as he slowly declined and was eventually reassessed and diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS), a much slower progressing “cousin” disease to ALS.  

After he retired from full-time ministry, he went on to write a book and continues to weekly pray for and email a long list of friends and family. Although wheelchair bound and dependent on full-time nursing assistance, he has been single-minded in his dedication to make this PLS journey as easy as possible for the rest of us.

Ivan also has been my strongest supporter these last seven Ph.D.-marathon years, staying up with me every long night and encouraging me with his pride. I am grateful that despite the odds, Ivan and our wonderfully supportive kids and their families are here now to see me graduate! Our parents and extended family also have been such an important part of this experience.

We are blessed! Now, onward and upward – I’m excited to use this Ph.D. wherever possible to help people be successful at work.

Dr. Christina Huff

Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Industrial and Organizational Psychology


Doctoral graduates always sit in the front rows at Commencement. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

My commencement story has three phases:

Phase 1: Initial phase (honeymoon)

I began with exceptional confidence and embraced each new course with a joy for learning. Of course, I responded to the online post with timely, completed assignments and engaged with peers online.

Additionally, I met some great colleagues who enhanced my level of confidence about obtaining the doctoral degree. Surely, GCU would not make this too challenging.

Phase 2: Transition begins (reality)

My job workload increased, and I began to experience anxiety about completing the program. I visited my physician and discovered additional health concerns and was asked, “Is it worth your health?” I discovered a virus on my computer threatening my writing thus far.

I began to pray and ask God to end this and give me clarity on some next steps. Often, I sought out others to pray with me and agree this degree was not intended to be. No one offered to support this prayer request.

Phase 3: Challenges to overcome (uphill climb)

I continued to give myself permission to quit the program – the work challenges, eye strain and increasing joint stiffness were pliable excuses, I thought. Quitting would be an easier solution. Besides this had now become a long, lonesome journey with no end in sight!

Finish line (Dissertation done)

I sought God for direction and my next steps. Then another doctoral student who graduated earlier reached out and guided me along the way. Dissertation defense was amazing, and I learned so much in a short timeframe. Most assuredly, the word “congratulations” was music to my ears.

The lessons learned on this journey:

  • Listen to your chair’s advice – humility goes a long way
  • Keep writing and reading
  • Take a break – this journey requires your best attention
  • Lean on each other – seeking too much advice might delay your progress
  • Seek God’s guidance, rely on your faith and respond with thankfulness
  • Stick to the never-quit attitude

I am thankful to Dr. Jimmy Brown, my committee members and many doctoral contemporaries. Grand Canyon University is an exemplary school with an excellent curriculum for doctoral students. GCU has been an educational keystone for my personal career and several family members during the past few years. #Nevergiveup #GCUthebest

Dr. Regina Smith

Doctor of Business Administration: Management

A new graduate expresses her bliss after receiving her diploma. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

College of Nursing and Health Care Professions

Everything was going wonderfully. I had a good handle on my new job as I started my master’s adventure at GCU. I had a 4.0 GPA, my work/life/travel balance was a challenge but manageable because of my wonderful support system at home, and with six months left until graduation I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then, on May 26, my husband and I found out we were expecting. To say we were beyond surprised would be an understatement since we utilized in-vitro conceiving our daughter and never thought we would be able to have a baby without the assistance of reproductive medicine.

The next three months were filled with disbelief that we were actually having another child, gratitude that we were blessed with such a miracle and pure exhaustion and sickness on my part. There were many days where I could barely get out of bed, and my discussion posts were done between naps and episodes of morning, afternoon and evening sickness.

Much like everything in life, that too did pass and I am now seven months pregnant with our son, who is healthy and ever-growing. I still am keeping steady with a 4.0 GPA, and upon reflection I am nothing but amazed I made it through the past seven months.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that God is amazing. If you slow down and take time to listen to Him and have faith in Him, His guidance always will get you through the more difficult times.

Stephanie Holmstrom

M.S. in Health Care Administration


Beginning the journey to obtain my MSN wasn’t even on my radar until I got a phone call from a co-worker telling me she had signed up with GCU to begin her master’s. I determined after some thought that after nearly 20 years as a nurse the time was never going to be right, so I decided to join her and two other co-workers in the journey together.

All four of us had been working professional nurses for years, and jumping back in the saddle of coursework, participation posts, discussion questions and APA papers proved to be too much. Two quit by Week 2.

Fast-forward to the week before graduation, and here I stand the lone wolf. Even though I ultimately ended up making the journey alone, I never would have started it without my co-workers, and I’m glad I did.

Mya Daily-Haddix

M.S. in Nursing


Graduation Day! For me, this is a most exciting day because I’m 72 years old, and I’m sure the oldest chick in the class!

Receiving my master’s degree is a career-long desire to be all I can be with God’s grace, help and divine guidance. He has blessed my life with a wonderful family, a most interesting nursing career, a book published in 2014 called “The Earthen Vessel” and a desire to keep learning and growing no matter how old I am!

I owe the Lord all my thanks and thank Grand Canyon University, its teachers, its staff and my fellow classmates for making this a wonderfully rewarding adventure.

Nancy Wilferd

M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness


Becoming a nurse is something I always knew I wanted to do. However, as a child of the foster care system, I often was told this goal was “setting my standards too high.”

Teachers, counselors, parents, and other influential people in my life encouraged me to spend my time in something else because they didn’t want to see me fail – clearly, failure was what they expected.

I’m not just celebrating earning a master’s degree. I’m not just celebrating earning this degree with a 4.0. I’m celebrating overcoming years of others telling me what I couldn’t do, and with this I am opening a nonprofit for adolescents aging out of foster care. I will show them everything they CAN do! 

Leora Bain

M.S. in Nursing

Related content:

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Friday evening ceremony

GCU Today: My LopeLife: Passion for education drives teachers

GCU Today: My LopeLife: Nurses know all about hanging tough

GCU Today: GCU reaches 1,000 signed doctoral dissertations

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Friday afternoon ceremony

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Friday morning ceremony

GCU Today: My LopeLife: Stories from Thursday evening session

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Thursday evening ceremony

GCU Today: Jamaican graduate hopes degree will impact others

GCU Today: Kirk Cameron delivers powerful message to grads

GCU Today: My LopeLife: They had to be all business to succeed

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Thursday afternoon ceremony

GCU Today: Slideshow: Fall Commencement, Thursday morning ceremony

GCU Today: My LopeLife: Humanities grads share their joy


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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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