Students find a bit of joy amid sorrowful goodbyes

A touching senior moment, celebrating their time at Grand Canyon University, broke out on Lopes Way late Friday afternoon after it was announced that the final four weeks of classes would be online because of the coronavirus. (Photo by Gillian Rea)

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

Unexpected goodbyes swept across campus Friday after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) afflicting the world just as radically altered life at Grand Canyon University. The day before, students were encouraged to remain home after spring break and classes on campus were transitioned to online for the final four weeks of the spring semester.

“I will miss you,” said a man who was hugging his buddy with bro back slaps outside the Student Union.

With their April 24 Commencement ceremonies almost certain to be postponed (they later were put off until later this year), teary-eyed seniors gathered late Friday afternoon in a huge throng to march down Lopes Way, toss graduation caps in the air and pull off an impromptu celebration in the face of so much gloom.

It started with more than 100 students gathering at the North Dining Hall at the urging of senior Caleb Palmen.

"The day before I had seen a lot of seniors crying. I just wanted to see a smile on their faces for a few minutes and forget about the craziness in the country," he said.

A Commencement address was given by a student, and one by one students walked across the small stage in the hall to wave and smile before exiting onto Lopes Way.

"We played 'Pomp and Circumstance' on a speaker," Palmen said. "Other people joined in or cheered us on. A mom was videotaping it.

"I feel like this was a big last hurrah as a senior, and I was glad to help people leave with positivity in these dark times."

It was a day full of sadness and celebration.

Senior Robby Yamaguchi tearfully addresses a huddle of his GCU Canyon Activity Board members Friday. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

“If it was easy, nobody would be crying right now,” senior Robby Yamaguchi said to a group huddle of Canyon Activity Board (CAB), a student-run group.

Seniors thought they’d have more time to ease away from a place that meant a lot to them but understood the University’s caution.

“It was a moment to say thank you for all they meant to me. We don’t tell that enough to people, but they’ve been a huge part of my life,” Yamaguchi said after the group hug.

“GCU is like family. You go to through highs and lows together. Now, it’s the last time we can embrace each other.”

Unexpected transitions can lead to anxiety, sadness and fear, said Christine Pemberton, Director of the Office of Student Care, which is on hand to offer its services.

“Students will experience loss over how they envisioned things to end and will likely go through a grief process,” she said. “During this time it will be important for students to reach out to their support systems and allow themselves to identify and express their emotions and needs.”

Sam Yonan, President of the Associated Students of GCU, said it’s proper to end in-person classes, but a sober reality settled in that senior leaders would see a vibrant campus grow quiet.

It was also a mark in history during an important year in their lives.

“I’ve been thinking a lot of Isaiah 55:8-9, ‘the Lord’s ways are higher than ours,’ “ Yonan said. “We don’t know why this is happening, but God has a plan. We may never know what it is.”

GCU students said a lot of goodbyes on Friday to beloved friends and classmates. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

Senior Santiago Nunez was reflecting on four years gone by so quickly and how he was looking forward to Commencement.

“It’s that special moment – the walk – but this has a much bigger meaning,” Nunez said. “It’s just hard not being able to say goodbye, especially for seniors. Now everyone will have to find new ways to reach out.”

As he spoke, three students walked past wearing graduation caps.

Across campus, cars lined up between residence halls bearing license plates from California and Texas and other states.

“It was a shock, but it is what it is,” said freshman Makayla Quiroz as her grandparents helped load up belongings to take back to Sacramento. “I am sad that it came up short. But GCU has handled it well. I think being calm is what is important.”

At dining places and along the walkways on campus, nearly every overheard conversation centered on the country’s challenge face the pandemic, or their personal circumstances as a result.

“I don’t have anywhere to be right now,” one student said to his friends with a kind of awe.

The University made sure no one was left with no place to go. Residence halls remain open for those who needed to stay because of their circumstances.

It was an unusual March afternoon on campus as students packed up belongings more than a month ahead of schedule. (Photo by Mathew McGraw)

Sophomore Alazay Casas said her family lives nine hours away in California, and she needed to wait for them to get off work this week to retrieve her.

“It’s not as good as studying on campus, but it will feel good to be with family,” she said.

Especially in uncertain times, it can be a comfort.

Yamaguchi, a San Diego native who is set to graduate with a degree in biology with an emphasis on pre-medicine but will stay in Phoenix this week for job interviews, said he respected GCU’s decision because he wouldn’t expect less from the University.

“GCU is all about community. We will scatter if it’s better for everyone else,” he said

Students were leaving behind some of their things for community.

Parked outside the residence halls, Goodwill trucks and bins were filling with clothes and furniture and bean bag chairs from students, a donation in a time that calls for an odd sort of distant unity.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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