Eighteen students gathered under coconut trees on Tabiteuea North, a Pacific island in Kiribati, to attend seminary for the first time this March.
These young Church members are just a fraction of the thousands of students feeling the global and growing influence of seminary.The program spans the world, providing religious education to 363,202 students in 136 countries and territories.
Full and part time teachers - as well as about 21,000 volunteers - keep the program running, teaching students about the scriptures in different languages and dialects.
And as the Church grows, so does the program.
In 1993, seminary classes began in Botswana, Cameroon, Hungary, Mauritius, Reunion, Russia and the Ukraine. In 1994, seminary began in Bermuda, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and in 1995, in the Central Africa Republic, Liberia, Namibia, Pakistan and Zambia. In 1996, seminary began in Cambodia, Mongolia, Ethiopia and Romania.
This year, the program continues to expand into other places across the globe, such as Tabiteuea North.
Bruce Lake, a Church Educational Systems zone administrator, credits the success of seminary to its quality students. To attend, students automatically have to make choices, he explained.
If they are enrolled in a home study program, the choice is how they will use their free time. If it is an early-morning seminary class, they will have to make the choice to get up early. If it is release time they will have to choose between religious education and an elective class that their schools are offering.
Malcom Warner, a zone administrator, said that the seminary program works because students and teachers make the choice to devote time to it.
"It happens all over the world," he said. "It is not so much the profound events that occur that make a difference, but just the very simple choices that people have made to strengthen their testimonies and to study the gospel."
This is illustrated, he explained, by the simple acts of seminary students and teachers.
Daniel Dominguez, a seminary teacher in Roca, Argentina, knows how important it is for young people to participate in the program.
When one of his students started coming to seminary late, and sometimes not at all, Brother Dominguez wanted to help. He began picking up the student - who had a hard time getting out of bed - every morning on his way to teach seminary. The student is now serving a mission.
Mike Parson, a teacher in southern California, taught a special seminary class every day for one student - a deaf young man who could not read lips. They communicated through writing.
Manfred Schuetze, Church Educational Systems area director for the Europe East Area, once spoke at a fireside held in Donetsk, Ukraine, for seminary and institute students.
It was scheduled in a movie theater that the Church uses for Church services. When he heard there would be no heat in the theater, he was skeptical if anyone would attend. But 95 people attended in that cold setting.
Besides enduring freezing temperatures, many seminary students face addition challenges: time pressures, family pressures, economic pressures and transportation pressures (some students walk more than five miles a day just to get to seminary).
Ariel Arce, a 16-year-old seminary student from Santa Rosa, Argentina, rode his bike to early seminary each morning. Without the bike, Ariel would not have enough time to get from seminary to school.
When his bike was stolen, his seminary classmates held car washes and sold chickens and collected enough money to buy Ariel a new bicycle.
A parent once asked Brother Lake how he knows seminary is doing anything for students.
He responded that by saying that seminary complements Young Men and Young Women programs, Sunday School, and the teaching that parents give children in their own homes.
He emphasizes that seminary provides an additional important thing: a gathering place where teenagers can get together with peers who share their same faith, standards and goals. Together young people can strengthen one another while studying the scriptures.
"We have seminary graduates going on missions and marrying in the temple and becoming faithful in raising their family. Seminary is a critical part to support that overall effort," said Brother Weston.
Brother Lake and Brother Weston recall something that Elder Boyd K. Packer said in 1977 to seminary and institute teachers. They said that Elder Packer noted that when the Church educational program began it was nice, but really not critically needed. Today, however, it has become a "Godsend for the salvation of modern Israel in a most challenging hour."
Members of the first early-morning seminary class in Vyborg, Russia, know this. "I want to share with you a testimony, which I got through seminary," wrote Irina Kulikovskaya in a letter to the Church News. "I know that the Lord generously blesses us. And one of the blessings - seminary. It helps me to understand the scriptures."
Her classmate, Andrew Kuzmin, also enjoys the privilege of attending early- morning seminary - even though it is hard for him to get there some mornings. After visiting seminary, "I am ready to do everything that is needed. I love the Church, it has become part of my life."
It is testimonies such as these that makes Bruce Lake know without a doubt that the seminary program - now spanning the globe - is doing something wonderful.