Graduates finally walk stage in 1st of 7 ceremonies

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
and Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

Graduates got their long-awaited moment on stage on Monday at the first of seven makeup Commencement ceremonies.

College of Doctoral Studies student services counselor Jesse Jaramillo remembers when COVID-19 first hit and cast its shadow on Grand Canyon University.

“All of us were very unsure as to what was going to happen,” he said, remembering when students were sent to shelter at home on March 13, 2020. “You would hear them over the phone, and they were super sad, and they just always wanted to know, ‘Is it ever going to be OK?’ Is there going to be anything that’s going to make them feel OK? It was really sad hearing those calls day after day.”

The University was determined to make it right. A Herculean effort began Monday to open GCU Arena to online students who didn’t get to walk the stage and accept their diplomas in person during the pandemic.

Monday’s makeup Commencement ceremony, at which Jaramillo volunteered as part of the Special Needs Staff, was the first in a series of seven ceremonies over seven Mondays -- the others are Sept. 27, Oct. 4, Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Nov. 8 and Nov. 15. That’s 1,000 graduates with 5,000 proud family members and friends per ceremony expected to watch their loved ones finally get their time on stage.

Beth Jamison, Commencement Captain of Executive Regalia, knows how the coronavirus disrupted people’s lives as they scaled down weddings, attended virtual graduations and celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions quietly at home.

But with these in-person graduations, “I feel like everybody is kind of glad to have a moment back,” she said.

Once Jaramillo heard the makeup Commencement dates were set, he didn’t hesitate to contact recent doctoral graduates.

“We heard some of them cry. Some of them were in disbelief that we were going to actually do it.”

The University’s leaders pushed to make these ceremonies happen, said Jennifer Girl, Senior Director of Event Services: “We wanted to try to do it and make it happen for those who were affected.”

Families celebrate with their loved ones.

What was the motivation behind so many makeup ceremonies?

“I don’t think it was a motivation. It was a need,” said Vanessa Daniels, Commencement Captain of Student Check-In. “This is now making sure the students who missed out last year have a chance to walk this year.”

Jamison said planning a few ceremonies over one or two weekends simply wasn’t going to do it. If the University offered, say, one weekend of ceremonies and graduates couldn't make it that weekend, “then it’s double disappointment,” she said. “We wanted to offer a variety of opportunities for people to travel.”

Also: “Truly, we had that many (graduates). So many of them wanted to come. They wanted their families to be able to come and watch them,” she said, adding how so many students picture themselves walking across the stage as their motivation to finish their programs.

GCU wanted to turn that picture into reality.

Magical turnaround

Not that turning that picture into reality was an easy task, especially considering GCU Arena was the site of multiple events on Monday.

As soon as Chapel ended around noon, University Event Services and its Commencement Team kicked into high gear. They had just three hours to convert the Arena from its Chapel set-up to an inviting Commencement space.

Each of the seven makeup Commencement ceremonies will celebrate about 1,000 graduates.

Chairs already were on the Arena floor for Chapel, so the team started working on the rest of the conversion. By 1:30 p.m., staff was outside with a scissor lift placing signs over entryways that read “Guests” or “Graduates with last names xx-xx.” Around the same time, the Lope Shop staff was rolling out T-shirts, mugs and other GCU-branded gear to its pop-up shop along the Quad. By 2 p.m., the merchandise table in front of the Arena was packed with stuffed animals, roses and other trinkets to give as gifts to graduates. And at 3 p.m., the Arena was open for Commencement.

“Jennifer Girl and her team are absolutely phenomenal,” Jamison said of the efficiency of the team. “I don’t think people understand how much goes into this. The setup, the teardown. It’s amazing.”

Said Jamison, “We want it to be right. We want to make sure you feel special. We want it to be the most special of days,” especially since these graduates carried on “when they didn’t think they had anything else to give.”

‘There you are, and here we are’

Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, said to the first makeup Commencement graduates on this most special of days, “We’re pretty ecstatic to be able to do this in the flesh. There you are, and here we are,” a sentiment that was met by thunderous applause.

Honors College Associate Dean Dr. Breanna Naegeli, now known in her house as "Dr. Mommy," speaks about her doctoral journey.

