A Plea to BYU’s Newest Graduates

Originally published April 25, 2017.

Dear BYU Graduates,

Congratulations on your wonderful achievements! Whether you are graduating this week with an undergraduate or advanced degree, you have toiled long and hard to walk across the stage and receive the proof of your labors. Your sleepless nights, your tears, your disappointments, your triumphs are all emblazoned on that piece of paper. I hope you recognize what an unusual opportunity you have had to study secular topics in a spiritually supportive and strengthening environment.

Ten years ago I stood in the Marriott Center at a microphone as my college convocation student speaker. Throughout my five undergraduate years I felt a strong spiritual connection to the visionary foundation of BYU. (You can read about the vision and destiny of BYU in Merrill J. Bateman’s 1998 address, “Children of the Covenant“; John S. Tanner’s 2007 talk “A House of Dreams“; Jeffrey R. Holland’s 1987 speech “Who We Are.”) This connectedness planted in me a sense of grandeur and responsibility. I could feel my role in the fulfillment of vision and consequently committed to always honoring the BYU legacy that permeated my undergraduate experience. I did not realize then how many of my peers and predecessors did not feel this burden. While I wouldn’t change much of what I said in my talk 10 years ago, knowing what I know now I would most certainly address a continuing concern about BYU graduates, primarily those who are LDS.

For years the LDS Church has sought to bolster the 18-26 year old demographic. You are most likely to leave the Church sometime during this period of life. The Church’s policy change in missionary age several years ago aimed to alter this statistic by getting more youth on missions before they fully enter the “danger zone.” I could not find any Church statistics on young adult activity rates but if lots of Church members are falling away in the 18-26 year old range, that’s a scary prospect for the future strength of the Church, and it’s a scary prospect for you BYU graduates.

Perhaps you don’t think you would or could ever join this demographic. My experience has taught me that it is far easier than you realize to separate yourself from the BYU legacy. You don’t know yet the ways in which you will be tested and tried as you leave BYU and venture out into the world. You, however, can make a choice now to uphold your responsibility as a BYU graduate.

All BYU graduates have an incredible responsibility, not only to represent the school well, but to honor the sacrifices made by millions of individuals around the world who helped provide their education. Consider what you owe BYU:

  1. In 2015, US News & World Report ranked BYU No. 3 for college students graduating with the least amount of debt. The average student debt in the United States last year was $37, 172 (you can read about student loans here). BYU also currently ranks No. 15 in the Best Value Schools category, a ranking that takes into account both academic quality and net cost. You are likely to be graduating from BYU debt free or pretty close to debt free. This is not meant to be a guilt trip but it is wise to show gratitude for the donors, tithe-payers, and family members who have paved a wonderfully smooth financial path for you.
  2. Not only are you likely graduating (close to) debt free, but you also received a terrific education for a fraction of the price of other schools. “Academic quality” means BYU ranks with Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, University of NC Chapel Hill, Brown, and other paragons of educational excellence. You also received this “Best Value” education in a unique environment lit by the restored Gospel (see Richardson, “Four BYU Mementos,” BYU Magazine [Spring 2017]).
  3. I have to bring this up again–someone else’s tithing helped make your BYU education possible. Tithing represents a huge financial sacrifice for so many members of the LDS Church. You owe a spiritual debt, not just financial, in this instance. How are you going to repay the millions of tithe payers who contributed to your education?
  4. As a graduate of Brigham Young University, you now represent the school, its mission, the aims of a BYU education, and even the LDS Church whether or not you affiliate with the Church. Many BYU graduates benefit tremendously in job searches, internships, interviews, and more as a result of BYU’s reputation. You now hold that reputation in your hands. Your language, self-presentation, work performance, and general behavior now reflect on your alma mater. If you live true to your BYU education, you will preserve and further distinguish the school, creating new and wonderful opportunities for the graduates who follow you. It is time to live up to your responsibility.

Five years ago my new husband and I left BYU as graduate students for my husband to pursue a doctoral degree on the East Coast. Around nine months into his program, our Stake created a new congregation and my husband began serving as a counselor in the new unit’s leadership. What was our surprise when less than a year later our Stake president asked him to serve as the main leader of our congregation.

Difficulties have abounded in this unit with its mixed demographic of lower and middle class white Americans, Portuguese speakers, and West African refugees. The majority of our membership are new to the Church or inexperienced in administering the Church program. The only thing that has allowed this congregation to function as long as it has is the small base of support provided by BYU graduates and return missionaries. But we have never had quite enough leaders to really serve all of our members’ needs or administer the Church program fully. What has frustrated me most is discovering more and more BYU graduates who live in our area who want nothing to do with the Church, who have no interest in “lifelong service.” We need them. They and their families would be blessed by the service they could give to some of the most disadvantaged people in their community. You stand at the brink of an important decision, the same decision all BYU graduates face: in what ways are you going to honor your BYU education?

