● Slideshow of Commencement staff and volunteers.
● Slideshow and replay from Thursday morning ceremony.
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
“Congratulations!” they said, again and again.
The word echoed across Grand Canyon University Arena for six days of Spring Commencement. Everywhere graduates went, they were greeted with friendly faces who made the welcome warm even though they usually were in the midst of a 10-hour shift.
It’s one of the many things that make GCU’s celebrations stand out to graduates and their guests. You can’t help but notice it. Jennifer Girl, Senior Director of University Events and Arena Operations, certainly does as she directs Event Services employees and volunteers from other departments who help make it such a special experience.
“The team is amazing, and those staff members, our captains, that keep coming back year after year are unbelievable,” she said. “It could not be done without them.
“Commencement planning and preparation is a year-round process that keeps growing in size for a growing university. None of this could be done without amazing hearts and people. I am so appreciative of them all.”
So, too, are the visitors celebrating what might be the achievement of a lifetime. One family member came up to Girl and was effusive, saying something along these lines:
“Everybody is so kind here. Everybody is so helpful. There’s just the spirit of God here, and you can sense it. And it’s every single volunteer taking part in that role. It makes a huge difference. People can feel it.”
This year, that dedication was even more extraordinary because there was so much extra to do. The 11 ceremonies this spring brought the number for the 2021-22 academic year to 26 – by far the most GCU has ever done. That included seven makeup Commencements last fall to honor graduates whose celebrations had to be postponed during the pandemic.
Below are some snippets that reflect how much guests feel the staff’s dedication and why the behind-the-scenes view is as upbeat as what is readily seen.
Service to behold
A graduate whose flight was delayed arrived heartbroken after missing the morning ceremony. No problem. Commencement supervisor Jes Green, who works closely with Girl to make things run right, got the woman signed in for the afternoon ceremony instead. She was so appreciative, she gave Green a big hug.
Another graduate waiting to check in thought that was some sort of protocol, so he hugged Green, too.
“I must be the designated Commencement hugger,” Green said, laughing. “Jennifer told me I need a new name badge.”
But Green can’t get enough of Commencement, hugs or no hugs.
“It’s a ton of work, but we love it. We find that the people who volunteer to work it come back because they love it. It’s so fun.”
Especially, for her, the confetti that rains down at the end of the ceremony.
“The confetti kills me every time,” she said. “It’s just the perfect moment.”
Happiness is a pick-me-up
That confetti makes a mess, of course. As soon as the last graduate has marched out of the Arena, workers are balling up streamers while also grabbing discarded programs and water bottles. Some of the confetti has to be snagged from the overhead lighting with a long pole.
The cleanup crew, which includes staff members and GCU students who have received University housing extensions to stay over for Commencement, completes the whole process in less than a half-hour.
“It’s amazing. I mean, you can see how fast this gets reset. It’s awesome,” Event Team Supervisor Taylor Sprague said.
The Event Services team, meanwhile, is completing a myriad of other duties. If it’s between ceremonies, there’s much to do. But there’s one important aspect of Commencement that is not lost on Sprague and his co-workers.
“This is one of the only times of year where our team gets to all be together and work on a project together,” he said. “There’s a lot of joy in it.”
Sprague certainly shows that joy as he assists the graduates in getting up to the stage or out of the Arena. He is laughing constantly, joking with them, making them feel at ease. But he insists that the graduates’ joy is infectious.
“They’re so happy,” he said. “They’re looking for their families. When long names are read, it’s like, ‘Oh, man, that was a hard one to say.’ Anytime air horns go off or families go crazy, it’s not just the graduate of that family who gets a kick out of it. It raises the spirits of everybody else.
“The whole team has good spirits. If it wasn’t for everybody being all bought in on this, it would be a huge burden. But Jennifer and Jes set a great precedent of, ‘We’re here to serve. It’s a celebration.’”
From visitor to volunteer
Sprague’s helpfulness extends outside the Arena. On the day of a Commencement ceremony last fall, he was approached in the parking lot by Bryan Atlas, who had driven all the way from suburban Cleveland to try to find a job at GCU.
Atlas, an eight-year veteran who rose to staff sergeant in the Air Force and was deployed to the Middle East in 2018-19, had told his mother that he wanted to go back to college after he finished his military career.
