Elder Gong shares how an education provides BYU graduates with a ‘firm foundation’

Beth O’Brien is grateful for her Brigham Young University education.

On Thursday, O’Brien graduated with a master’s degree in social work. As a single parent, she will now be joining a clinical practice down the street from her home in Springville, Utah, that will allow her to prioritize her life with her children while still supporting them financially. “It’s kind of all my dreams coming true,” she told the Church News.

BYU student Beth O'Brien received her master's degree in social work.
BYU student Beth O’Brien received her master’s degree in social work. Credit: BYU Photo

O’Brien said she knows of no other program or environment that would have been as supportive of her situation or prepared her to be employable for a meaningful job. “I feel really grateful,” she said.

O’Brien’s experience is indicative of the firm foundation created from an education at BYU that Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of in his remarks during the BYU commencement ceremony on Thursday morning, April 22.

In his address that was broadcast from the Marriott Center on the Provo, Utah, campus, the Apostle repeatedly encouraged graduates to “build with gratitude on a firm BYU foundation.”

Part of that endeavor is seeking every opportunity to improve and do better, Elder Gong explained. “Please continue to be good, so you can do the most good, whatever your circumstance, wherever you are.”

As a BYU alumnus himself, Elder Gong began his remarks by expressing gratitude for the firm foundation on which BYU is established and the firm foundation BYU helps to establish in the lives of students.

Alyssa M. Baer and Emilee Curtis chat before BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually.
Alyssa M. Baer and Emilee Curtis chat before BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In that spirit, he offered six congratulations to graduates.

His first congratulations went to those who are the first in their families to graduate from university, roughly 12% of the 6,272 graduates.

“Three cheers for you and those who love and encourage you as you embark on a lifelong educational journey which will bless generations,” he said. “We are proud Brigham Young University cares deeply about offering educational opportunities to those from every background and circumstance.”

Second, he gave a special salute to the 40% to 60% of graduates who made on-campus employment part of their education. 

“You got up early, you stayed late. You worked hard and you accomplished much. We are proud of a university that, with great intentionality, offers excellent education, recognized affordable value, and significant on-campus employment opportunities, so our BYU graduates can achieve both a fine education and one of our country’s lowest student debt rates,” Elder Gong said.

Read more: Graduating during the pandemic: How Church schools are seeking to honor graduates despite COVID-19 restrictions

His third congratulations went to graduates who have been part of multiple high-impact practices (HIP). “You probably didn’t know how ‘HIP’ you are,” Elder Gong quipped.

According to national educational criteria, 76% of BYU graduates have participated in two or more high-impact practices, such as research with faculty, internships or field experience, or had the opportunity to study abroad.

“This is a tribute to you for making the most of your time at BYU,” Elder Gong said.

BYU graduation statistics for April 2021.
BYU graduation statistics for April 2021.

Fourth, Elder Gong congratulated graduates who are pursuing their educational and professional dreams.

He noted that after Harvard and Stanford universities, BYU has the highest percentage of students who attend after being accepted. “You came to BYU because you wanted to. And now you are well-prepared to go forth to serve in home and community, in further schooling and professional and employment capacities.”

To those graduates who are Latter-day Saints, he asked to reach out to their next bishop or branch president and offer to serve. “It is always timely to give back and give forward, for yourself, for those who expect something more of a BYU graduate, in leadership, service and gospel example,” he said.

“We pray you truly go forth spiritually strengthened, intellectually enlarged, an individual of character committed to lifelong learning and service. Please build with gratitude on a firm BYU foundation.”

Fifth, Elder Gong offered cheers for graduates who laughed, cried and grew by serving in family home evening groups and in wards and stakes. “I hope you will remember with fondness and appreciation this special element of your BYU education.”

Lastly, Elder Gong expressed his gratitude to each student, faculty and staff member who “is building on BYU’s firm foundation of bedrock virtues, values and principles, while learning appropriately when and how to adapt in changing and challenging times.”

Graduates have much for which to be proud in their BYU experiences and accomplishments, “much for which to be proud, now, as a graduate of Brigham Young University,” Elder Gong said.

In conclusion, he testified that “the firm foundation for which I am most grateful is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and — called in His name — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the members of which across the earth are proud of Brigham Young University and its graduates, including you, the graduating class of 2021.”

Kevin J. Worthen, BYU president, speaks during BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually.
Kevin J. Worthen, BYU president, speaks during BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Super graduates

BYU President Kevin J Worthen dubbed the class of 2021 as “super graduates” because they are “resilient, durable and very adaptable” throughout the past year of the pandemic.

The title, however, comes with a threefold responsibility, he continued.  

First, “I ask you to make a list of experiences that you have had this past year that have increased your ability to meet challenges in your life,” President Worthen said.

Second, “If you want to be a true super graduate you should look for ways you can use the skills, talents and knowledge you have gained and refined here to benefit others and improve the world,” he said.

Lastly, genuine super graduates recognize that “true strength, resilience, durability, adaptability and every other good gift comes from God, and that our ability to develop and use those gifts is enhanced as we follow the example of His Son Jesus Christ. As we look into Christ and every thought we will find the strength and inspiration to become truly super,” President Worthen said.

Benjamin Aparicio and Alondra Cardiel hold smoke bombs as their loved ones take photos of them outside of LaVell Edwards Stadium after BYU’s virtual graduation ceremony in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast from the Marriott Center and held virtually.
Benjamin Aparicio and Alondra Cardiel hold smoke bombs as their loved ones take photos of them outside of LaVell Edwards Stadium after BYU’s virtual graduation ceremony in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast from the Marriott Center and held virtually. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Jazz pianist and renowned composer Marcus Roberts was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university. Roberts lost his sight at 5 years old and serves the blind community, receiving the Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement from the American Foundation for the Blind and recently serving as artistic director for the foundation’s centennial gala, titled The Art of Inclusion.

In his prerecorded remarks, Roberts noted: “Often, when we see a person who does not look like us, we focus on those differences. … As a result, we don’t ever get to know them, or value their life struggles.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Roberts asserted. “We need to take the time to really see, each person, each individual human being, especially those who don’t look or act like us. 

“Because if we hold on to and build upon that little thread that binds us together, our ties will become stronger. It will develop more of a sense of communion and trust with each other,” Roberts said.

BYU conferred 6,272 degrees during the April graduation — 5,423 bachelor’s, 702 master’s and 147 doctoral degrees.

Alyssa M. Baer addresses the class of 2021 during BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually.
Alyssa M. Baer addresses the class of 2021 during BYU’s graduation ceremony at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Due to COVID-19, the graduation ceremony was broadcast and held virtually. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News