When Isidora Oyanedel heard in March that she would be returning home to Chile from her mission in Brazil earlier than planned due to COVID-19, she wasn’t sure what to do next.
She hadn’t planned that far ahead for what to do when she got home. Should she enroll in school? Would school even be happening with the pandemic changes? Would she be able to keep up the good habits and language skills she had learned and practiced on her mission?
“I was worried,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait too much and be doing nothing at home.”
After sharing her concerns with a friend who was studying at BYU-Idaho, Oyanedel was reminded that she still had one day to apply for BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s PathwayConnect program.
“I knew about BYU-Pathway before my mission. I have many friends that have done it,” Oyanedel said. “And on my mission I had received a letter about scholarships and the possibilities for returned missionaries.”
On Sunday, April 19, Oyanedel went online, took the required English language test (she passed) and submitted her application. The new semester started the next day, April 20.
“I got an email that same day telling me I could start,” she said. “I was kind of lost. I didn’t know it was going to happen so fast.”
After missing the first day, Oyanedel said she spent that first week getting caught up. Although she initially felt behind, the program proved to have a familiar structure, and she was happy to start something new.
“I think it was really helpful,” she said of her first semester in the PathwayConnect program. “The learning was really progressive and everything happening around me seemed to relate to what I was learning in my Pathway classes. My scripture study and prayers and every situation were all related to my learning. I think I made huge progress on myself.”
Oyanedel’s experience is representative of many returned missionaries who have turned to BYU-Pathway to continue their personal progress and education — especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing opportunities for all
With approximately 10% of missionaries who returned home between August 2018 and July 2019 enrolling in the PathwayConnect program within a year, BYU-Pathway Worldwide is proving to be an increasingly valuable experience for those returning home after their time in service of the Church. And early estimates for 2020 show that these percentages will continue to climb.
BYU-Pathway Worldwide estimated that by the time the current cohort of missionaries have been home for five years, nearly a quarter of them will have enrolled in PathwayConnect.
Brian Ashton, BYU-Pathway Worldwide vice president of field operations, explained that this is significant because BYU-Pathway Worldwide — in conjunction with Seminaries and Institutes of Religion — is playing a role in keeping returned missionaries actively engaged in gospel studies and progressing spiritually following their missions.
Worldwide, the program has seen a 45% average increase in enrollment from returned missionaries each year for the last two years, and administrators of the program project that number will continue to increase as more missionaries return home amid changing circumstances at traditional university campuses.
Although BYU-Pathway Worldwide began pre-approving all returning missionaries — regardless of their length of service — for enrollment in the PathwayConnect program over a year ago, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that they began offering an extra incentive for returning missionaries.
Since April of this year, BYU-Pathway Worldwide has applied an automatic 25% tuition discount or “scholarship” of sorts for all returned missionaries who enroll in PathwayConnect.
As J.D. Griffith, BYU-Pathway Worldwide’s vice president of administration, explained, the discount is applied automatically based on a student’s Church membership records. If they have a start date for a mission listed on their records within the last five years, the 25% discount is applied as soon as they apply to the program.
“So many missionaries have returned home early or experienced other delays or issues with their plans during this pandemic,” Griffith said. “And we felt having this opportunity would give them more hope and more options to jump back into education in a safe and friendly environment during this time.”
The PathwayConnect program — a three-semester program aimed at helping students adjust to a university environment and providing them the tools needed to thrive as they pursue their higher education — is perfect for returning missionaries as they transition from mission life back to school and everyday life at home, Griffith explained.
The first semester focuses on teaching life skills like budgeting and goal setting — a natural continuation of the skills and habits taught on the mission. The second semester teaches professional skills such as résumé building, career outlook and presentation skills. The third and final semester then aims to prepare students to pursue and reach their long-term university and degree goals.
“It’s a very smooth transition,” Griffith said. The program is set up to accommodate those who have never had a university experience as well as those who have taken a significant amount of time off for a mission or any other reason.
And during a time when more traditional universities are scrambling to adjust to online classes and gatherings, BYU-Pathway Worldwide has demonstrated its longstanding functionality.
“I think that BYU-Pathway Worldwide was divinely built to operate in this pandemic environment,” Griffith said. “And that helps these missionaries who are coming home and questioning whether or not they can go to a campus. And if they are going to be home anyway, why not enroll in a program established for that?”
A lasting impact
For Nelson Muchonji, a PathwayConnect student from Kenya who returned from a mission in January, BYU-Pathway Worldwide offered the perfect solution to his educational dilemma.
Prior to leaving for his mission in 2017, Muchonji was studying with an online program in Kenya, but shortly before he left on his mission, the online program was discontinued.
When he left for his mission, Muchonji determined that, following his mission, he would instead pursue an on-campus experience. Upon returning home, however, Muchonji realized he would need something to keep him occupied as he looked at university options. Having heard a lot about BYU-Pathway Worldwide from his mission president and others in the mission field, he decided to apply for the PathwayConnect program. When COVID-19 hit a few months later, Muchonji knew he had made the right decision.
“I am grateful because in February I was admitted to BYU-Idaho,” he said, and that gives him something to look forward to. But for now, he said, “I will continue with Pathway because I am loving the experience. I love the gatherings, they are my favorite part. A lot is discussed on Thursdays as we talk about life, the gospel and work experiences.”
He continued, “I am really learning a lot. Being at BYU-Pathway has been like a moment to remind me of some of the things I had forgotten. … It has had a great impact on my life, and I am really grateful for it. It is a program designed by the Lord.”
After completing PathwayConnect following her mission, Carla Viteri Fraser, a student from Argentina, decided to become a PathwayConnect missionary with her husband.
“It was very hard for me to stop being a missionary, so the fact that I was able to continue serving somehow with something that had given me so much spiritually was wonderful. I just wanted to get more,” she said. “I wanted to help people feel what I felt; out of gratefulness, I guess.”
Leading PathwayConnect courses together has also helped bring Fraser and her husband closer together as they work toward their own education and spiritual goals, she said.
It’s a program that blesses everyone who participates in it, she said, noting how she has watched her brother and others she knows benefit from it.
“It’s not expensive and that is a huge deal,” she said. “My brother has three kids and works a lot, but the program is very flexible. You can study when you want to study. Regardless of circumstances.”
BYU-Pathway Worldwide offers the type of environment a returned missionary needs to grow after getting home, said Kurtis Leota, a recently returned missionary and Pathway student from California.
“If you’re looking for a fresh start, Pathway is a great way to start,” he said. “For those who maybe don’t feel as strong, it’s a great testimony builder. It offers the best combination of study because it’s academic and spiritual. That’s the type of environment you need. So why wouldn’t you want to take an opportunity like that?”