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Innovate Institute: Students share how and why it’s working


Editor’s note: This the second of two articles about Innovate Institute. Read the first article here.

It had been almost two years since Giovanna Vernice da Silva attended an institute of religion class. 

The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated feelings of depression and anxiety she dealt with. While receiving professional treatment and seeking inspiration from the Lord, the young adult from Praia Grande, São Paulo, Brazil, felt a desire to return to institute and make it a priority. 

However, with a demanding schedule that included attending college in another city, she was unsure how an institute class would fit — until she stumbled upon a hybrid course with a segment taught via podcast and a segment taught on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. via Zoom and Facebook. She enrolled immediately. 

Giovanna Vernice da Silva from Praia Grande, São Paulo, Brazil, was able to resume institute when she learned of a hybrid course taught online via Zoom and via podcast. Offering hybrid courses with podcast components was one of many changes that resulted from the Innovate Institute effort.

Giovanna Vernice da Silva from Praia Grande, São Paulo, Brazil, was able to resume institute when she learned of a hybrid course taught online via Zoom and via podcast. Offering hybrid courses with podcast components was one of many changes that resulted from the Innovate Institute effort.

Credit: Giovanna Vernice da Silva

“I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw it, because it was perfect for me,” Vernice da Silva said. “The part of the lesson held in the podcast helped me have the flexibility to listen anywhere I was and helped me optimize my time and cultivate the Spirit wherever I was. … The class going on at 6:30 was amazing because it would be exactly the time when I would be within my shuttle to college.” 

More important than the convenience of the course, she said, was that it centered on the Savior Jesus Christ. “All I needed was a reminder of who Jesus Christ really is and the real meaning of His title ‘Prince of Peace.’”

Offering hybrid courses is one of many ways the institute program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is innovating to better meet the needs of today’s young adults. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest the effort — titled Innovate Institute — is positively influencing the institute experience for young adults worldwide. 

Innovate Institute

Research conducted with more than 1,000 young adults across the globe revealed four areas where institute could be strengthened: relevance, belonging and purpose, accessibility, and conversion. 

Several ideas within the four areas have been tested in recent years, and ideas that have proven most successful are being rolled out in areas across the world. These include remodeling classrooms, offering new courses, inviting peer-to-peer conversations and focusing on students’ needs. 

Young adults near Ensenada, Mexico, participate in a hybrid institute class taught online and in-person.

Young adults near Ensenada, Mexico, participate in a hybrid institute class taught online and in-person.

Credit: Leonardo Lamas Navarro

Sean Peck, director of the Taylorsville Utah Redwood Institute of Religion, said he has seen a difference in the young adults as teachers have transitioned to more student-focused classes still centered on the Savior, based in the scriptures and led by the Spirit, but focused on what the students want to discuss.

“They trust us more,” Peck said of the students, adding that they are more willing to participate in class and ask difficult questions. “They have somebody as a mentor, somebody that actually listens to them and has heard them. And then they just feel really comfortable in class.”

The transition has also impacted him as a teacher. “My lesson prep, my focus, everything I do has changed as I’ve focused on meeting the needs of who is there that day. … It’s really helped me become more reliant on the Spirit, more trusting in the students, and really just understanding how the gospel of Jesus Christ can have an amazing impact in each student’s life every day,” Peck said. 

Influence on enrollment

According to data from Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, new enrollment in institute during the first term of the 2021-2022 school year is up for the first time in six years and higher than the previous four years (see graphic below). Total enrollment in term one is also up for the first time in six years, exceeding 199,000. 

Graph shows new student enrollment in institute worldwide

New student enrollment in institute worldwide

Church News graphic

New courses are one of many factors likely contributing to the increase in enrollment. An invitation to attend a new course titled “The Divine Gift of Forgiveness” enticed Kerly Xiomara Torres Bueno, a young adult in Ecuador, to begin attending institute. 

“I had lived these years with some resentments and hatred toward many people, including my family. I attended the course, and after a few weeks, I began to experience a peace that I did not feel before,” Torres Bueno said. The experience prompted her to return to church activity. Today she serves as an institute supervisor. 

