Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
When Grand Canyon University organizers needed a featured speaker for the seven makeup Commencement ceremonies this fall, it was clear they needed someone with enough charisma and relatability to represent the struggles and perseverance that the classes of 2020 and 2021 had to endure.
It had to be someone who knows the struggle of juggling a family, a full-time job and a hefty load of coursework while also dealing with the stress of the pandemic.
The answer was clear.
Dr. Breanna Naegeli.
But it's a good thing they were asking now. The Honors College Associate Dean and 2020 doctoral graduate readily admits that if her high school self had been asked to speak to a crowd of thousands, especially seven times in one semester (here's a slideshow from Monday), she would have run as fast as she could in the opposite direction.
Now, she runs toward such an opportunity.
“It was honestly a very humbling experience to be asked to serve as the student speaker and one that I am abundantly grateful for,” Naegeli said. “I thought of myself as a graduate and someone who would simply participate and walk in the ceremony. I really didn’t think speaking at Commencement was ever something I would personally get to do. So to have that opportunity and then to experience that seven times over is exceptionally enjoyable and the experience of a lifetime.”
Naegeli adjusts her speech for each Commencement to mix it up for not only the graduates, but also for attendees who may have seen multiple ceremonies. The goal has remained the same, though: She wants to make people laugh.
“With Commencement, it’s all about acknowledging and celebrating such a significant milestone, it’s something to celebrate and feel joyful about, so I wanted to bring a little bit of humor along with some inspiration into the speech,” she said. “We all know how stressful and overwhelming the whole experience can be, but Commencement, that is a time to celebrate and have fun.
“I wanted to bring as much humor into the experience as possible just so everyone in that moment could sit back, relax, embrace the moment and really be in the mindset to celebrate that accomplishment.”
Having celebrated her own makeup Commencement in the University’s first ceremony Sept. 20, Naegeli spoke from experience about the trials and tribulations all too familiar to many college graduates.
For example, how to handle repetitive questions:
“Graduates, raise your hand if you’ve heard this question once or twice: Are you done yet?”
Her clever retort:
“'No, Dad, this isn’t Amazon. You don’t drop a diploma in the cart and have it signed, sealed and delivered by sunrise; it takes a lot of hard work and DQs (discussion questions), participation every single week.’”
The makeup ceremonies celebrate online graduates, many of them parents who have gone back to college to finish their degrees or start new ones. Naegeli tapped into her experiences as a mother to three small children.
“I framed my diploma, not in my work office but in my home office so that while my children do rule the house and boss me around daily, they at least know to address me as Doctor Mommy from this point forward,” she told the crowds. “Having said that, I do evaluate and grade my children’s weekly participation. If they cannot talk nicely to each other or myself on at least three separate days of the calendar week, no participation.”
Naegeli used her her newfound expertise in citations to kiddingly address her husband, GCU admissions counselor Preston Naegeli:
“After mastering all things APA, I start to look for any and all opportunities to integrate that and appropriately cite my sources. 'Hey, honey, per your previous text message on Dec. 19, you said you would get the kids. Where are they?'" – Naegeli 2021.’”
Pulling from her experiences as a faculty/staff member, she could relate to working in an educational setting while being a student at the same time.
“As a faculty member I would hound my students, ‘Respect the deadlines. Manage your time. How hard is it? Plan accordingly. Take accountability. Stay disciplined,'" she said. “Then after a long day at work and an even longer drive home, I realize I have my own research paper due in T-minus 45 minutes and I haven’t even started.”
Being able to connect in some way to nearly everyone at each ceremony is an ability few people have. It made Naegeli’s speeches that much more impactful.
“What’s interesting is that I feel like I’m able to relate to people in the room for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “It’s been really fun to get messages from all of these different groups saying, ‘I really enjoyed the speech. It was so relatable because of this part that you talked about or about this moment,’ and then they shared their stories in return.”
Another way Naegeli could relate: She completed her program in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Coming back a year and a half later to celebrate was a unique experience for Naegeli and her family, just as it was for the other returning graduates.
“At first, it felt a little odd to come back and celebrate when it’s been so long since I had finished my degree," she said. "It felt a little anticlimactic to be back in this space when I feel so far removed. But when you’re physically there at Commencement and in that moment, it brings back all the memories of the relentless efforts, the long nights, the endless hours and sleepless nights trying to balance it all.
“It brings back that ‘Yes, this is absolutely something worth celebrating time and time again.' It doesn’t matter how far removed I am from actually completing my degree. It’s something that I really want to take the time to celebrate because it is a big accomplishment, and I don’t ever want to downplay the significance of it.”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].