How learning a second language taught new BYU-Pathway President Brian Ashton that all have the potential to learn

As a freshman in college, Brian Ashton tried to learn Mandarin Chinese and struggled. He couldn’t distinguish the different intonations that are essential to understanding and pronouncing words in the Chinese dialect.

When the time came to turn in his full-time mission application, he marked “low interest” in learning a language on the form. He was surprised when he received a call to serve in Peru where he would need to learn Spanish.

“Honestly, I was terrified,” he recalled during an interview with the Church News, and described himself as the worst Spanish-speaker in his district in the missionary training center.

As opposed to his foray with Mandarin, however, this time he involved the Holy Ghost by praying and reading his scriptures, as well as studying, and eventually he was able to learn to speak proficiently.

No one will ever mistake him for a native speaker, he said with a smile, but they can understand him and it’s a skill he’s strived to maintain. As a mission president in Houston, Texas, from 2012-2015, then as a member of the Sunday School general presidency from 2015-2019, and now as the newly appointed president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, he has regularly been called on to offer remarks in Spanish to international audiences. He’s also learning Portuguese.

His struggle to learn a second language taught him several important lessons: First and foremost the importance of involving the Lord in the learning process and that through the influence of the Holy Ghost, all have the potential to learn.

The application of that truth is something that makes him excited to go to work every day. In his new leadership role for the Church’s online education program, President Ashton sees on a daily basis the transformative power of education in the lives of individuals.

Launched in 2009 at BYU–Idaho with just 50 students in three pilot sites, BYU–Pathway is now an independent institution that serves close to 60,000 students in more than 150 countries and all 50 U.S. states.

Read more: BYU-Pathway Worldwide past president explains how the Lord is using education to hasten His work

The program is designed to provide students with fundamental, preparatory coursework, which enables them to pursue a certificate or degree facilitated through a partnership with Ensign College or BYU-Idaho. And it’s all administered online, which means it works in South Jordan, Utah, or Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Traditionally, education has been a scarce resource. Even in countries where education is free, there are often a limited number of seats. Those seats typically go to only the very wealthy or the exceptionally smart, President Ashton explained.

BYU–Pathway's new president, Brian Ashton, talks with staff in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
BYU–Pathway’s new president, Brian Ashton, talks with staff in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BYU–Pathway Worldwide specializes in providing opportunities to the “hidden many” — as his predecessor, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, has called them — or those who never thought that college was for them. 

“What I love about BYU–Pathway is it has now taken education and has made it accessible for almost anyone,” President Ashton said.

The mission of BYU–Pathway Worldwide, like other institutions within the Church Educational System, is to develop disciples of Jesus Christ, who are leaders in their homes, the Church and the community.

As he reflected on his education — which included a bachelor’s degree from BYU and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard — President Ashton recognized how those opportunities have led to the fulfillment of that mission in his own life.

“It’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life to learn how to be disciplined and really put in the time that’s needed to learn.”

Although education was encouraged by his mom — who attended college — and by his dad — who earned an MBA — young Brian had a hard time turning in assignments when he was in junior high school. He got by in high school with decent grades, he recalled, but not because of any real diligence on his part. 

When he started studying at a college level, however, he decided something needed to change. Eventually, he learned how to learn more effectively. “It’s been one of the greatest blessings in my life to learn how to be disciplined and really put in the time that’s needed to learn,” President Ashton said.

Education has enabled him to be self-sufficient, which in turn has opened more opportunities to serve. It’s also helped him be a better leader, both in and out of the Church. “It’s hard to be a good leader if you don’t understand issues and can’t think critically,” he said.

Sister Melinda Earl Ashton and Brother Brian K. Ashton
Sister Melinda Earl Ashton and Brother Brian K. Ashton Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It has helped him be a better husband to his wife, Sister Melinda Ashton, and a better father to their seven children — six boys and one girl.

It’s also helped him better understand who God is and how to study His word. “I think God has an active mind, and education has taught me how to think critically and receive more revelation,” he said.

Perhaps, most importantly, like the experience with learning a second language, it’s taught him the importance of involving the Lord in the learning process, whether it’s learning Mandarin or understanding the scriptures.

President Ashton said he realizes his educational journey is atypical for many in the world. His parents always told him he was capable of doing better and he was surrounded by role models, including his wife, who attended medical school, and his mother-in-law, who is a Ph.D. chemist.

Many BYU–Pathway students have never had anyone who told them they can be successful at school. “They’ve been taught a false doctrine, which is they can’t learn, and that’s not true,” President Ashton said. 

One of the things they try to teach each student is that he or she is a child of God and has the potential to become like Him. “If they’ll believe that and then be disciplined, they can do as well as anybody else.”

Those involved with BYU-Pathway see that happening all the time, all over the world, President Ashton said. “My parents really just modeled what we’re trying to teach students here.” 

In 2018, when President Ashton was working as BYU–Pathway’s field operations vice president, he spoke to the Church News of some of the blessings he was seeing through Pathway’s process of combining secular and spiritual education. 

“Students’ testimonies have become stronger, they are able to rely upon the Lord and they are learning by study and by faith,” he said. “They also gain a confidence and a large number of them continue on to receive additional education that turns into getting a better job.

“I see spiritual boosts, confidence boosts, learned leadership skills, individuals making more money and on the path to get a degree. I see them becoming leaders in their homes and leaders in the Church and in the community.”

BYU–Pathway's new president, Brian Ashton, poses for a photo at the school in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
BYU–Pathway’s new president, Brian Ashton, poses for a photo at the school in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

His vision and perspective of those blessings has only expanded as he’s taken on his new role as president.

President Ashton recently heard from an international BYU–Pathway student who was called to be a Relief Society president. Living in a country where many of the labor-saving devices are not accessible, she felt overwhelmed about how she was going to balance the care of her family, coursework and a demanding Church calling.

One of her PathwayConnect classes, however, taught a section on time management. Through those skills she was able to teach her children, spend time with her husband, fulfill her calling and study. “She said she actually felt like she had more time than she did before,” President Ashton said, “and that it had made her life so much easier.”

Through the help and influence of the Holy Ghost, “we all have the opportunity to learn, we all have the opportunity to become better disciples, to become more like our Heavenly Father, and become disciple leaders,” President Ashton said.

President Ashton said he feels humbled and grateful when he considers the commitment and dedication of the employees, volunteers and service missionaries who keep the program running throughout the world.

BYU–Pathway Worldwide is really an incredible collaboration, he explained. Not only do they rely on BYU–Idaho and Ensign College, which provide the curriculum for the certificates and degrees, but BYU–Pathway also partners with seminaries and institutes, the Welfare and Self Reliance Department and the Missionary Department.

“They do everything they can to help students be successful,” President Ashton said. The Lord is pouring out His Spirit onto His people and, through the blessing of education, building them into better leaders as part of His work.

“It’s energizing to go work with the students. It feels a lot like when I was a mission president working with the missionaries. The Spirit is there and you can see that the Lord is helping them. To be part of that is a real blessing,” President Ashton said.

Pathway administrators see volunteers and missionaries who extend their term of service again and again and again. “It’s just a joyful experience to be here,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it’s joyful.”