Andrés Maurera of the Barcelona Venezuela Stake enrolled in institute when he saw a course titled “Race and the Priesthood.” The course provided an opportunity to ask and find answers to questions he wrestled with. 

“It helped me understand that Heavenly Father never changes. … Latter-day prophets teach that the Lord is no respecter of persons but that He loves all His children equally,” he said. 

Institute’s online programs are witnessing rapid growth. Online courses allow many more students to enroll who might not otherwise be able to. They are also interactive and cohort-based, which allows for the social interaction that is crucial to young adult learning. 

When local online institute programs began in 2019, a total of 827 enrolled in the first year. That number was 10 times higher by the next school year. 

In 2021, Seminaries and Institutes of Religion launched Churchwide online institute programs. As of Feb. 1, enrollment was 19,423 (see graphic below).

Graphic shows enrollments in Seminaries and Institutes online institute programs

Enrollments in Seminaries and Institutes online institute programs

Church News graphic

Thanks to the online course option, Elvin Francisco Garcia, a young adult from the Dominican Republic, is now able to participate in institute. “The class helped me to understand better Heavenly Father’s plan, His scriptures and commandments,” he said. 

A place of belonging

Gifty Naa Tsotsoo Sackey of the Ola University Ward in Ghana said she didn’t feel a desire to attend institute because she was already studying the scriptures at home with her family. But when a friend invited her, she decided to give it a try. 

“The setting was totally different — even though we studied the scriptures and other gospel principles as usual, we had time for games, watched a good movie, had some snacks, and guess what, I made great friends at the end of the day. I felt so loved and very inspired with the things that I learned that attending institute has now become a habit for me,” she said. 

Daniel Manzo, a student at the Taylorsville Utah Redwood Institute of Religion originally from São Paulo, Brazil, is pictured with a friend from institute. Manzo said thanks to changes made as part of the Innovate Institute effort, institute feels like a safe place where he can ask questions and receive support.

Daniel Manzo, a student at the Taylorsville Utah Redwood Institute of Religion originally from São Paulo, Brazil, is pictured with a friend from institute. Manzo said thanks to changes made as part of the Innovate Institute effort, institute feels like a safe place where he can ask questions and receive support.

Credit: Daniel Manzo

Daniel Manzo, a student at Salt Lake Community College originally from São Paulo, Brazil, said he feels like institute is a safe place where he can ask questions and receive support and encouragement from people his age facing similar challenges.  

“There are a lot of things that I learned through institute — through the classes or comments, the topics themselves, or maybe something that the Spirit taught me in the class — that helped me to put things in perspective and to work them out,” said Manzo. 

“There’s a support system that comes through institute that I don’t think I could find anywhere else,” he added. “And having those classes tailored for our needs, for our concerns, having the teacher ask what we want to learn about, what we want to talk about, makes it even more relevant.”

Students at the St. George Institute of Religion in St. George, Utah, participate in a new class titled “Seeking Jesus Christ and His Joy” in January 2020. The new class started as part of the Innovate Institute effort and focuses on topics students want to discuss.

Students at the St. George Institute of Religion in St. George, Utah, participate in a new class titled “Seeking Jesus Christ and His Joy” in January 2020. The new class started as part of the Innovate Institute effort and focuses on topics students want to discuss.

Credit: Ryan Wilkins

Like many young adults, Bekah Farris, who attends institute in St. George, Utah, said she struggled to maintain her “spiritual high” after returning home from a mission. 

“Being able to go to institute and being surrounded by people with the same beliefs and the same goal, it’s super helpful to not feel alone in the crazy world,” she said. “I would tell everyone to take institute and to find the teacher and the class that you feel kind of resonates with you. … And if you’re participating and connecting with those that are there, then it makes it a better experience overall.”

Ezra Hainsworth, who also attends institute in St. George, extended a similar invitation to fellow young adults: “If you really want to elevate your relationship with Christ, institute is definitely a catalyst for that. …

“I think it ties exactly hand in hand with what’s been taught and spoken about in general conference the last couple years about taking more responsibility for how you’re learning the gospel and living it — not just Sunday, not just every Sunday, but every day of the week.”

Read more — Innovate Institute: What institute is doing to better reach young adults worldwide

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