The talented and tenacious bring stories to Commencement stage

Toni Davis, who will walk the stage at GCU's Fall Commencement on Friday, won First Step's Hope Award earlier this month for her work with families facing domestic violence.

They arrive this week from Florida and Ohio, New Mexico and Michigan, from suburbs and cities and small towns across the U.S., sharing their extraordinary journey that takes them across the stage during Fall Commencement for online and cohort students at Grand Canyon University.

“For my family, this is sort of a big deal, being the first generation to graduate from college,” said Toni Davis, who will travel from a Detroit suburb with her parents and visit campus for the first time on Friday after completing a bachelor’s degree in educational studies. “It’s really a big accomplishment.”

Davis is typical of many who will swarm GCU Arena for six ceremonies Wednesday through Friday: Her trip here was anything but usual and is full of remarkable achievements.

At age 18, she started work at First Step, a nonprofit agency that supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence. On Oct. 6, Davis was awarded the agency’s Hope Award for her five years as a children’s support specialist, or as she says in her email tag, “children’s nurturer.”

At the awards gala, First Step officials said that Davis makes First Step “a healing space that welcomes all individuals’ inner child and simply lets kids be kids.”

Toni Davis with First Step executive director Lori Kitchen-Buschel.

They come to the residential facility in Plymouth, Michigan, or to other activities and events at the center after deep traumas in their families. She takes the children under her wing.

“Children often act out what they have seen. When kiddos come in our residential program we see those behaviors. We can see what can happen, those behavioral things, that can just get chalked up to them being a bad kid," she said.

“I am a safe adult that can show them how to set healthy boundaries, so they know how to interact with adults outside of what they’ve experienced.”

She can change the trajectory of their lives and future relationships by nurturing trust, knowing an adult will follow through with what they say, and giving children a safe space to talk about it, seeing others around them are going through the same experiences, she said.

“I try to build back their self esteem from what they have experienced or witnessed.”

Davis decided to work toward a bachelor’s degree online at GCU during the pandemic, when she found that helping children with schooling during that difficult time was vital. But there were more benefits. She said her classes in psychology and communication at GCU were helpful in her job.

“I learned how people interact with each other,” she said, in addition to learning how she could share with staff the importance of self-care so they could be at their best to help families.

She’s also an example of how a college education can go beyond training for a specific job. She decided that instead of teaching, she will continue working at First Step.

“I absolutely love what I do. I get to work one on one with kids and be their support."

The need is great, she said, with the center handling up to 50 calls a day to its 24-hour helpline, which was overloaded during the pandemic. Children are also referred by schools or parents.

The assailant usually has tight control, so she tries to help other family members with education, paying bills, daily structure and safety.

But one of the reasons she got the award is that Davis goes beyond the practical.

“I try to make things as happy and normal as possible,” she said.

Kids love the activities she has created, including the annual evening trip to the Detroit Zoo, where they can have a campfire and make s’mores.

She also gives presentations on domestic violence, right in the community where she grew up.

A scene of from Fall Commencement in 2022.

“It’s important that kids know about domestic violence. It was happening in my community as a small child, but I didn’t know what it was called when I was younger,” Davis said. “So just giving the kids the definitions and words, what those things are called, and also their own ability to set healthy boundaries with individuals in their life and also to be able to spot red flags, is so important so they can avoid those relationship mistakes on their own.”

The rewards come when families come back to tell them how First Step has changed their lives.

“There are the success stories, families come back to see us after they’ve gotten their lives together, which is really great,” she said.  

She will join many other accomplished students of all ages at Commencement ceremonies at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday-Friday that GCU News will share in the coming days.

  • An immigrant from Honduras who will share her harrowing journey to the United States that led years later to earning a GCU degree.
  • A woman who dropped out of college more than 20 years ago to care for family members who can now say it is her time to shine.
  • A mother and wife of an active-duty military husband who also delayed her education and faced several setbacks to finally make it to the GCU Arena stage.
9 a.m. Wednesday: College of Doctoral Studies; College of Humanities and Social Sciences; College of Science, Engineering and Technology
2 p.m. Wednesday: CHSS (master's)
9 a.m. Thursday: College of Arts and Media, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions (bachelor's), College of Theology
2 p.m. Thursday: Colangelo College of Business
9 a.m. Friday: College of Education (bachelor's) and CONHCP (master's and doctoral)
2 p.m. Friday: College of Education (master's)

Related content:

GCU News: Former Olympian clears hurdles to earn doctorate

GCU News: Colorado couple achieve principal goal of earning doctorates

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


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