DENVER — Metropolitan State University of Denver celebrated its largest fall graduating class to date on Sunday. All 1,275 students slipped on their mortarboards and walked away with college degrees. But one student, Jessica Ghawi, was sadly missed.
Ghawi died in the Aurora movie theater shooting this summer. But her death did not prevent her from achieving one of her lifelong dreams, to receive a degree.
She loved sports, and couldn’t graduate soon enough to get into the business.
On Sunday, she finally got the degree she worked so hard for posthumously. And her mom and step-dad were there to accept it on her behalf.
It was a single day that has taken years of study, discipline and hardship.
“We are very, very proud to be here to accept our daughter’s honorary degree,” Ghawi’s mother, Sandy Phillips said.
Unfortunately this milestone will not be able to lead to a brighter future.
That future was destroyed on July 20, when a gunman killed Ghawi and 11 others in the Aurora tragedy.
“She was very anxious to compete her education. When she passed, one of the things we both commented on was, she didn’t even get to graduate and it was such a big deal for her,” Phillips said.
It was a big deal because Ghawi had set her sights on becoming a sportscaster—and she was well on her way.
“Okay, you all struggled with the Texas Stars. What’s that been about?” Ghawi asked on a YouTube video, in which she falls on the ice talking to a hockey player while wearing high heels. Ghawi laughed the whole time.
Her parents say it’s a bittersweet time—they were happy to address Ghawi’s classmates, but sad at the same time.
“Our daughter isn’t here and seeing parents with their children, the blue gowns, and having that experience, that’s painful,” Phillips said.
She says her family is healing, but those wounds ripped open on Friday after a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults.
“She started crying first, then sobbing uncontrollably,” Sandy’s husband, Lonnie Phillips said about his wife’s reaction when she first heard the news of the mass murder.
“We had to be the last off the plane, so she could gather her composure. It was a huge hurt,” Lonnie said.
“We had 24, almost 25 years, with Jessie. They had 6 and 7 years…We can no longer ignore what’s going on. We can’t,” he said. “It’s obvious escalation of mass killings,” said Lonnie, Ghawi’s longtime step-dad. He raised her since she was seven.
They are so empowered by Ghawi’s spirit, they say they will work toward common-sense gun control.
“It’s not about the Second Amendment. It’s about the flaws in the system so that these mentally ill and emotionally disturbed people have some challenges to get their hands on weapons,” Sandy said.
“Many of the mentally ill can’t get treatment, or afford treatment. So, until they do something violent, there’s nothing we can do for them,” she added.
Sandy also said that when people renew their gun licenses, they only have to send in a card even though there might be changes in their legal statuses to own a gun.
Lonnie says people under mental observation should be flagged when trying to buy guns.
“Now, it’s our turn to redefine ourselves, to commit to making her life matter and making change in America,” Sandy said.
The Phillips’ are working with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
They have raised nearly $100,000 for the Jessica Redfield Ghawi Foundation, which will provide scholarships to women pursuing an education in sports management, journalism and broadcast.