'Trusty' trio to lead new character center

Students face choices, and GCU's new Canyon Center for Character Education aims to help them make the right ones.

Be good.

It’s what mom always said.

It also could be the slogan of a new center at Grand Canyon University.

“Teaching humans how to be better humans,” Dr. Ashley Betkowski said when asked to describe character education, “to make the world worth living in.”

Program Director Emily Farkas and her team launched the Canyon Center for Character Education this summer. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Betkowski starts Aug. 8 as GCU’s Canyon Center for Character Education School Supervisor to round out the team of Program Director Emily Farkas and Program Manager Dr. Tracy Vasquez.

The work is just beginning after a $2.27 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation formed the center this spring to elevate character formation in schools and support current and aspiring educators to advance character education.

Betkowski said that part of being a teacher is being a facilitator, teaching students beyond academics “how to live in this world and contribute to society” with virtue.

“When I was teaching, I tried to do it with my students all the time, facilitating those lessons because it mattered. Our students needed it,” said Betkowski, who will be guiding partner schools on character education. “I want to see it become a more active part of education. I want to be part of that.”

Farkas said her work in Peoria schools before joining GCU’s College of Education nine years ago initially awakened her to the value of character education.  

Sure, lots of schools write “Be Kind” on the chalkboard and call it character education.

Dr. Ashley Betkowski

“But for character education to be exemplified, you should walk in and there should just be a different feel, a very positive and supportive environment where the doors are open and everyone is welcome,” Farkas said. “It has to do with the relationships with your kids and colleagues. It was in our daily conversation with our students.”

They celebrated accomplishments, studied life skills, modeled good behavior.

“If a student was naughty, we tied it back to, ‘How can you use your life skills? How can you improve yourself?’ And they took it seriously,” she said. “If they had been disrespectful, we had a conversation on what they did and how it made others feel.

“Having taught in a school where character education was center, it absolutely does make a difference. It transforms the environment.”

That experience and knowledge attained as a graduate student in an M.A. in character education program at the University of Birmingham in England will help her lead GCU’s center at a key moment.

“We are in tumultuous times in society, not just here but around the globe,” she said. “So I think back to my experience at that school – that it makes a difference being thoughtful about who you are as a human being. And if you’re thoughtful about bettering yourself as a human being, that will not only better your life but the people around you.

“Hopefully, like ripples in a pond, it will be a better society. Some might say that’s idealistic, but it’s OK with me.”

The Canyon Center for Character Education will enhance the curriculum and deepen the emphasis on virtue and character education in GCU’s master’s programs in educational leadership and already is creating a virtual professional learning network for students, alumni and partner schools. Summits on character education on campus also are planned.

Dr. Tracy Vasquez

Vasquez, also a College of Education veteran, sees her role as program manager as a way to serve, giving future educators and communities tools to create a better world.

“I think now more than ever it is such important work. There have been societal issues, and COVID has been one. The pandemic caused people to be more reclusive in their individual spaces, workplaces, school places and social places,” she said. “Our society has begun to lose hold of some of that important interpersonal interaction. It can be driven effectively through virtue and character.”

She describes it like building blocks, understanding intellectual, moral and civic virtues, balanced with practical wisdom.

“These building blocks are much in alignment with GCU’s mission as well as a Christian worldview,” she said. “It all focuses on how we are able to interact well in our environment as virtuous individuals for the common good.”

While character education is not new – around the world it’s hundreds of years old – the U.S. is catching up but with typical debate, Farkas said.

Some may ask if parents shouldn’t be the ones to teach character.

“They should. But as a teacher there is no way not to,” Farkas said. “You should be instilling good character in your students. We should be modeling that for them.”

Others might ask how you identify those virtues and values.

"These building blocks are much in alignment with GCU's mission as well as a Christian worldview."

Dr. Tracy Vasquez

“It might look different for everybody, but that’s a good thing,” Farkas said. “Different perspectives help us grow. If you are wanting to meet the needs of your community, it should be different.”

The center’s offices in the Colangelo College of Business Building opened in July and will be in full gear for fall semester.

“I’m really excited about the group we have, the trusty tripod,” Farkas said. “I'm excited about the we can make in Phoenix. I just know we are going to do good things.”

On being good.

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

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Related content:

GCU News: Kern grant launches Character Education center

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Bible Verse

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 
Romans 8:28