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BYUH graduates, family and friends cherish the first in-person commencement ceremony and festivities since the start of pandemic

landscape shot of graduate in Cannon Activities Center fist bumping school president wearing masks
Fall 2021 graduate fist bumps President Kauwe after receiving his degree at the first in-person graduation ceremony in more than a year.

For the first time in more than a year, 275 graduates in the graduating class of Fall 2021 received their degrees and certificates in person. Elder Carl B. Cook, a member of the presidency of the Seventy, along with BYU–Hawaii President John S. K. Kauwe and others encouraged and congratulated graduates in an in-person commencement ceremony on Dec. 10.

Choosing to serve the Lord

President Kauwe urged the graduates to seek to serve the Lord in everything they do. “The strong and simple choice to serve the Lord and forsake other influences will direct your actions in every decision you make moving forward.”

He shared the story of Joshua, who feared the children of Israel would deviate from solely serving God. In the story he shared, Joshua warns the children of Israel against evil and resisting temptation. Joshua, he said, advises the people, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

In this scripture, President Kauwe said, the prophet pleads with his people to serve the Lord “in sincerity and in truth.” He explained this kind of service means forsaking other gods, which he clarified as worldly influences that people might value over Heavenly Father and the covenants made with him. “It is not sufficient to squeeze the Lord into a few minutes of your life here or there. We cannot serve him by nodding toward the heavens on a few occasions each week, or even each day,” shared President Kauwe.

President Kauwe shared a lesson from President David O. McKay in which he explained it is not easy for people to center their lives on God. President Kauwe added, quoting President McKay, “‘Let us resolve that from now on we are going to be men and women of higher and more sterling character, more conscious of our weakness, more kind and charitable towards the failing of others.”

Trusting the Lord in difficult times

Amy Marshall Kaonohi, the graduation student speaker for the Fall 2021 Commencement, shared, “With the Lord’s help, we can get through all that the world will throw at us.” Kaonohi, an alumna from Florida with a degree in computer science, shared the difficulty of transitioning to online classes when COVID-19 struck. However, she expressed she and her classmates were happy to celebrate this milestone together.

Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Kaonohi said, she and her fellow graduates are still bound to face adversity that will test their faith in God and their capabilities. “We did a hard thing getting to this point, especially during this time. So, trust that you have what it takes to push past your limits.”

landscape shot of young woman speaking at the pulpit in the Cannon Activities Center wearing graduation robes and a red lei
Amy Marshall Kaonohi, Fall 2021 student commencement speaker, shares her congratulations to her fellow graduates on finishing strong in spite of a pandemic.

Although the future is uncertain, Kaonohi said, it is important for graduates to remember who they are and to believe they can achieve great things. “Believe that you are the genuine gold that David O. McKay prophesied us to be, and that we can lead and serve with the knowledge we've obtained here at Brigham Young University–Hawaii.”

Receiving a double major and joining an order of angels

R. Kelly Haws, assistant to the commissioner and secretary to the Church Board of Education and Board of Trustees, advised the graduates to recognize their “double major,” which is to study, practice, and become a disciple of Jesus Christ. “The unique and singular difference [between BYUH and other universities] is BYU–Hawaii's complete devotion to helping you become disciples of Jesus Christ and leaders in the home and church.”

Haws told the graduates to remember watching the sun rise or set on the beach as the water sweeps across the sand and crabs scurry into their holes—a scene he said most of the graduates had probably experienced—and told them to use that memory to picture Jesus calling his apostles from the shore. “Jesus has often chosen and called disciples near the water: these disciples at the sea of Galilee, Alma's people at the waters of Mormon, Joseph Smith at the Susquehanna River, and now each of you, on this campus, near these beaches, and in the shadow of this temple.”

While attending BYUH, Haws shared, graduates have surely experienced quiet moments of growing gratitude to be here. “You’ve felt prompted toward deeper discipleship of the Savior. You've felt a new renewed commitment to love Heavenly Father and follow him more. Those feelings are part of becoming a disciple.” He added graduates have learned to love people whose accents, customs, traditions, and favorite foods are different from their own.

