The up-side of a lesser-known Arizona university - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Community Focus

The up-side of a lesser-known Arizona university

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Posted: Thursday, December 2, 2010 5:00 pm | Updated: 8:34 am, Mon Dec 10, 2012.

This story is not for you if all of these apply:

• You aren't interested in finding out about a great option for college (for yourself or a loved one).

• You don't care about NCAA athletics.

• You never attend concerts, lectures or theater.

Grand Canyon University is a real-life Phoenix story. Several years ago it was nearly dead but because of the vision (and investment) of one man, it has risen from the ashes to become a thriving, exciting option for higher education. Nestled in the very heart of metropolitan Phoenix, this peaceful, cozy, 100-acre campus is humming with the activity of fall classes.

Originally named Grand Canyon College, the school opened in 1949 in Prescott, Ariz., and moved to Phoenix two years later. It was a private, Christian college operated by the Baptist church, specializing in nursing and education degrees.

In 2004, with the college $20 million in debt and within days of closing, a group of investors - led by Brent Richardson - acquired the school and introduced a new business model. An online program was developed to parallel the campus curriculum, without dramatically increasing overhead. In short order, Grand Canyon had been saved and its Christian tradition preserved.

Now GCU has 3,000 students attending class on campus and closing in on 40,000 enrolled online across the country. Degrees range from psychology to criminal justice and there are fast-track options for those who want to speed their education along. Everyone is encouraged to "Find Your Purpose," as all their billboards say.

"After getting a degree at ASU in Family Human Development, I decided I wanted to go into nursing," said Ahwatukee Foothills resident, Deanna Petriello. "I took my prerequisites at ASU but found the GCU nursing program and never looked back."

Petriello barely stepped foot on the GCU campus because the nursing program she enrolled in was sponsored by nearby St. Joseph's Hospital. All of her classes and training took place there and the hospital subsidized much of her tuition.

"I wish I could have enjoyed the campus experience but even the nursing program was so great because of the personal attention. I never felt lost in the crowd like I did at ASU," Petriello said. "St. Joe's gives preferential consideration to students who've completed this program so it was easier for me to get the great job I now have."

While encouraging banners line the walkways and Bible verses adorn walls in the Student Union and locker rooms, students are not required to attend any type of religious events. A weekly chapel service is offered with rowdy, contemporary worship music and energetic guest speakers, but attendance is voluntary. The service typically is packed with about 500 people laughing, singing and soaking it in.

"I went to a small Christian high school and the transition was really easy for me," explained Ahwatukean Tyler Troth, currently attending GCU. "There are no mass lectures and the professors get to know students by name." Troth said the smaller classes, myriad social opportunities and extra-curricular options made it worth the slightly higher tuition for him.

And what's not to enjoy? This place is a hive of activity. New construction is expanding and enhancing the campus and what it offers (to the tune of $100 million). The new Student Recreation Center is 55,000 square feet of gleaming equipment, attentive staff and NBA-worthy flooring under a towering roof. The Event Center, which will open in the fall of 2011, will hold 5,000 people and play host to "A list," family-friendly performers like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby in an up-close and personal setting.

With 22 NCAA-competitive sports, GCU offers more for athletes than any other Arizona university. In addition to a stellar basketball program, there are volleyball, lacrosse and soccer teams.

If you're more of a "gleek" than a sports fan, the performing arts program is "bringing it" with several diverse theater productions this season. Some are high-minded Shakespearean titles; others are just for laughs.

This institution for "higher" learning (look toward Heaven) isn't just a great option for local desert dwellers (although there are some blissful housing options, including a new residence hall). It's a divine choice for anyone aspiring to complete an undergraduate or upper-level degree. It's also a welcoming, affordable smorgasbord of entertainment for the community it serves.

Have you heard of or visited GCU? Things to consider: Do you believe there are advantages or disadvantages from attending a smaller and/or Christian university? What do you think about legislation that may have a negative impact on institutions like GCU?

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Diane Markins can be reached at Diane@DianeMarkins.com. Visit her blog www.DianeMarkins.com.

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