A network of support: What sets BYU-Pathway Worldwide apart from other online learning programs

When Linda Highfill of the Alliance Texas Stake was called to serve as a missionary for the BYU-Pathway Worldwide PathwayConnect Program, she was tasked with reaching out to find students in her area who could benefit from the program and invite them to enroll. One of the first people to come to her mind was a family friend, Valeria Cumes.

“It was one of the most emotional and spiritual experiences I’ve had,” Highfill said, reflecting on the impressions she received to reach out to Valeria Cumes. “I just felt so strongly to invite her.”

For both Valeria Cumes and Highfill, the PathwayConnect program has proven much more than just another tool for education, bringing about many unexpected experiences and blessings.

As Elder Mark Gottfredson, an Area Seventy and member of the Dallas West and Fort Worth Coordinating Councils, described it, BYU-Pathway Worldwide has become a phenomenal ministering tool in the Texas area because it meets people’s temporal and spiritual needs. 

Linda and Brian Highfill, left, pose for a photo with the Cumes family. Valeria Cumes, center, and her mom Itzia, top right, and her sister Paulina, bottom right, are close friends with the Highfills. Linda Highfill served as a BYU-Pathway missionary for Valeria Cumes.
Linda and Brian Highfill, left, pose for a photo with the Cumes family. Valeria Cumes, center, and her mom Itzia, top right, and her sister Paulina, bottom right, are close friends with the Highfills. Linda Highfill served as a BYU-Pathway missionary for Valeria Cumes. Credit: Linda Highfill

“For a long period of time, I had a view of missionary work and moving along the covenant path that was limited to talking to people about religion directly,” he said. “But that isn’t always the best path. If you can address a direct need for someone and then show how the gospel and its resources can help, that helps them engage in the fruits of the gospel.” 

Whether it is used to meet the educational needs of active members of the Church, the spiritual needs of less-active Church members, or to serve a combination of needs for any individual, member or not, BYU-Pathway Worldwide lives up to its name by setting people on a pathway to success, Elder Gottfredson explained.

Supportive structures

In the Dallas and Fort Worth areas of Texas, BYU-Pathway has been used in both ministering and missionary work to help meet the needs of hundreds of YSAs as well as many other individuals looking to increase their spiritual, educational and professional well-being with great success, Elder Gottfredson said. But what really makes the program special and what sets it apart from other higher education programs and even the Seminaries and Institutes program is the community support it offers and fosters. 

One of the big reasons many people don’t end up in the college programs they aspire to is because they lack the necessary support, Elder Gottfredson explained. If utilized correctly, not only within the PathwayConnect program itself, but also through Church structures like ministering, individuals should have all the support they need to succeed.

A mother and BYU-Pathway student studies with her children.
A mother and BYU-Pathway student studies with her children. Credit: Michael Lewis, BYU Pathway

“Those who have been involved in utilizing the PathwayConnect program as a ministering tool have a strong testimony of the impact that that small amount of ministering can have,” Elder Gottfredson said. “It really is about being able to mobilize the organizations we have in the Church, through Relief Society and elders quorum and making an offer to people that meets a need in their life and providing enough support to make sure they get there.”

The PathwayConnect program provides a built in community of support that is amazing, but “the follow-up using the current structures in the Church like ministering is critical for success,” he said. 

Ministering support

Highfill and Valeria Cumes have known each other for many years. “They are like family,” Highfill said of the Cumes family. 

At 22 years old, Valeria Cumes — who lives with her mother, Itzia Cumes, a high school Spanish teacher and department director, and her sister, Paulina Cumes — loves to learn, Highfill explained. 

“She is intelligent and has really good grades,” Highfill said. “She works hard, she is diligent, and she shares her testimony often. But school has never been easy for Valeria.” 

She was misdiagnosed with various learning disorders throughout her years of primary and secondary school and, as a result, has had to find unique ways to cope with oral communication difficulties and auditory delays. 

Luckily, she hasn’t had to do it all on her own. Itzia Cumes is a well-qualified teacher with a doctorate from a university in Puerto Rico, and has found ways to help Valeria Cumes through some of her learning challenges. Highfill too has been of help, utilizing her background in speech pathology and a doctoral degree in audiology. She has been able to help Valeria Cumes both as a BYU-Pathway missionary and as a family friend.

When Highfill suggested the program to her, Valeria Cumes said she at least wanted to give it a try. But it has become an unexpected blessing for all of them, Itzia Cumes said. 

