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Family over fame and fortune

BYU–Hawaii dance teacher and alumni gave up a life as a professional dancer for the joy that comes from spreading the light of Christ and mentoring students

A portrait of a woman.
Photo by Marwin Villegas

Born and raised in Central Asia (East Turkistan), Nina Foster said she left her family to attend school in Beijing, China, when she was just 10 years old. According to Foster, 10 students from all around the world were selected each year to attend the prestigious People's Liberation Army Academy of Art.

Foster said Peng Liyuan, the spouse of the President of China, Xi Jinping, also attended this school. It was at this university that Foster said her professional dance career began. At 16 years old, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in dance and began her journey performing all around the world.

Despite "living the dream as a star," Foster explained leaving home at 10 years old caused her to deeply miss her family. “I would tell people that I wanted to be with someone forever, and they would laugh at me,” said Foster. “I had everything. Fame, money, I was on TV. I could get anything I wanted, but there was always something missing.”

The missing link

Two years after Foster began performing around the globe, she said the company she was part of at the time traveled to Laie, Hawaii, just after New York. Before traveling to BYU-Hawaii, she knew nothing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It felt like a sacred place,” said Foster. She stayed in Hale 5 and performed at the Cannon Activities Center. Following her performance, students and teachers begged her to come teach at BYUH and enroll as a student. However, Foster still moved back to China.

A year later, Foster said she was working at Window of the World, a theme park located in Shenzhen, China, when she ran into a group of BYUH students who remembered her from the CAC performance. Foster ended up being the group’s guide during their visit at Window of the World.

Since she was around the same age as the students, Foster said she became good friends with them. “Some students would stay in my room until 4 or 5 in the morning, for a whole week, talking to me about the gospel. Former BYUH President Eric Shumway’s daughter was one of them,” said Foster.

She shared when they talked about eternal families, it finally hit her. She said the thing she was missing all along was the knowledge of eternal families. Foster recalled something was missing as a young, famous and wealthy teenager, and this was it: the gospel. “These people don’t think I’m crazy,” thought Foster. After this experience, she decided to return to BYUH, where she attended as both a teacher and student to earn a business degree.

A group of students with their professor pose for a photo.
Photo by Marwin Villegas

A shift in direction

After moving to Laie, Foster felt a noticeable difference from the life she was living before. She said, “Something felt like home at BYUH. I was always homesick, but here, I felt closer to my family.”

President and Sister Carolyn Shumway became her “bonus mom and dad,” Foster explained. She also experienced unconditional love from the Shumways as well as many other peers, mentors and friends. This was something Foster said she searched to have for so many years ago and finally found it at BYUH.

Although she had continued to learn about the gospel, Foster was convinced she would never be baptized. Foster’s Muslim background and deep love for her parents kept her from doing so. “It would be disrespectful to my parents,” said Foster. For a while, she thought everyone was being so kind and loving just so she would be baptized.

Five years later, Foster met her husband, John Foster, here in Laie. As they talked, they learned they had been in Beijing and Shenzhen at the same time but never met. Foster explained that prior to moving to Laie, John Foster spun a globe and pointed to a random place with the intention of spontaneously moving there; his finger landed on Hawaii.

At the time, John Foster was not a member. However, Foster’s friends and "bonus" family members encouraged her to date him. “One person said, 'He’s a good one. Marry him,’” said Foster. This made Foster realize the pure intentions of those around her. Even though he was not a member, they still felt John was perfect for her. “True disciples don’t try to get credit or push others. They just love, and they truly loved me. It wasn’t about baptizing me,” said Foster.

Trusting those around her, Foster began dating John. Months into their relationship, John told Foster they should get baptized. In 2005, John and Nina Foster were baptized by President Shumway and married and sealed in the Laie Hawaii Temple.

“Suddenly everything made more sense. None of this was a coincidence,” said Foster. Between performing at the CAC, running into and leading a group of BYUH students in China, and meeting John Foster when she did, Foster knew God had a plan for her all along. Foster said many people would tell her she had fame, money and a career, and gave everything up. She would reply, “I have everything now. I didn’t have anything without Heavenly Father or eternal families. Nothing else matters. This is true happiness.”

A group photo of dancing students with their professor.
Photo by Marwin Villegas

Sharing her gift to pay it forward

Foster said she asked President Shumway how she could ever repay him for everything he had done for her. Foster shared, “He replied, ‘If you know how much we love you, you wouldn’t ask that question.’” She continued, ``... And that's why I want to give back to my students.”

Foster began teaching in 2000 and said she has never had a bad semester. “Every single one has been beautiful,” said Foster. “Family is everything to me. You appreciate your family when you leave it.” shared Foster. She explained how family is all around at BYUH.

When she sees students struggling, missing their families, feeling confused about their futures, as most college students do, she knows how it feels and wants to help. “I want students to have a rich, happy life full of good memories at BYUH. This feels like my mission, my calling,” said Foster.

Jay Phung, a sophomore from Kaaawa majoring in music and entrepreneurship, said he was a student of Foster’s when he was a freshman. Phung said he was presented with the opportunity to pursue his dream career in music, which would have put his mission on hold.

At each dance concert, Foster would announce and recognize the students who were either leaving on a mission or graduating. Phung had received his call to Thailand, but when this opportunity came up, he was unsure whether or not he would go. Phung told Nina he may be reconsidering going at this time and she probably should not announce him.

Later, Phung shared, Foster talked with him about the importance of serving missions that ultimately led him to pray, counsel with his parents, and then he felt strongly about serving his mission right then.

Since the pandemic began months after he left on his mission, he was reassigned to San Diego, where he got to use music on social media to share the gospel. Phung said Foster emailed him on his mission and expressed his excitement to be back in her class. “She has really made an impact in my life and she is just a bright light,” said Phung.

Guinevere Abello, an alumni of BYUH and former student of Foster's, explained how the classroom environment created by Foster was a safe and spiritual place. “The love and the spirit you would feel in the classroom was super uplifting,” said Abello. She shared how special it was to come together with students from all different backgrounds and levels of dance.

“She doesn’t just love you because you’re a dance student. She loves and cares for you in all aspects of your life,” said Abello. According to Abello, Foster was one person who she could go to with anything and feel nothing but love.

A group of students dancing with their professor.
Photo by Marwin Villegas

Growing through global travel

Even though the professional world of dance can be amazing, it is nothing compared to teaching, Foster said. “I treasure this so much more because I feel this is eternal. It could impact someone for life.” Foster still travels around the world with her daughter for educational dance experiences. The professional world helps Foster grow as a dance mentor so she can still teach her students effectively, but she said she believes dance is so much more than a self-promoting activity.

This past summer Foster said attended New York, London and Italy. She also shared every couple of years, she continues to renew her choreography certification in Paris so that her students receive the best training.

Joy in the studio

Some of Foster’s favorite parts of being the dance teacher at BYUH is seeing confidence grow within students, watching students laugh, build relationships, serve others and find joy. Foster explained dance is a gift, but it’s a greater gift to share it with others, bless people and create families wherever you are.

Unlike pursuing fame for oneself, the love people share with others is everlasting, according to Foster. She explained there are always people who are struggling. Serving and loving others is what brings people everlasting joy, said Foster. According to Foster, one of the purposes of dance is “to spread the pure and unconditional love of Heavenly Father.” She added, “Life is beautiful. No matter what challenges we face in life, with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ we can overcome anything.”