Students, friends, family, and faculty gathered in the packed Cannon Activities Center for the Fall 2018 Commencement. The soon-to-be graduates represented 29 different countries and 19 states in the United States. The graduates, whose ages ranged from 19 to 47 years old, were awarded 201 bachelor’s degrees and 15 associate’s degrees.
“Before I do my brief remarks,” President John S. Tanner started, “let me do a brief visual to give you graduates and the congregation a sense of who is graduating here today.” Asking the graduates who were international students to stand, nearly half of the crowd rose. Again, Tanner asked for those who spoke two, three, four, and five languages to stand. He then asked any who were the first in their family to graduate from college to stand.
“Brothers and sisters, graduates, all of you,” Tanner concluded, “I hope this gives you just a feel for who our student body is at this university and what you represent. BYU–Hawaii is truly a special place.” After remarking that offering a message to graduates was never an easy task, Tanner joked “As Senator Bob Dole once quipped, ‘being a commencement speaker is like being a corpse at a funeral. The need you to hold the event, but nobody expects you to speak very much.’
“I feel impressed to say to you what my mother would often say to me when I was a teenager, and when I was walking out the front door of my home. She would say ‘remember who you are.’” Tanner said he would sometimes be a smart aleck and pretend to forget his identity, and take out his driver’s license and read off what his name was and where he was from in California.
In regards to the diplomas and resumes the graduating students would be leaving with, Tanner counseled, “These tell only a part of the story about who you are and not the most important thing. Far more important than the personal identifiers in your life is your eternal identity as a child of God. And more important than your professional resume is what I call your ‘real’ resume. That is, what’s written on your soul and in your heart.”
Tanner repeated his mother’s words “remember who you are” to the graduating class with an addition, “Remember whose you are. Your diploma will open doors of opportunity for you. But the door in heaven swings open on other hinges. The keeper of the gate there won’t care about your worldly credentials.”
Finishing up his opening remarks, Tanner encouraged the graduates to remember that they are royalty, destined for great things, much like Simba in “The Lion King.” “Your Heavenly Father lives in you. Remember whose you are.”
Following Tanner, Kekaila Ah Puck, graduating elementary education major from Laie, addressed the group. Ah Puck was the first member of her family to graduate college. She enrolled at BYUH in 2015, and will be working toward a master’s degree in psychology with a focus on education.
Ah Puck began, “In Hawaii, we know that ohana means family. And as graduates of BYU–Hawaii, we have come to learn that for many of us, our families include classmates, coworkers, teachers, mentors, our ward families, and of course our parents, siblings, and much more.
“We must realize that our success is not something we have achieved on our own, but with the encouragement of our families and other helping hands along the way.”
Ah Puck took a moment to express gratitude to her family, starting with her grandparents. “My grandmother was one of the first, one of the few students who made up the first graduating class of the Church College of Hawaii in 1957. She went on to become an elementary school teacher and taught for 38 years at Laie Elementary. She is the reason why I chose to pursue elementary education. My grandfather moved his young family from Fiji in the 1970s to attend BYUH, where he received his degree in business and finance.”
She spoke about how her grandparents understood the need and importance of good education and that their example reminded her to have faith and press forward in doing her best.
Elder Kim B. Clark, the commissioner of the Church Education System, then spoke briefly. Clark previously served as the dean of Harvard University for 10 years before being called as the president of BYU–Idaho.
In the soothing voice of a teacher, Clark said BYUH is a center for gospel learning, and the followers of Jesus Christ are working with power all across the Earth to gather Israel and prepare the world for the second coming of the Savior. “It is a wonderful time, but it is also a time of great change. A time of political and economic turmoil. A time of growing darkness and evil. It is a time when all of us need to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father, and deepen our conversion in Him.”
Graduating with a degree in vocal performance, Ai Domon, from Japan, performed Natsu (Summer). Her sweet soprano voice filled the silent CAC as she sang in her native language.
Following the musical number, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf rose out of his seat to address the graduating class. With his brilliant white hair, deep baritone voice, and a smile on his face, he told the graduates, “You all look great! It is always whenever someone gets an assignment to Hawaii that about 14 others look at the person and say ‘I wish I was going.’”
After congratulating the students on their academic achievement, Uchtdorf reminded them, “This kind of success is rarely an individual one, and for the majority of scholars who cross the finish line, you can be sure that a company of others cross alongside with them.”
He took a moment to tell the audience how thrilled he was to have his wife Harriet present, whom he called “the sunshine in my life.” He revealed that beside it being the day of graduation, it was also his and Harriet’s 56th wedding anniversary. This announcement was followed with cheering from the crowd. He joked, “There are worse places to celebrate a wedding anniversary.”
He shared his experience of walking through the campus and Polynesian Cultural Center caroling, including singing the hymn “Silent Night” which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. “Not only that, but it is almost 60 years ago to the day that President McKay dedicated the first building here on the campus. And it’s 55 years since the PCC opened. And this day is your day. It is the day you start another legacy in your life. A legacy of education, a legacy of strength.”
Uchtdorf revealed that he asked his grandchildren what he should speak to the graduates about. They told him to “keep it short and don’t worry about the topic since everyone will be thinking about other things anyway.”
“Let me mention several pieces of advice that I trust may be of use to you,” Uchtdorf began. “The topic is really, the message is simple, and it is this: Be gatherers of light. Be collectors of light.
“Hawaii is known throughout the world for its beautiful landscapes, lush forests, and wondrous flowers. I’ve always marveled at the beauties of these islands. As many of you know, Utah is a desert. Although it has its own stunning beauty, it has its own kind of landscape compared to the lavish green of the islands in this part of the world.”
Uchtdorf continued by talking about the process by which plants grow and gain strength from the sunlight. “Most plants can’t survive long without light,” he explained. “If there’s no light, there’s no energy. Plants that are deprived of light will wither away and eventually perish. Without light, they cannot sustain light.”
With the metaphor of plants needing light, Uchtdorf spoke about how in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes the curtain parts and we get small glimpses of heaven. He used an example from the Doctrine and Covenants, where it reads that Jesus Christ is the light and the truth of the world.
As he finished his address, Uchtdorf kindly reminded students, “Your days of gathering light have not ended. They just have begun. Heavenly light is promised to all those who set their hearts and minds to the task of seeking this light.”
The 216 graduates were then awarded their degrees. Munkjargal Sukhbaatar, from Mongolia, and the mother of Nasanbold Sukhbaatar, who graduated with a degree in hospitality and tourism management said, through an interpreter, “This school prepared my son to do great things in the future. It really is unlike any other school on Earth.”
After the awarding of diplomas and the benediction, the graduates walked out of the CAC to crowds of family and friends waiting to give them leis and gifts. Louisette Waiane, a junior majoring in general education from Vanuatu, was waiting with leis and candy necklaces to give to her friends. Waiane said “Seeing my friends graduate made me look forward to the day when I can walk across the stage and feel that I have accomplished something great. For now, I will give everyone love and support.”