Online graduates share stories worth celebrating

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

He had been to a Grand Canyon University commencement a year and a half ago, for his wife's graduation. After seeing what it was like, David Pedraza made sure he wasn’t going to miss it when it was his turn.

David Pedraza and his wife, Monique, got to enjoy their second GCU commencement in a year and a half.

“I’ve never been to a place that celebrates people like this,” he said Friday morning after receiving the diploma signifying his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Studies. “From the time you get out of the car in the parking lot to the time you leave, you feel celebrated.”

There were five such fall commencement celebrations, three on Friday and two more Saturday. Five times, beaming graduates came streaming out of GCU Arena looking for loved ones but also looking back on the experience of being a nontraditional (aka online) student.

They had a lot to say about that challenging task … and how the commencement address by ninth-grade world history teacher and, incredibly, New York Giants chaplain Gian-Paul Gonzalez resonated with them (see accompanying story).

Pedraza, for one. He’s a youth pastor in Palmdale, Calif., and Gonzalez’s message meant even more to him because he speaks at high schools all over his city. How did earning his degree show he fulfilled the “All In” spirit Gonzalez exudes? 

“A lot of sacrifice,” Pedraza said. “But I got a lot of support from my family and had a lot of good mentors.”

That was a consistent theme among the grads. So was perseverance.

Another graduate shows her delight after receiving her diploma. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

Janette Dirks of Payson was on her fourth attempt to get a nursing degree when she signed up for the GCU program. Her attempts at three other universities had failed for various reasons. But she got more – much more – than a Bachelor of Science in Health Care Administration.

She found God.

“I wasn’t even a Christian before,” she said. “I didn’t have faith in anything.”

Something changed this time – notably, the support she got. She is a mother of two, ages 8 and 5, and needed an extra push while giving up so much valuable kid time.

“I definitely got a lot of constant support from my enrollment counselors,” she said, noting that she had two different ones, equally helpful, during her time in the program. “They were on the phone with me all the time. I didn’t feel like I was put in a box.”

Kristi Sanchez had another reason to feel connected to Gian-Paul Gonzalez's commencement talk.

And her reward?

“My degree actually got me my job,” she said.

She’s a Medical Staff Services Coordinator for Banner Health.

The presence of Gonzalez onstage was ironic for Kristi Sanchez. Her father, Dan Lloyd, played linebacker for the Giants from 1976 to 1979 before being diagnosed with cancer. He was declared cancer free in 1982 and later was in training camp with a few U.S. Football League teams, but the disease pretty much ended his football career.

His daughter’s journey to a bachelor’s degree in Psychology (she was magna cum laude) wasn’t life-threatening, but it was difficult. “All In” meant a lot to her beyond her background.

“I’m married to a police officer and have three children and a full-time job, so at nighttime I definitely had to be all in to get school done,” she said.

Peter Sharbaugh of Buckeye, who earned a master’s degree in Psychology, also comes from the sports realm – he works for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“They were really excited for me to listen to him,” he said. “They didn’t tell me much about him because they didn’t want to spoil it. He is very inspiring.”

There’s another reason Sharbaugh was inspired:

Peter Sharbaugh had heard in advance from his Arizona Diamondbacks co-workers that he should expect something great from Gonzalez.

“I’ve been ‘All In’ because I have two jobs and my degree will help me do what I want to do with education,” he said.

Sharbaugh works for the Maricopa County Education Department, helping teachers support their students. He hopes the degree will allow him to start his own psychology business – he wants to help athletes who have been injured or cut from their sport by showing them how they still can have a significant impact on the community.

As they walked across campus after the Saturday morning ceremony, Michael Johnson of Columbus, Ohio, could be overheard telling his wife, Elizabeth, how Gonzalez’s talk brought him to tears.

“It was amazing,” Johnson said a few minutes later. “Everything he said about dealing with adversity was right on point.”

Johnson earned his MBA even though Elizabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child just about in the middle of his two years in the program. She noted that even while he was with her in the hospital, he was doing schoolwork.

“The professor was very understanding,” said Johnson, who has been working as a personal trainer but wants to own his own gym someday. “He gave me the opportunity to catch up.”

