Diamond Benjamin couldn’t believe it. The Grand Canyon University junior film student was standing beside the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But not even that prepared her for what she spotted next.
“Larry Fitzgerald was there, and I was fangirling because he’s my favorite football player,” said Benjamin of the former Arizona Cardinals player as she busily snapped photos at an exclusive pre-Super Bowl party.
Benjamin, who has practiced her "secret joy and hobby" of freelance photography for three years, also said she shot guest photographs for a Philadelphia Eagles pregame party on Super Bowl Sunday, just one of about a dozen pregame parties peppered around State Farm Stadium.
The experience was more than fun, said the Honors College student. It expanded her view of the world and the possibilities she saw for herself.
It was one of the few times she was without her twin sister, Crystal, by her side, something she said she knew would be difficult but awesome at the same time.
“It was so amazing to meet people with a lot of different backgrounds within photography and videography and just life in general. I really matured,” she said.
Benjamin was one of more than a dozen GCU students who worked as Super Bowl photographers for VIP media company On Location, which also took 55 other GCU students under its wing to serve as WayFinders to help guests to their seats and provide a premier customer experience.
They weren’t the only ones on campus reveling in Super Bowl experiences.
The University estimates that more than 200 students volunteered or worked at Super Bowl pre-event or day-of opportunities, serving not just as photographers and WayFinders but as security personnel, social media specialists and dancers for Rihanna during the halftime show. They also served as liaisons with area hotels and took on responsibilities not only at State Farm Stadium but at downtown’s Super Bowl Experience and the Celebrity Flag Football Challenge right here at GCU Stadium, among a slew of other duties and events.
Arriel Pilapil, Employer Relations Program Manager for Career Services, said a number of companies and organizations in addition to On Location sought GCU’s students for those Super Bowl experiences, including State Farm Stadium, the city of Peoria, the Arizona Super Bowl Committee and Xperience Entertainment, to name a few.
While On Location and WayFinders connected with Career Services and the Employer Relations team to gather resumes, companies such as PES Security Services stopped by campus for a recruiting event. Roughly 150 students completed the process to work security.
Neda Barrie, Colangelo College (CCOB) Faculty Chair of Sports and Entertainment, also was integral in connecting students with Super Bowl opportunities. Having worked for the NBA before coming to GCU, she was able to navigate her network of connections for the University’s students.
She estimates about 150 CCOB students participated in Super Bowl events, including for local and national Super Bowl committees, the NFL Super Bowl Gospel Celebration and the NFL Commissioner’s Super Bowl Party. For the Celebrity Flag Football Challenge, CCOB’s hospitality and sports students hustled to help the event run smoothly.
“Not only were our students able to gain unique hands-on experience, but the majority of the opportunities were also paid opportunities," Barrie said.
She also shared how welcoming GCU was to the Super Bowl companies and organizations that wanted to connect with students.
“We made sure to give our guests the GCU-Lopes First hospitality welcome. We created an event around their visit. They were absolutely blown away by our students. Over 150 packed the room, ready to hear from them and engage in conversation."
Like Benjamin, junior business entrepreneurship major Kara Malone worked for On Location as an event photographer with her best friend and fellow GCU business entrepreneurship student, Kristen Zahorsky, both of whom are in the Honors College.
“I think 80% of the people doing premium party photography were GCU students,” said Malone, whose mom is a photographer and who picked up the skill as a hobby.
“It was a really great experience to look back on – something cool Kristen and I got to do together,” said Malone.
For her, the best part of getting to work at a Super Bowl event was getting to interact, not with clients or celebrities, but with her fellow GCU students.
“They were great. It was definitely meeting people. That was my top experience.”
Lauren Boerger, who is scheduled to graduate in fall 2023 with her business management degree, landed a Super Bowl internship with the Arizona Super Bowl 2023 Host Committee, which was responsible for planning and executing a successful Super Bowl LVII.
After four interviews, she was hired in the Finance and Economic Impact Department, “which is not anything related to my major but ended up being really cool,” she said of the internship. It spanned from October until the middle of February.
Boerger worked on special projects, such as getting QR code table tents placed in hotel rooms. But her main job was communicating between the Host Committee and the hotels.
She said the skills she learned as a student worker for the campus’ K12 Educational Development department, and in working with Leigh Critchley, Executive Director of Academic Alliances, helped her in getting chosen for the internship.
In her student worker job, she has learned to organize emails and has sharpened her communication skills.
“Writing in general was a big part of what prepared me, and the biggest thing I would say is effective communication. They (K12) really gave me a bunch of tools I was able to carry over,” said Boerger, whose minor is professional writing.
Diamond Benjamin, too, credits GCU for honing some of the skills she needed that prepared her for her work as an On Location photographer.
Her cinematography course last semester started off with lessons in photography. She learned how to adjust different settings on her camera to achieve different moods.
“I had a mini notebook I kept in that class where I put just like, ‘Oh, if you’re in this situation, do that.’ I brought that notebook with me both days of Super Bowl weekend, and it was such a big help.”
Emily Stocker, a business administration major with a minor in sports and entertainment management, had a unique opportunity to work at the Social Media Command Center at the Super Bowl Experience in the Phoenix Convention Center. The event was an interactive theme park of sorts that included football-related activities and autograph sessions.
Jeremy McPeek, who oversaw social media efforts for the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, came to campus in the fall and connected with students, such as Stocker, to help with social media.
Stocker trained for her role beforehand at orientation meetings where she became familiar with Emplifi, the social media platform being used. On the weekend and Saturday before the Super Bowl, she communicated with fans on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, answering questions about parking or different Super Bowl events.
She also helped at the selfie booth and filmed and photographed content at the Super Bowl Experience for the Arizona Super Bowl Instagram.
Stocker, who loves football and is looking in that direction for her career, said she was thrilled to be part of Super Bowl events.
“Not many people get that luxury,” she said. “The Super Bowl Experience, I didn’t even know that was a thing until I worked it. I got to see famous football players that I probably never would have seen if I didn’t go to the Experience.”
Not that she was the only one thrilled about her opportunity.
“My family was pretty excited that I was able to get so involved so early on in school,” said the GCU sophomore. “I was pretty fortunate to be offered such a good opportunity while I’m so young.”
Kara Malone believes getting that opportunity comes in part from, simply, being a GCU student.
“They were inclined to hire us on the spot because we came from GCU,” she said.
Barrie added that what’s unique about being at CCOB is, “We’re able to have a pulse on who our students are,” and could recommend strong students for Super Bowl roles who represented the University well.
She added, "Following Super Bowl weekend, we received numerous thank yous and feedback about how great it was to work with GCU students who were so passionate and mature."
And their opportunities might not stop just because the Super Bowl ended.
On Location, for example, has expressed interest in using GCU students for other events. The company just covered Fashion Week and is looking forward to the Olympic Games.
“I see incredible things,” Career Services' Arriel Pilapil said. “Doors open and they get to see something bigger than what the world looks like, especially at a young age.”
Benjamin agreed: “It sounds really cliché, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You never know when the Super Bowl will be back in Arizona or a place that you live in,” and you will never know when people will need your gifts.
“It was really great to glorify the Lord through this opportunity.”
Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.