Elder Brent H. Nielson remembers exactly how he felt as he sat at his graduation from Brigham Young University exactly 40 years ago in 1978.
While most of his classmates were excited about the completion of school work and looking forward to the next phase in their life, his heart was “full of uncertainty, sadness and a little bit of fear.”
“During my last semester at BYU, I received a phone call from my father telling me that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” he recalled. “In spite of wonderful doctors and many priesthood blessings, my father’s health continued to deteriorate. Although he promised that he would be at my graduation, his condition was so precarious that when the day finally arrived, my mother traveled to Provo alone to be with me at my graduation.”
He and his father had a very close relationship.
“My father was a lawyer and had been my mentor, my counselor and my advisor,” he said. “As I sat here in the Marriott Center on graduation day, I knew that my father had only a few weeks to live.”
To make matters worse, he was also graduating as a single person.
“Fortunately, my wife and I had found each other, and I was hoping on my graduation day that she would continue to be willing to marry me.”
Just two weeks after his graduation, his father passed away.
“My plans for law school were then dictated by my desire to remain close to my mother as I turned down admission to a law school I had hoped to attend in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Sharing his story during commencement at Brigham Young University on Aug. 16, Elder Nielson said it wasn’t his intent to take the joy and happiness out of an important day; rather, his intent was to share advice he wished he had known as a young graduate on his graduation day.
“What I know now that I didn’t comprehend then is how amazing your future will be,” he said.
Speaking to the 2,095 graduates and their supporters in the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, Elder Nielson reminded listeners that no matter their current situation, their future is very bright.
“As you move forward with faith in God, you will not be able to comprehend adequately the joy and happiness that await you and that God has prepared for you,” he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing graduates today, Elder Nielson said, is a desire to know now what life will be like in the future.
“You want to know today who you will marry and when, where your first job will be, and how much money you will make,” he said. “And you especially want to know if you will be happy. My hope for you is that you will understand that today your graduation represents a gateway to your unknown future. The only thing that we do know today is that your life will change and that this change will be a wonderful opportunity for you to become who you need to become.”
Important to that quest is “becoming” like the Savior, he said.
Sharing his experience of attending his high school reunion last month, Elder Nielson said much of the conversations of his classmates revolved around current health conditions.
“In fact, there was a lot of discussion about the condition of our hearts,” he said.
The discussion made him think of more than just the physical condition of a person’s heart.
“Is your heart closer to Christ than when you started here at BYU?” he asked. “Interestingly, the Savior taught that as you look to your future, to become what you want to become, you will need to look carefully at the condition of your heart.”
While some graduates have a job lined up and have “breezed through college” without any concerns, worries or fears, Elder Nielson recognized there are many who “have been impacted by divorce, by death or disappointment,” and have struggled to continue to believe in Christ and His Church. Some have fears about their identity, and many are worried about what lies ahead.
To all, Elder Nielson said to not give in to such fears.
“My advice to you, as well as to myself 40 years ago, is to look beyond yourself,” he said. “This is the key to becoming like Jesus Christ. Don’t have yourself, your accomplishments, or your fears as your treasure; rather, focus on others and their needs.”
Again, touching on a more personal nature, Elder Nielson spoke of the condition of his heart. Recently, while undergoing surgery on his neck, his heart went out of rhythm, and his heart began to fail him. He had never had heart problems prior to the surgery, and doctors found it necessary to get his heart back into rhythm.
A consequence — doctors warned him of needing to take his medication faithfully, or else his heart might go out of rhythm again.
“Why have I told you that long story?” he asked. “I am concerned about the condition of your heart as you graduate today. If you want to be happy as you leave today, you need to do the things that the Savior Himself has done.”
Like the Savior, all must go “about doing good.”
“As you leave today, it will be so easy to withdraw from helping and lifting others,” he said. “It is so easy to worry only about yourself — new jobs, promotions, advanced degrees and even your fears. You will find that it is easy to place yourself, and at times your fears, as your treasure.”
Elder Nielson’s warning: “If you do that, your heart will fail you. ... If you worry only about yourself, you will figuratively lose your life.”
To those whose hearts are out of rhythm, Elder Nielson encouraged them to have a “symbolic cardioversion” — a shock to repair ones heart and put his or her rhythm in sync with Heavenly Father.
Like his need to take medication every day to keep his heart in rhythm, Elder Nielson spoke of taking care of one’s heart through finding opportunities to regularly serve others.
“You will have very busy lives. You are going to have meaningful employment, kids, Church callings, hobbies and recreation as well as disappointment, fear, stress and anxiety,” he said. “Be sure that included in all of that you coach little league baseball, that you shovel your neighbor’s driveway, that you hold the door open for the person behind you, that you share your talents, and put down your phone. No more saying that our thoughts and prayers are with you. If you lose your life, you will find it.
“Remember, ‘where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.'”
President Worthen spoke of the many iconic symbols — the "Y" on the mountain, the cougar statue at LaVell Edwards Stadium, a particular building — on the BYU campus.
“Who knows, with enough time and perspective, even the testing center may bring warm memories,” he said. “Maybe not.”
One iconic symbol, the “Enter to Learn; Go Forth to Serve” sign found at the southwest entrance to campus, is one that is mentioned frequently.
“With full understanding that I am not being original, I would like to focus on this saying one more time in a graduation setting because I believe that, notwithstanding the constant repetition, we may underestimate the depth of its importance and meaning.”
The sign has been part of the BYU campus since 1965, when the university invited faculty members and others to “submit a slogan or motto which would be suitable to be placed at the main entrance.”
Stewart Grow, a professor of history and political science, offered the saying. Although he is not the original author and other schools around North America have used the slogan as their motto, there is significance in its message, President Worthen said.
“Over time, I have come to believe that one measure of our eternal progress is how much joy we derive from service,” President Worthen said. “In that regard, I have told my family that when I get as much joy out of serving as I do from watching BYU win a football or basketball game over one particular opponent, I will know that I am finally firmly on the path to heaven.”
Recognizing that at BYU educators strive to provide an education that is spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging and character building, President Worthen said a BYU education should lead to two things — lifelong learning and service.
“I hope you will go forth to serve for the rest of your lives, understanding that in our Church we believe in really long lives — even eternal lives,” he said. “May you find deep, eternal joy that comes from unselfishly serving others.”
Other speakers included Jonathan O. Hafen, president of the BYU Alumni Association, and graduate Ashton R. Omdahl. Convocations for the various colleges are scheduled at various times throughout the day on Friday.