The Cumes family and the Highfill family at the Highfill's temple sealing. Linda Highfill, center left, served as a BYU-Pathway missionary for Valeria Cumes, right.
The Cumes family and the Highfill family at the Highfill’s temple sealing. Linda Highfill, center left, served as a BYU-Pathway missionary for Valeria Cumes, right. Credit: Linda Highfill

Throughout Valeria’s time in primary and secondary school, teachers and administrators would constantly worry that she couldn’t do things, Itzia explained. “She takes a long time to process her ideas,” Itzia Cumes said. “But she did well. And even as I was trying to advocate for her, I never thought in the whole world that she would be doing what she is doing now.”

As she wraps up her final semester of the Pathway-Connect program this month, Valeria Cumes has set her sights on pursuing a degree in social media marketing through BYU-Idaho online and is in the process of getting ready for that next step. And as it turns out, BYU-Pathway has been the perfect program for Valeria Cumes to continue with her goals for higher education.

“I joined [BYU-Pathway] to help me,” Valeria Cumes said. “I have always been diligent, but with [BYU-Pathway] I have been learning to think better and believe that I can do my work. It’s helping me to learn more skills for college, and I am able to communicate better, and this is my limitation.” 

Through the combined support of her professors, her classmates, and her family and friends, she has received all the support she needs to succeed, Itzia Cumes explained, expressing her gratitude. “And she is teaching me,” Itzia Cumes said, noting how her daughter’s course in family history work has helped her gain a stronger testimony of the importance of such work. 

“I see her working so hard, and she is very patient,” Itzia Cumes said. “She loves the work with all her heart and I am very grateful because it’s been a great blessing.”

For Highfill, the PathwayConnect program has strengthened her testimony as she has witnessed the way the instructors care about their students. “It’s not the typical college experience,” she said. And that is what makes it so special.

Highfill herself has even now enrolled in PathwayConnect because she was eager to live the full experience the students were getting and because being a missionary for the program ignited a passion for family history that she now wants to pursue, she said. 

Supportive classmates

When Tiffany Gutierrez of the Colleyville Texas Stake found out she was pregnant almost two years ago, she decided it was time to go back to school and a friend encouraged her to look into the PathwayConnect program as a jumping off point. 

Tiffany Gutierrez with her husband, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, and her baby, Marisabel Rose Gutierrez.
Tiffany Gutierrez with her husband, Juan Carlos Gutierrez, and her baby, Marisabel Rose Gutierrez. Credit: Tiffany Gutierrez

She started the program just after her baby was born in the spring, right as the pandemic was setting in and said the program has proven a great blessing throughout these last several months. 

“I wouldn’t be able to go to school without it,” she said. And even though she didn’t like the idea of the class gatherings at first, she said they have become her favorite part of the program.

“The support system has been incredible. We’ve all been together since the beginning of the pandemic and they’ve been watching her grow,” she said of her 11-month-old daughter.

The religion classes and the community she has found within PathwayConnect have strengthened her testimony and made her excited to return to the temple when they are open and available again she said. Having been inactive in the Church for several years during her marriage, she said the program has helped her build the spiritual foundation she was lacking and that some of her classmates have even offered to attend the temple with her again when the time comes. 

Support for success

Jose De La Portia of the Weatherford Texas Stake was among the first in the Texas area to enroll in BYU-Pathway back when it was still a pilot program. Even then though, his experience in the program wasn’t much different, he said. 

Having worked as a mechanic with a technical certificate for many years, BYU-Pathway offered him a chance to re-enter higher education in a non-intimidating way. And with the combination of spiritual and practical knowledge the program offered, he said he found himself beginning to accelerate along his career path in wonderful and unexpected ways. 

Tiffany Gutierrez meets with her BYU-Pathway PathwayConnect class through an online Zoom class.
Tiffany Gutierrez meets with her BYU-Pathway PathwayConnect class through an online Zoom class. Credit: Tiffany Gutierrez

The PathwayConnect Program is a jumping off point for multiple scenarios of success, he said. 

“It’s a huge testimony builder to me because it shows that Heavenly Father listens to us and knows what we need,” De La Portia said. “It showed me my Heavenly Father prepared a way for me, even though I was different. And it was challenging, but He prepared every opportunity for me and that changed my perspective and outlook.”

He noted too every step of the way, through PathwayConnect and even into his later degree programs through BYU–Idaho online, there have been people there to support him all along the way. 

“They worked with me and found ways to help me through because they all want me to succeed,” he said. “It was like having an entire cheer squad helping me achieve my goals.”