“It’s especially exciting because of the wait and what you've had to endure to get to this point,” added GCU President Brian Mueller, who introduced the student speaker, Honors College Associate Dean Dr. Breanna Naegeli. She completed her doctoral degree in Performance Psychology in the fall of 2020 and is the student speaker for all seven ceremonies.

Naegeli began her doctoral journey seven years ago and, while pursuing her degree, got married and had children.

She joked that people told her how great it was that she had maternity leave and could use all that “free time” to work on her dissertation. “Have you HAD a baby?” she said with a smile, adding how her children now call her “Dr. Mommy” or there’s no snack time.

Naegeli also shared a couple of the lessons she has learned during her doctoral journey, one of which is not to fear the resistance in your life, but embrace it: “This resistance, this adversity in life, is needed,” she said.

She also shared with fellow graduates, “Be where your feet are,” meaning to always be present as you juggle your life. “... You absolutely can have it all, but it comes with patience. … So be where your feet are.”

Why they volunteer

Just as Naegeli learned to have patience and be present, Jesse Jaramillo, who listened to students ask, “Is it ever going to be OK?” was absolutely present for Monday’s ceremony.

“I was just like, ‘I HAVE to sign up. I have to be here for them,’” he said of helping close this chapter for the students he has assisted.

A grad commemorates the milestone with a photo.

Check-in staff volunteer Ty Neal, who works in Admission Records, said he signed up to participate in multiple makeup ceremonies to be more involved in the student experience.

“I don’t get any student interaction at all in my actual day-to-day position, and so having a background in higher ed and working on a campus prior, I really miss move-in, move-out, graduation, all of it,” he said. “I’m just looking for a chance to experience GCU in a different way.”

When asked what made these Commencement ceremonies significant, Neal had a simple answer.

“Because it matters,” he said. “I think it just shows that GCU is committed to the completion of your education, whether it was this year, last year. I just think it shows that it’s a priority.”

GCE online recruiter Bill Edinger also volunteered for Commencement as a member of the Usher Staff.

“These people all were kind of gypped because of COVID. I figured you can be around happiness when you volunteer, so why not go be around some happiness?” he said.

Vanessa Daniels, the University’s Student Records Manager when she’s not one of the Commencement Captains, said she volunteers for these graduation ceremonies again and again because, “It’s a good reminder of why we do what we do and why we’re here.”

Walking the stage

Volunteers were there for graduates such as Kourtnei Pierce of Phoenix, who was supposed to walk the stage in the spring to receive her master’s degree in health and wellness.

A graduate acknowledges his loved ones in the stands.

Once she found out she was pregnant with her daughter in 2016, she said she told herself, “I have to get my degrees. I can’t just have kids and NOT have a degree. I have to let them know that Mom worked hard.

“To be able to walk across the stage and let my family, especially my daughter, see that Mom did it, it means more to me than anything.”

Zack Huffstutler traveled from Tucson, Arizona, to celebrate his wife, Caylie Huffstutler. She received her master’s degree in health care administration.

“It’s amazing,” Zack said of being able to share in this moment after all the uncertainties of COVID-19. Then he motioned to his young son sprinting across the Quad. “He gets a chance to yell for Mommy.”

“It meant a lot to me, for my son,” said Caylie.

For Lynn Phillips of Cypress, California, a charge nurse at a step-down ICU and a nursing instructor at Long Beach City College, pursuing her doctorate in nursing practice “helped me through a terrible time in my life.”

She lost her husband in 2013 and focused on her education.

About 5,000 family members and friends are expected to attend each of the ceremonies.

“I finished my degree and my regalia came in the mail. A week later, the world shut down,” she said.

Although she attended Commencement solo, she didn’t feel alone. It’s hard to feel alone sitting alongside fellow graduates and so many volunteers at the University determined to make them feel special -- to make things OK again.

“I got joy back in my life,” she said, simply, and wanted to mention the someone she knew who walked alongside her during her journey.

She said she came with God.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU confers largest graduating class, despite COVID

GCU Today: Students’ virtual graduation celebration begins

FOX 10 Phoenix: GCU students who graduated amid COVID-19 pandemic finally get to enjoy a commencement ceremony


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