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Ph.D. graduate who grew up in communist Cuba holds his own graduation ceremony, thanking God for His provision

For seven years, during each visit to Liberty University’s campus for intensives — on-campus courses required as part of his online Ph.D. studies — Daniel Reyes (’20) would walk into Williams Stadium, where Liberty holds its main Commencement ceremony every year, to pray and ask God to help make his dream of earning a doctorate come true. He would stand near where the main stage would normally be, visualizing his graduation day that was decades in the making.

Daniel Reyes (left) stands with his dissertation chair, Dr. John King from the School of Behavioral Sciences, on the field at Williams Stadium for an informal doctoral hooding ceremony on Sept. 11.

This would have been his year. But when Commencement was postponed in May to Sept. 11, and then was canceled altogether due to COVID-19 restrictions for Virginia, Reyes decided to follow through with his own personal ceremony. He walked across the field in his regalia on Sept. 11, with his family by his side, and celebrated his hard work and praised God for opening doors and rescuing him from the grip of communist Cuba.

Reyes, who earned his Ph.D. in Counselor Education & Supervision, grew up in a Christian, single-parent household during a time when Cuba was under the communist administration of Fidel Castro, an environment that contrasted his family’s religious beliefs. Fleeing was nearly impossible, and publicly expressing their faith was prohibited.

“As a single mother with me and my three siblings, my mother had a hard time keeping us on track and in church with that environment, but she did a lot to keep us connected with church,” Reyes said. “You could really say that the church, which was two blocks away from our house, was a part of our life and was a place where we found a refuge for our faith from the things outside.”

Higher education was his mother’s goal for all of her children. Reyes was found to be a gifted student while in secondary school and was on course to attend an advanced high school and study biology or physics, but when it came time for his entrance exam, the faculty confronted him with the issue of his faith.

“I was 15 years old with a lot of dreams and ideas of what my future would be, and they called me in and said, ‘Daniel, you have all of these gifts and we want to prepare you for the entry exams, this is a great school, we have faculty that can help you, but you have to give up your faith. There is no way that we can prepare you to be a scientist and give you a university career and still let you have your faith. We cannot give a Christian that kind of opportunity,’” Reyes recalled.

“I chose Christ,” he added. “I said, ‘Lord, I will stay with you and the only thing I ask you is to let me have a university career and have higher education.’”

Instead, Reyes learned trade skills for two years, still facing prejudice from his teachers because of his faith. He was not even allowed to graduate because of it.

But after earning his bachelor’s degree in religion at a small theological school in Havana, he felt called to serve as a pastor, even though he knew he would endure more hardship.

He spent 10 years ministering in eastern and central Cuba and during that time, his actions and faith were scrutinized constantly by his neighbors and the police. His community was filled with those who could barely meet their most basic needs in the communist system.

“I was detained a couple of times by police, and they tried to intimidate me, and they would always try to catch me doing something illegal to get me in trouble,” Reyes said. “As a pastor in a place like I was, you are in harmful and even hostile surroundings, but you’re still doing that work of preaching, baptizing, and saving souls.”

In 2001, Reyes and his family were finally able to find safety in Canada, but not before his wife had to wait two weeks before joining him, and their 4-year-old daughter was held in Cuba for 18 months as a government tactic of preventing the family from leaving entirely.

While in Canada, Reyes pastored at Spanish-speaking Seventh Day Adventist churches near Toronto and earned his Master of Divinity from Andrews University. The family then moved to Orlando, Fla., where he has served as a clinical chaplain with AdventHealth for the last 10 years.

Through his work as a chaplain supporting people’s spiritual and emotional health, Reyes found a growing personal interest in mental health and looked for an opportunity to earn his doctorate while still working. He enrolled with Liberty University Online Programs in 2013.

“Chaplaincy is clinical because we address the spiritual and emotional, but not really the mental, and so I chose to study counseling to grow in that area,” Reyes said. “I chose Liberty because of their emphasis on a Christian (worldview).”

The Reyes family from left to right: his oldest daughter, Claudia; his wife, Damaris; Daniel Reyes; his mother, Carmen; and his stepdad, Enrique.

As part of the doctorate program, Reyes visited campus three or four times a year for intensives, and this is when he began a ritual of praying at Williams Stadium that guided him through the challenges needed to complete his degree, including having to sacrifice time with his family.

“I was praying that one day I can finish because, as a chaplain in a hospital, you see how short life is and sometimes it’s not the older people who die, it’s the young ones, too,” Reyes said. “I would find that corner of the stadium, look to the sky, and say, ‘Lord, there are a lot of things that are out of my control and you have been so faithful to me since I was young, but I ask you to help me become a doctor and complete this program.’”

Reyes completed his degree this spring and received his diploma in the mail this summer, but he still felt led to stand on Liberty’s football field and physically witness God’s answer to his prayers. While on the field, Reyes’ hooding ceremony was carried out by Dr. John King, Reyes’ dissertation chair.

“There wasn’t a stage or the thousands of people there, but I felt like God filled that place and my family and Dr. King were there,” Reyes said. “With all of the COVID-19 issues, it was a little difficult to decide to come to campus (that day), but I wanted to fulfill that promise of going to (Williams Stadium) after God fulfilled His promise.”