Doubly special: Mother, daughter graduate together

Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau 

From day one of their Grand Canyon University graduate programs, it was settled. No matter the obstacles, Linda Jessie and her daughter Brittainy Shirley would graduate together and sit side by side at their ceremony.

They had checked off all the boxes, Jessie finished her course work early to be eligible for Shirley’s ceremony, had gotten approval to sit next to each other and were set to celebrate together in the 2020 Spring Commencement ceremony.

Brittainy Shirley (left) and her mother, Linda Jessie, graduated with their master's degrees and sat next to each other at their Commencement ceremony Monday.

Then COVID changed things.

It was the first of what would become multiple semesters of virtual graduations for online students. Despite it all, the pair never lost hope in one day having the opportunity to walk the Commencement stage.

They finally got that special moment Monday in the third of seven makeup Commencement ceremonies this fall.

It was an experience Shirley wouldn’t change for the world.

“My mom’s amazing. She’s like my best friend and has had a huge impact on me being where I am today,” She said. “It’s been really cool to say that I’ve been going to school with my mom and not just go to school with my mom, but be able to celebrate that accomplishment together.

“She’s broken a lot of generational chains in our family, and she’s paved a lot of paths for us.”

After all, Jessie, who graduated with her master’s degree in Professional Clinical Counseling, was blazing a new trail for the trajectory of her family. Her father, Frank Ciliberti, had left school in ninth grade, and her mother, Mary Burton, had at the time only finished seventh grade.

Their daughter finishing high school was a cause for major celebration, let alone any form of college. But Jessie knew she had to “put her money where her mouth is” when it came to setting an example for her kids and encouraging them get their degrees.

When she started working toward her bachelor’s degree, Jessie’s kids were of middle school/high school age. And after picking away at classes here and there, she indeed set that example for her family.

“I started telling them how important school was,” she said. “If I’m telling them that college is important, then I need to figure that out on my end.”

The mother/daughter duo never lost hope that they'd one day have an in-person Commencement.

Graduating with a business degree in 2016 for the University of Phoenix, she finally was a college graduate, but her academic dreams were far from over.

At the time, the aspiring therapist needed schooling to qualify her to enter the field, and that’s where GCU came in.

“I had a decision to either stay in business, because that was easy for me with a business degree, or go into therapy,” she said. “I decided to go with my passion.”

She did some research on GCU, influenced by the fact that her oldest daughter, Kaleena Minaya, had earned her bachelor’s degree from the University a few years earlier. It was an easy decision.

“I liked that it was a Christian school, it’s price point was good and everybody there was really helpful,” she said.

She then referred Shirley to her Master of Science in Servant Leadership program.

“I told her that she needed to come to GCU,” she said. “I refer a lot of people to GCU. I love GCU.”

It wouldn’t take long for Shirley, a member of the U.S. Air Force, to also fall in love with the school.

“My experience with GCU is great,” she said. “The instructors were genuine, they gave feedback that helped you be a better version of you and you could tell that they weren’t doing their job just for the paycheck. It was nice to have instructors who cared enough about who I was, what I had to say and were willing to give me feedback to make me better.”

Jessie traveled from California and Shirley came from Colorado for the ceremony.

In addition to Jessie and Shirley completing their programs in 2020, others in their family felt  encouraged to finish their schooling. Jessie’s daughter Tiffainy Searles graduated from the academy to become a detention officer, and her mother graduated with her bachelor’s in social work.

With so many causes for celebration, the pair kept hoping to one day get the opportunity to finally close out their master’s programs in person.

It’s an opportunity that not all 2020 graduates in the country have had, and it’s just another reason GCU holds a special place in each of their hearts.

“I feel like it’s a huge blessing,” Shirley said. “It’s one of those things that not everyone got to do. And so just the fact that we got to do it, I don’t have words for how cool that is.”

Shirley hopes to complete her final two years in the military and is looking forward to seeing what possibilities her business degree will open for her. 

And Jessie? She hopes to soon return to GCU to pursue a doctorate.

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Grads go far to applaud in-person Commencement

GCU Today: Commencement to culminate her 16-year journey

GCU Today: Graduates finally walk stage in 1st of 7 ceremonies


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