“And now,” Haws addressed the graduates, “my young brothers and sisters, the world desperately needs exactly your kind of discipleship.”

side view from the upper level of the Cannon Activities Center full of graduates and attendees seated in the stands and in rows of chairs on the floor
Graduates and attendees gather for the Fall 2021, in-person commencement ceremony.

Quoting President Russell M. Nelson from a previous commencement celebration at a different Church Educational System (CES) school, Haws said, “You’ve been jumping over educational high hurdles all erected by other people. Now it’s time for you to define your own expectations. From now on, you decide. … Instead of concentrating on what you are to do, now is the time for you to zero in on what you are to be.” He added discipleship is not a comfortable path, but it is a path approved by God. “President Nelson concluded, ‘Your religion is not about just showing up for church on Sunday. It’s about showing up as a true disciple from Sunday morning through Saturday night, 24/7. There is no such thing as a part-time disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Haws added, “You and I cannot be great men and women if we are not also good men and women.” He explained graduates could become great men and women by loving God with all of their heart, might, mind and strength, and then loving others.

Haws pleaded with graduates to remember as double majors, graduates of BYUH, and as people who choose to be disciples of Jesus Christ, they have joined “an order of the angels.”

Following the plan

Member of the Presidency of the Seventy Elder Cook spoke at the commencement and shared an experience of working at a cattle farm in Utah when he was 15 years old. The owner, he said, instructed him on how to move herds of cow into their designated pen. The owner's method, he shared, would be difficult and time-consuming, thus, he decided to rearrange the plans.

Unfortunately, Elder Cook shared, this resulted in the two herds mixing in together. Upset, he said, his owner questioned him why he didn't follow the plan he was given. “The memory of Mr. Thompson asking me, 'Why didn't you follow the plan?' is a painful memory, but thankfully, I learned some powerful lessons. Even now, 50 years later, I try to do my best to follow a prescribed plan, even if I don't fully understand all of the details associated with it.”

Elder Cook compared his story to following the Lord's plan for us. “Heavenly Father does have a plan for you. If you follow his plan with all of your heart, he will guide you and he will bless you.”

landscape shot of older man in black graduation robes and purple flower lei, speaking at the pulpit in the Cannon Activities Center
Elder Carl B. Cook of the Presidency of the Seventy delivers his Fall 2021 commencement speech.

Elder Cook shared another story of a man who refused to follow President Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel to pay off any debts as soon as possible. As a result, he shared, he found himself regretful of his ignorance when the 2008 recession occurred, causing an economic downfall and anxiety over his family’s financial well-being. Learning from that experience, he said the man promised to “never disregard the prophet’s words again.”

Elder Cook encouraged graduates to humble themselves, “enough to put his will above ours,” and advised them to overcome the natural man and submit themselves to the Lord.

Heavenly Father guides his people in various ways, through personal revelation, scripture study, patriarchal blessings and heeding the messages of prophets and apostles, said Elder Cook. Quoting President Nelson, he said, “‘I know the Lord has great and marvelous plans for us—individually and collectively.’”

An authentic celebration

Jed Talactac, an alumnus from the Philippines with a degree in supply chain management and information technology, said he couldn’t describe the joy amidst the festivities. “I feel so overwhelmed…I know the Lord has blessed me. I know that he has a plan for me.”

Brigham Martin, a Spring 2021 alumnus of BYUH with a bachelor's degree in clinical counseling and psychology, said he had the privilege to walk during this semester’s commencement, as he was not able to during the semester he graduated. He said it was a special occasion and a blessing that everything came “full circle from being online, to being here in person together with our family and friends.”

landscape shot of female graduate in Cannon Activities Center receiving her degree, holding her hand up, wearing mask
Graduate waves to the crowd as she receives her degree.

His parents, Beth and Ben Martin, each expressed joy and gratitude to celebrate their son's success. Beth Martin, a BYUH student insurance supervisor, said she didn't expect the graduation to be in person. “I’m so happy that I could see him walk for graduation. He's my only son.” She said it feels like things are going back to normal, and children aren’t being confined to their homes but are able to interact with their peers.

Ben Martin, a 1978 alumnus of BYUH, said there is a difference between celebrating remotely and an authentic celebration where people come together. “It is a real joy to be able to see faces smiling [and shaking hands], embracing one another, putting, all the words that graduation is all about.”