The grace a cop-turned-teacher found at GCU

Student speaker Keisha Ritchie addresses her fellow graduates during May 3 Spring Commencement for online and cohort students at Global Credit Union Arena. (Photo by Ralph Freso).

She delivered the Commencement speech, asking fellow graduates to “go forth and make history,” before stepping outside Global Credit Union Arena to join the celebrating crowd on the Quad lawn.

Keisha Ritchie had gone from New Jersey cop, to a paraprofessional aide of students with special needs, to classroom teacher, to recipient of a master’s degree in special education from Grand Canyon University.

“I no longer wanted to say, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ Instead I wanted to hear their voices,” she told the crowd May 3 at Spring Commencement for online and cohort students. “Each day I remind students why education is important in unlocking their potential.”

Keisha Ritchie was a police officer before joining the classroom.

She was interrupted by applause when she asked them to not put limits on that potential: “Where you grow up does not define who you are or who you choose to become.”

So when Ritchie walked out to the lawn, it struck her, looking around, seeing people of many races and ethnicities and religions from all over the world.

“You had people from Kenya, you had Native Americans there. And I turned around for a moment and heard chants, the tribal chants and celebrations, and I am like, ‘This is GCU.' It is a cultural diversity melting pot built on faith and Christian mission,” Ritchie said a few days later.

She was still aglow last Thursday when she shared her Commencement speech with her eighth grade class at North Star Academy, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey.

“You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was so engaged with what I was saying,” she said, urging them to work hard to go far. “So we had a moment today. Nothing can take the moment I had with those students today. But the one thing that stands certain and sure, I am always going to love them. They know. But when I’m coming, they straighten up real quick.

“They ask me, ‘Miss Ritchie, I don’t know how you do it.’ And my answer is always, ‘It’s nothing but the grace of God.’

“GCU, I love it so much because it has a spiritual connection. Little did I know going to grad school would bring my relationship to God even deeper and closer. Everything had a Christian message embedded to it.”

GCU does that while filling fill classroom shortages across the country and expanding educators' breadth of knowledge through its National Center for Teacher Preparation. The center offers opportunities designed to support eligible candidates seeking initial licensure and in graduate and undergraduate pathways that ensure flexibility in all stages of educators’ careers.

"This commitment extends especially to those already engaged in the education field, such as paraprofessionals and teacher’s aides, recognizing their valuable contributions and potential for further impact," said Dr. Emily Pottinger, associate dean of the College of Education.

Ritchie was born in Jamaica and immigrated to New Jersey with her teacher mother and wharf supervisor father who instilled hard work in her. After she got an undergraduate psychology degree at Saint Elizabeth University in New Jersey, she worked for three years with youth offenders in the juvenile justice system before taking a job in 2005 as a patrol officer in East Orange, New Jersey.

It was the start of taking what she labels “coming in backward,” first guiding kids after they got in trouble, to trying to stop them while making trouble in gangs or by running away, to making sure that while in school, they don’t consider trouble as an option.

“I got to see on the inside how, if I could go on the outside, I could keep them from coming in here,” she said.

Her next step was becoming a paraprofessional, working with students with special needs in 2020.

Keisha Ritchie poses with one of her students at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey.

One student with intellectual disabilities stuck with her. She worked with her, and by the time she graduated from junior high, was given awards for her achievement and a jersey that hangs in the school rafters, not often given to a student with special needs.

“That girl is now a junior in high school and doing amazing things. She has a light that will shine,” she said. “We have more beacons of light that will shine in the world. No matter what a child may be, behavioral, defiant, that child can learn and we can help that child learn. With hard work, that young lady and others are going to make a difference in this world.”

She also doesn’t hesitate to bring her law enforcement friends into the classroom to remind them how things can go south if they don’t keep on the path.

“They tell me, ‘Miss Ritchie, you real.’”

That’s why she chose the Barack Obama quote to lead her Commencement address at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies on May 3. “There is work to be done. Someone is waiting for us to be the change the world needs,” she said in her address. “It is our time now. No more thinking if I could, I would.”

Keisha Ritchie urges her fellow graduates to be the change the world needs during her Commencement address. (Photo by Ralph Freso).

She wants to be that change, she added in an interview.  “It doesn’t have to be on the grandest stage in the world. It can be in this school, or on the corner of the street,” but requires going beyond the “bare minimum.”

Ritchie did that at GCU. Although she was already full time in the classroom, she wanted to learn more about how she could get better with her students, studying late into the night. She praised her GCU university counselor Peggy Heins for her encouragement and professor Kimber Underdown for her knowledge, and the whole feel of grace she got from her time at GCU.

She even found it after graduation, standing in line at Chick-fil-A on campus.

“I see a gentleman to the left of me, while I was putting in my order, come up and say, ‘I want to pay for your meal. Your speech was amazing, you moved me.’”

That person was GCU President Brian Mueller, and they had a conversation about teaching, she said.

“It was like you are talking to family. It didn’t have the awkwardness. I was just humbled and grateful. This is the president of the university. I was like, sir, you have no idea who you are talking to here. I’m just a girl from New Jersey.

“That’s what makes GCU. It’s a different feel. Everyone that was there for both ceremonies, helping you put on your cap and gown, and you can just feel the love and warmth they have for each person.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]

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