He prayed about it, and not long after he saw ads for GCU. He researched the University online, decided it was the right place for him and got in the car. He was walking through the parking lot when Sprague directed him to the right resources, and then Atlas attended a career fair and was hired as a Student Services counselor in the military division.
That led to a cool moment Wednesday: Atlas walked up to Sprague with a you-might-not-remember-me touch of humility and thanked him for showing him the way.
Atlas is taking it two steps further, however.
First, he has started the master’s program at GCU, working toward a degree in industrial organizational psychology.
“I want to be an executive coach, a change agent, a talent acquisition manager and organizational and structural developer,” he said. “Those are the things that this degree can help me with.”
And now he’s a Commencement volunteer, too. When his supervisor suggested that it would be a fun experience, he was all in.
“I already love being here at GCU – the culture and everything GCU is about,” he said. “Just being here and assimilating the culture and being able to volunteer and see the graduates’ smiles, knowing that will be me next year, it’s like a full circle for me.”
Getting in on the ground floor
Volunteers who have been doing Commencement for a while can’t get enough of it, either. But admissions counselor RJ Hatch took it to the next level Friday: She volunteered on the day her daughter, Deanna Olson, graduated from the College of Arts and Media.
Hatch works on the Arena floor helping graduates find their seats, so it made sense to volunteer that day, as far as she was concerned.
“My family had to stay up in the stands,” she said, “but I was right here with her.”
It’s a full-circle moment for Hatch, too. On her daughter’s big day, three other students she had worked with in admissions were graduating, as well.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” they told her.
Said Hatch, “It’s all reciprocated. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the graduates.”
She skipped volunteering at only one ceremony, and only because it was her son’s birthday. “It’s addictive,” she said.
'This is our purpose'
Carolyn D’Sylva, a curriculum developer for Grand Canyon Education, knows that addiction all too well. She has been a volunteer for almost all of her 10 years of employment, worked four of the six days this spring and would have been there for the other two if not for meetings she had to attend.
“This is why we do what we do, no matter what position you’re in,” she said. “We do it for the students, the graduates, their families. This is our purpose.
“I’m enjoying interacting with the students and finding out about their families and where they’re from. They share with us the struggles they’ve been through, and it’s just exciting to be here and celebrate with them.”
Sometimes, the guests are in such a celebratory mood, they think they should do something more.
“I think the humbling part is when they want to tip us,” D’Sylva said. “One of the volunteers was really distraught because someone shook her hand and gave her some money.”
She was allowed to keep it. The volunteers deserve so much more than that, but they do it for nothing more than the satisfaction of the experience.
The energy starts early
The free-of-charge Commencement show starts 45 minutes before each ceremony when Critical Mass, GCU’s acclaimed choir, takes the stage and performs 10 songs. The group, which has a repertoire of about 40 memorized tunes ranging from classical to jazz to Broadway to gospel to a cappella to Christian, also sings the national anthem.
Do the math, and you figure that Critical Mass is responsible for 121 numbers over six days. And yet the group makes each one sound fresh, and not just because these are by far its largest audiences.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said baritone Patrick West, who will be a senior in the fall and estimates that the group performs for more than 100,000 people every year. “That’s why we’re here, to do what we love. It’s repetitive, but we try our best as individuals and within the group to try to keep the energy going. It’s not like, ‘It’s the ninth or 10th time, let’s go sing our 10 songs.’”
Dr. Juan Hernandez, Assistant Dean of Music for the College of Arts and Media, also sees it as a perfect preview for singers who plan to keep doing something like this for a career:
“While we might have sung some of these songs 15 or 20 times, this is the first time the audience is going to listen to them. For them, it needs to sound fresh, it needs to sound enthusiastic, it needs to sound just as good as the very first time that we performed.
“It’s also part of their training as musicians. They need to get used to that ability to perform multiple times, even if it’s the same repertoire, with the same element of energy and freshness and enthusiasm and quality.”
Come to think of it, the same could be said of all the Commencement volunteers. They have to make every ceremony fresh, but they find that it rejuvenates them instead.
“I like to say I get to work with people on the best day of their lives – them and their families,” Hatch said.
Then she turned to say “Congratulations!” to yet another graduate. The volunteers never seem to tire of saying it, and it sparks two words from the grads, their families and anyone associated with the University:
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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