Any degree makes you an all-star, but earning a doctorate is like being named Most Valuable Player.

One of those MVPs at the Saturday morning ceremony was Dr. Dan Kass of Shelton, Wash., who was moved by Gonzalez’s talk for a simple reason: He, too, is a ninth-grade teacher – he has been at Oakland Bay Junior High School for 15 years – and, like Gonzalez, he is determined to better an impoverished community that needs assistance and guidance.

Michael Johnson and his wife, Elizabeth, were enjoying the warm Phoenix weather during their trip from Columbus, Ohio.

His degree is Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership: Effective Schools, and his dissertation is titled, “The Capacity of a Professional Learning Community to Develop a New Model of Teacher Professionalism: An Explanatory Case Study.” What personal things did he give up to make it happen?

“You can’t even imagine,” he said, laughing. “Start with my sanity. It’s lonely, but at the end of the day we accomplished a lot.”

Talk about a noble cause: Kass, who also got his master’s from GCU, does reading intervention for a living, and he got the doctorate because he was determined to take his program beyond Oakland Bay. Thus far, he has enrolled 2,300 children.

“It’s really cool, and GCU helped make it happen,” he said.

Royal Porter McHenry would have won if there had been an award at commencement for Best Shoes, Male Division – he was rocking some seriously cool purple suede kicks.

Royal Porter McHenry told another tale of perseverance -- but those purple shoes definitely are impressive, too.

He hopes to go for his doctorate next after earning his master’s in Criminal Justice. He said his persistence is the result of praying to God about what to do (“He said, ‘Just don’t quit’”), and that’s why Gonzalez’s message meant extra to him, too.

“He was very, very deep and shared parallel examples of what it is to be dedicated to a cause,” McHenry said. “He inspired a lot of people with just two words (All In), but he left room for thought, too.”

Like so many of the grads, McHenry said he gave up a lot to get his degree: “Weekends, early night rest, meals, friends, a social life.” His faith and the faith of his instructors got him through.

“Each instructor would share Bible verses,” he said. “Each one inspired me.”

Eddie and Rachel Ocampo of Clovis, Calif., did what a lot of couples do: They went through their degree program (master’s in Psychology) together. That made it easier to accomplish – they have four children, three of whom are adopted, and both work in nonprofits.

They, too, loved Gonzalez’s talk, but they loved the ceremony overall, too. This wasn’t their first college commencement.

“It was really neat,” Eddie said. “It was very organized compared to others.”

Not all the people who go through the program together are married. Take, for example, the case of Elana Kaminski and Natasha Yazzie, who were introduced to each other electronically while working toward a master’s in Nursing Education and grew close despite never meeting in person. The first time they met was Friday.

The Saturday morning ceremony had the biggest crowd of the weekend. (Photo by Travis Neely)

“No matter what we all had going on, we stayed with it,” Kaminski said. “I don't know how we would have done it without each other. I probably texted her more than my friends I see all the time.”

Said Yazzie, “We started from the beginning and had every class together. She was one of the ones working on homework at her kids’ soccer games, sometimes even in the parking lots.”

Amanda Purvis, who lives on Luke Air Force Base and got her bachelor’s in Information Technology, also had to press on despite obstacles.

“I dealt with a lot of adversity, people telling me not to do it, that I should stay home with the kids,” she said. “Even though my husband was deploying, I wanted to do it.”

It’s that kind of dedication that amazes everyone – and not just instructors, family and friends. It even astounds grads who don’t have to tend to kids as well as a full-time job.

Milan Duckworth, who turned his bachelor’s degree in Nursing into a job at prestigious Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills, Calif., gave up time with friends to get it done, but …

“I’m lucky enough not to have kids,” he said. “I’m in a pretty good spot compared to some of these people. I don’t know how in the heck they do it.”

The same could be said for commencement at GCU: It’s all about how in the heck they do it.

Duckworth probably spoke for a lot of online students when he said, “It’s good that it’s a brick-and-mortar location. You felt like you’re a real student.”

And a celebrated student, too.

Ryan Kryska contributed to this report.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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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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