Van Vleck's humility leaves bold legacy at GCU

Worship Arts major Mary Van Vleck delivers the student speech at Friday afternoon's Winter Commencement ceremony. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Funny how the unassuming types often are the ones whose exploits command the most attention.

Mary Van Vleck, for example.

The graduating senior at Grand Canyon University was at work in the Recording Studio when she got an email from Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology.

Van Vleck was startled to be chosen as the student speaker because she considers herself like "one of the guys." (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“Commencement 2019” was the subject field.

She was afraid to open it.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I assumed they were going to tell me that I wasn’t going to graduate. In my head I was like, ‘Oh no, I missed a class, there’s something wrong.’ I got so scared.”

Finally, curiosity got the best of her, and she quickly learned that the news was terrific, not terrifying. Hiles began by telling her that she was one of the nominees to be the student speaker for her Winter Commencement ceremony Friday afternoon.

But then she kept reading. Not only had she been nominated … she had been chosen for the honor.

“My jaw dropped,” she said. “We’re on the fourth floor here at the Studio; my jaw was on the first floor.”

She was speechless. 

“My co-worker walks out and says to me, ‘Are you OK? What’s wrong with you?’ I just pointed to the computer screen. He read it and said, ‘Oh my gosh, congratulations! How do you feel?’ And I just nodded.

“I saw that Eric (Johnson, manager of the Recording Studio) was cc’d, and I went to his office and just looked at him. He said, ‘I take it you got the email.’ I just said, ‘Mmm hmm.’

“I didn’t know I was even considered for something like that.”

There were more surprises for unassuming Mary Van Vleck when she met with Hiles a few days later to accept the offer.

Van Vleck talked during her speech about the love she felt and tried to spread in the Recording Studio, on campus and in local outreach. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

“I said, ‘Well, thank you for choosing me.’ He said, ‘I didn’t. The College of Theology professors did.’ In my head I thought, ‘Who would have chosen me? I just feel like another student.’ I’m not saying that to be humble – I genuinely mean that. I just feel like, ‘Oh, I’m just one of the guys.’”

Right then, she saw one of her professors, Dr. Justin McLendon.

“He said, ‘Oh hey, Mary. My kids were just talking about you. They still love you.’ I was like, ‘OK, God, that answers that.’”

And what have people loved most about Van Vleck during her 3½ years in the Center for Worship Arts program? Here’s what Desiree Aguilar, like Van Vleck a star of the annual Canyon Worship album during her time at GCU, told Johnson in recommending her for the Recording Studio job:

“Desiree’s quote at the time: ‘She’s organized, she’s motivated, she’s a self-starter, she’s disciplined, she’s dependable' -- all the things that I look for in someone to work in the studio,” Johnson said. “She was immediately suited for the role, and in the next two years she became the hub of activity in both the social media aspect of the Center for Worship Arts and just the Worship Arts culture in general. Her peers love her.”

That’s it. That explains it. It’s all about love.

“I love community,” Van Vleck said. “Anytime I get to know somebody or work together with somebody, it forms a relationship with them. I’m never just ‘get in, get out, we only care about the work.’ I care about the person. Because of that, I’ve gotten to build lots of friendships here.

“Even if it’s just setting up a rehearsal room for somebody, I’ll ask them how their day’s going or something like that. It’s all in the little things, I find. Because of that, I’ve been able to ask for favors from people and somehow manage to get people to come together to do bigger projects. They all do it out of love because we know this relationship.

“I yield my power of relationships when it’s appropriate, if that makes sense. When you build a relationship with somebody, you just trust them a lot more.”

And yet, there was a time when unassuming Mary Van Vleck also was unsure about whether she could trust that crazy new experience called college. Like so many freshmen, there was a moment of trepidation right at the start.

Mary Van Vleck jumped right in when it was time to take a few pre-Commencement photos. (Photo courtesy of Mary Van Vleck)

“I was so ready to do my own thing, be an adult, experience the college life. It wasn’t until after my dad dropped me off and drove away from campus that I realized, ‘I am alone, I don’t know these roommates, what did I just do?’ When I first set foot in the Studio is when I felt like, ‘OK, maybe I can do this, maybe there are some friends here, maybe there’s a home here.’”

She showed how at home she felt when she was chosen to sing at the semiannual Songwriters Showcase. Johnson said that was the moment everyone in the program truly discovered her musical talent.

She just kept ascending from there, until getting a song on Canyon Worship 2019. Now, as she leaves GCU with a tinge of sadness and heads home to Fresno, Calif., where she has a lead on a job at her church, she is a very different person from the one who showed up in Phoenix in 2016.

And now it’s clear: Everyone should have assumed that Mary Van Vleck would win at college. Unassuming doesn’t mean unable. Hardly. Look at her in the pre-Commencement photo taken by her boyfriend, Daniel Aiello -- she's leaping for joy to celebrate the experience.

Her advice to those who hope to leap as high as she has:

“I’ve found that college is a time where you get what you put into it. If you just want bare minimum and you want to pass, then you’ll only learn the bare minimum. But if you ask follow-up questions and if you want to know more, professors are so willing to share. Doing that in class and getting involved in local outreach and being part of the people who got to trailblaze having a Worship team for local outreach – we were all so excited.

“I never thought that would all culminate in something I would be recognized for, though. I just felt like, ‘Opportunity to learn, opportunity to grow – love that! Oh, an opportunity to serve with my friends – awesome!’ I just never thought that someone would compile all this and look at me and say, ‘We want you to speak in front of 7,000 people.’”

When it was time to address all those people Friday afternoon, she talked about humility and love and, in keeping with her core beliefs, said this:

"Today is not about me, it's about us."

Unassuming right to the finish line at GCU -- receiving her B.A. degree in Worship Arts -- even though Johnson said, "She’s going to be missed up here in the studio. I don’t know what I’m going to do for some of the things she took care of."

They were responsibilities she eagerly assumed. Just one of the many things that made her worthy of the attention she never expected.

● Here's a replay of the Friday afternoon ceremony.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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