To give you a glimpse into our congregation and the possible roles you could play in a community in the near future, here are some examples of the wonderful work made possible by BYU graduates and return missionaries. Here are the ways your predecessors honor their BYU education:

  1. BYU graduates and return missionaries have served in every presidency in our unit. They bring strong organizational skills to their callings but also the experience participating in and facilitating Church programs that so many of our members just don’t have. Your BYU predecessors have served as presidents, counselors, and secretaries, making whole presidencies function and keeping them on track. BYU graduates can be great leaders. We need you!
  2. In so many organizations employees dread the “dirty work”–the gritty, time-consuming drudge work essential to the proper functioning of the system. BYU students seem not to mind the “dirty work” so much. Whether you worked late-night shifts cleaning the SWKT, flipped burgers at the Cougareat, or literally got your hands dirty on the landscaping crew, BYU graduates know the importance of the “dirty work” and are likely to jump in eagerly. BYU graduates have moved families, weeded gardens, visited members in prison, brought meals to needy families in dangerous neighborhoods, spent hours picking up youth for activities, carried a paralyzed man up two flights of stairs, taught a Sunday lesson with 10 minutes notice, cleaned food out of a church carpet, taken out the trash, changed a tire at 6:00 am. You know that the dirty work needs doing. You know how to do it. Decide now that you will always pitch in!
  3. Remember that phrase, “Go forth to serve?” It should sound familiar. A life that honors a BYU education is a life filled with service to family and community. BYU graduates in our congregation have used their BYU education to tutor adults, youth, and children, help individuals fill out applications and navigate college preparation, provided resume help and job interview preparation. They have provided literacy training for West African refugees who desperately need jobs. Our literacy program is all but defunct now, lacking enough English speakers with the time and desire to make the program work. With your commitment to service and the diligence you learned while earning a college degree, you could help lift an entire family out of poverty by sharing your knowledge and education.
  4. It’s no secret to anyone that our city is one of the most corrupt in the United States. When an ex-convict ran for a third term as mayor several years ago, BYU graduates in our congregation stood up to neighbors and friends to proclaim principles of honesty and integrity. This candidate would never get their vote, no matter how much “good” he had done in past years. Wherever life takes you post-BYU, you can shine as a beacon of goodness, honesty, and integrity. You will encounter corruption and injustice almost everywhere in the world but as a BYU graduate you know that there is a better way and you can help the people you meet find that better way.
  5. On my mission I watched as new converts fell away when they encountered transportation problems and Church members refused to or couldn’t help. I promised myself then that I would honor the blessing of owning a car and being able to afford gas by freely giving rides. As a BYU graduate, you are employable, you have likely graduated without much debt. If possible, consider the myriad ways in which you can bless others by owning a car and unselfishly sharing it. We have made the requisite trips to and from the airport but we have also used our cars to help needy families move, we have driven youth to local, stake, and regional activities where they have been spiritually strengthened, we have driven members of our community to life-saving doctor appointments, we have driven a woman five hours one way to meet her husband at a hospital after he was injured in a car accident. And of course our automobiles have been essential in our callings and personal ministries. Owning an automobile will facilitate incredible service opportunities. You won’t be just a taxi driver–you will literally be on the errand of the Lord.
  6. There are people in this world who need a friend. Members of our congregation have forged unlikely friendships over the last several years, ministering to new members, less-active members, and others through pure friendship and love. Our sick seniors receive visits from BYU graduates, the mentally ill find comfort and healing in visiting and home teaching, the illiterate receive assistance with reading and job searches, the young discover role models in their church leaders. You are someone’s future friend, the answer to a prayer. Make this become reality by resolving to be active, engaged, and available.
  7. A member of our congregation noticed that the daughter of one of our newest African families seemed distant and disconnected. Her mother has a degenerative brain condition and interacts with her 11 year old daughter very little. Her father is the only member of the family who can work and he spends long hours away from home. This BYU graduate-turned-counselor in the primary presidency took the girl under her wing last year. They went on outings together, made meals together, taught with the missionaries together. Over the summer this sister and her young children took the girl to the library every week to pick out summer reading. The sister provided a grade appropriate workbook to help the girl prepare for the coming school year. The weekly outings and emotional investment were challenging especially for a young mom but what troubled her most was that there was no one else with the time, energy, or BYU-inspired commitment to do the same kind of outreach for several other primary children in similarly disadvantaged situations. Opportunities to serve abound, no matter where you end up. Look for those opportunities. Someone needs you–YOU with your education, love, and commitment to service.
  8. With your employable BYU degree in hand, you will hopefully be able to bring in a steady income. Your great BYU work ethic with surely make you shine in the workplace. What better way to show gratitude for your blessings than to maintain a neat and inviting home (of any size or shape) and to use your temporal resources for good. BYU graduates and return missionaries in our congregation have collectively provided dozens of meals for needy families and disadvantaged individuals in our community. They feed the missionaries and investigators in their homes, they host baby showers, service projects, and more. Decide now to always share your home, to feed the hungry, to be generous.
  9. I would venture to guess that BYU turns out more graduates with teaching experience than most other colleges and universities. Considering the number of return missionaries and the ample teaching opportunities afforded BYU students in campus jobs and student congregations, BYU might boast the largest graduating teaching force in the country. This special legacy from your BYU education provides one more way you can lift and serve in your future communities. Hundreds of people await your future Sunday lessons, your sacrament meeting talks, your testimony shared in a missionary lesson. Decide now to honor your BYU education by teaching others at church and in your local community. Your knowledge, experience, time, and compassion are desperately needed.
  10. Finally, one of the greatest contributions BYU graduates make to our community are their strong families. There is no better way to strengthen your community than by marrying, having kids, and raising a strong, emotionally healthy, morally-driven family.

My dear friends, as you cross the stage this week and receive your diploma, remember that it represents more than your own hard work. You owe a debt to BYU that you can never repay–except in honoring your BYU education. You represent something larger than yourself or even your family now. You represent a legacy founded on vision and sacrifice. You are now the fulfillment of vision. It is your time to enter the world armed with knowledge, commitment to service, desire for lifelong learning, and the skills to lift and serve, and light the world around you with goodness.

Please, decide now that you will honor your BYU education. We need you. Hundreds of as-yet-unknown friends need you. Live in such a way that you will always be able to serve and always represent BYU with honor.

Sincerely,
PhilaMormon

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