GCU’s ’11 Ceremonies of Joy’ Offers More Memories
History of Rick Vacek
Pictures of Ralph Freso
GCU News Desk
It’s a moment that will play out thousands of times in 11 ceremonies over the six days of Spring Commencement at Grand Canyon University Arena.
Graduates line the aisles on either side and wait their turn to climb the steps to the stage and accept a diploma pouch from their college dean or other administrator.
Once they have it in hand, they turn to family and friends in the crowd, hold up their new prized possession and wave, pump their fist, raise both arms in exultation – whatever to their personality.
Maybe they repeated their reaction. Maybe it was spontaneous. Never mind. This is the moment they and their families and friends will remember.
This is what makes the Super Bowl of Higher Education Begin.
That’s why GCU puts so much effort into Commencement, down to reading each graduate’s name out loud as they walk across the stage.
It’s also why the faculty and administration members on stage never tire of watching this scene unfold.
Monotone? Barely. Momentous is more like that.
It began Thursday evening with a traditional ceremony for graduates of the College of Education (COE) and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS).
The rest of the ground campus graduates were due to experience the sentiment on Friday, and then adult (non-traditional) learners will take the stage in seven more ceremonies next week.
“We are going to have 11 joy ceremonies”, GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda said before it all started.
Radda has often had the privilege of distributing diploma covers. He tried various techniques.
Sometimes he will say, “Congratulations, you made it!”
He likes the reaction.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I did it! Praise the Lord! I did it!’” he said. “And you hear their family screaming in the back or a husband or a wife or a grandmother or a son or a daughter.”
Dr. Sherman Elliott been doing this exercise since being named Dean of CHSS in 2014 and had another opportunity on Thursday night. He can’t get enough of it “because for them it’s such a happy moment”. But he also learned something from it.
“I noticed that even though I was staring at them and making intense eye contact, they were completely ignoring me. It took me years to figure out, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It finally occurred to me that I’m not doing anything wrong. It all depends on what moment for them,” he said.
“They are so euphoric that they snatch my diploma cover and turn to their families. That’s what this moment represents.
Dr Meredith Critchfield, on the other hand, is relatively new to this process. She was named WCC Dean last summer and had her first opportunity to hand out diploma bags at Makeup Beginnings last fall.
One moment in particular stood out: a disabled graduate was last in line and needed several minutes to climb the steps and cross the stage.
She loved “the look of satisfaction in this young man’s eyes – that feeling of success he had made.”
It got even better when she looked outside and saw the crowd’s reaction.
“To see everyone there with tears in their eyes feeling the joy for this fellow graduate was really special. I will never forget that. It was really beautiful.
Critchfield found that she smiled so much during each ceremony, her cheeks hurt afterward. She had to stretch them to dull the pain – happy pain.
“I was just smiling so big because they were all so happy and joyful in those moments that the only human thing to do was just feel their joy and smile as big as possible,” she said.
“I tell people, ‘That’s why we do what we do.’ To be anything other than happy is impossible. All you feel is excitement for these students who have worked so hard to get where they are.
The three administrators smile once again as they reflect on what led up to this. They think of all the late nights of discussion questions and essays and rewriting these grads have endured.
“I’m just grateful because after everything we’ve been through that makes the world harder to live in, there’s still the desire, the human spirit, to go to college and achieve something. “, Elliott said. “It gives more meaning to life.”
Radda particularly appreciates what this means for adult learners who have had to balance family and career.
“People worked very hard,” he said. “You don’t get that online degree without really, really hard work. That’s why they sometimes laugh when we say, ‘Does anyone want to do more DQ and rewrite their entry and rewrite the draft on paper?’
“Each of them is a story. Each of them.”
But it all comes down to that magical moment on stage.
“It’s funny,” Critchfield said, “because joy is in different ways for people. For some people, it’s tears of relief, and their joy is that they’ve finally taken that step — for some people, after 45, 50 years of effort. So for some people it’s crying. Other people it’s dancing. Other people it’s flashy, smiling.
“There’s a whole range of emotions, but it’s absolutely 11 ceremonies of joy.”
The joy began Thursday night, but it will live on in the hearts of graduates for the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s so much more than just a moment…and why those thousands of moments add up to millions of memories.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].