Unsure he would be able to go to college, BYUH Winter 2023 graduation student speaker John Lidang says he found purpose through his trials
Growing up in Isabela, Philippines, John Kenneth Lidang said he and his family lived by simple means. He said, “I’ve seen how my parents struggled. I didn't think I was going to college.” In 2010, he remembered his dad cutting his hair because at a shop it would’ve cost $7, and they couldn’t afford it. “That was the first time I ever thought, ‘If we can't afford a $7 haircut, how can I go to college?’” Later his parents separated, his mother worked three jobss, and Lidang said he helped care for his sister.
However, 13 years later, Lidang has been asked to speak at the Winter 2023 Commencement ceremony and is graduating summa cum laude with a degree in political science and a certificate in legal studies.
Lidang said his mother had only met one summa cum laude in her life. “That's what pushed me to do it. [I told her] the next person I want you to meet that is a summa cum laude is your own son,” he said.
Despite having sometimes felt unseen, he said the moment he was asked to speak at graduation, he realized, “It’s not so much to show the world that I graduated, [but] … maybe it's for others too. …
“We don't just graduate for ourselves. We graduate for our family, our people, our country, our dreams, especially our God. This whole thing was not just us. It is everyone’s. This accomplishment is for those who were rejected coming to BYU–Hawaii, … for the mom in Guatemala paying her tithing for us to afford this and the two Primary children in the Philippines who would give two pesos for us to go to school. It's for them. It's not just for us.”
When asked to speak at graduation, he said, “It felt like I was hugged by my Heavenly Father.”
Doing hard things is good
After serving his mission in Hawaii, taking classes from BYU in Provo and getting his associate’s from BYU-Idaho, Lidang said he felt a pull telling him to return to Hawaii. He said of the first time being back on the island it “felt like heaven and earth met. … It reminded me of home, but most importantly, there was just a certain spirit that was here.”
With gratitude for the challenge of coming to the university, he said, “Moving to America is first, but moving to BYU–Hawaii for my schooling has been the second hardest thing I’ve done. You start over again. It's hard if you don't know anybody. You don't have resources.” He said of attending all the BYUs, BYUH “is my favorite because it was hard. It helped me to learn that I can do hard things. Hard is good.”
Lidang compared the experience of leaving heaven to coming to Earth to learn to students' journeys coming to BYUH to learn. He said, “For us on Earth, heaven is home. We had to leave home to learn. So in a way, what we are doing here at BYUH is the plan of salvation in action.” He added because the Lord has a plan for “our entire mortality,” He has a “plan for our education.”
Lidang said he recognizes God has the power to do anything. However, he continued, “One thing that He maybe chooses not to give us is experiences. [God] says, ‘I can tell you how to get here, but I can't walk the walk for you.’ And that is what we’re doing.”
Staying connected to God
Most often, Lidang said, keeping connected to God and the Savior despite people’s busy lives is difficult. He said, “In the moments where I really felt I needed to call God, … I always make time to walk to the temple.” He said for him making that walk is a physical symbol of him coming to the Lord. Recognizing the strength it can take to make the walk at times, he said, “Sometimes it was those teary walks. They were rainy walks. Those were painful walks.”
The days he said he felt unworthy or struggled to want to walk past or to the temple grounds, those walks were a “physical reminder God is saying, ‘There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be afraid about. There is literally a physical manifestation of me that I am here, that I am looking over the school. I am looking over the mountains. I am looking over the water. I see you.’”
Lidang said making these walks, despite the challenge at times, taught him his priorities as he had to drop “anything and everything, mentally, physically, emotionally. … When I do, I am going to the Lord.”
With the pull to return to the island, Lidang said one of the aspects of the school that drew him in was the individuality that exists within the campus and community. He said, “BYUH teaches you a lot about individuality. … What caught me was that everybody was different. There was a sense of individual identity for everybody who was here.”
Lidang compared his small close-knit town in the Philippines to Laie where “everybody knew everybody.” Your name and your town became your identity, he said, as everyone was “all just one.” But when he came to BYUH, he said he realized everyone was representing something more. “Each student here represents not only themselves, [but] they represent a family [and] most importantly they represent a country. … That individuality is what brought me to learn about people's stories. That's what drew me here.”
Despite struggling to learn English in his youth, Lidang said he now can converse in 14 languages and is fluent in English, Tagalog, Ilocano, French, American Sign Language, Spanish and German. He said when he got to BYUH he told himself, “I want to talk to [someone from] every single flag that's represented [in the Flag Circle]. I’m going to hear a story from every single one, because I want to put a face behind each flag.” He said with pride, “The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been able to do that.”
After going on a solo trip to Europe this previous year, Lidang said the trip taught him “learning can be anywhere. It can be from anything and that the actual teacher is our Heavenly Father.” Despite being in a completely unknown place, surrounded by unknown people and languages, he said the feeling was still the same as he had felt when learning from people and places in the past. “I think there is only one testament of that. Heavenly Father came on that trip with me.”
Comparatively he continued, “Heavenly Father came here with us [to BYUH]. Different places, different people, same identity is what I got from that trip. It's the same feeling I felt here at BYUH, the same feeling I felt when I moved to America. … For me, that's been my cornerstone. The spirit verifies things.”
Appreciating the importance of the diverse university and connection of students, Lidang said, “I’m graduating with a degree, but I think most importantly, … I’m leaving with people’s experiences. I think that's the greatest education I can ever take with me.” He said it is these experiences, that people learn from other people, that will teach them and stick with them. “Those are the lessons you won't have a hard time finding an application for, because every single person has a story [and we] can benefit from that.”
Lidangs efforts in reaching out and learning from others at BYUH also manifested in his work as a lead mentor for the Political Science Department to help provide support to struggling students. Troy Smith, professor in the Faculty of Business & Government and mentor to Lidang, said Lidang “had some very unique approaches and interactions in ways of reaching people that has just been phenomenal.”
Smith said Lidang “interacts very well” with a variety of people and has taken it on as a personal “objective to help others, to lift them and bring them along.” He explained Lidang is very good at reading people and “orientating himself to reach them, their interest, their needs and concerns.”
Attesting to his ability to reach others, Valerie Agustin, a sophomore from the Philippines double majoring in political science and finance, and Lidang’s coworker, said, “[Lidang] can easily connect with people. He [will] meet a mentee once, and it feels like they have been together for so long. It’s just magic I think.” She explained Lidang is not just a mentor, but he is a friend to everyone around him, always treating everyone as an equal.
Agustin said, “He knows when you’re stressed even when you don’t speak and will try to uplift you. … [When you're stressed,] he will never leave you.”
Smith said he admires Lidang’s “positive mental attitude” and expressed his joy in being able to watch Lidang interact with others. He said, “[He has a] positive mental energy and [directs] that towards people. It’s both for him but for others to lift them up.”
Lidang said working as a mentor taught him that “the solutions to our problems or the hardships that we yearn to fix are found while we are serving others.” He said this is what gave his education substance. “It’s more than just books and essays. It’s about connection, purpose and helping those who need your help, and in turn, they help others.”
In his time working with others and making an effort to learn from them, he said those are the connections that will not fade, that last and have meaning. So, Lidang said despite also having a scholastic degree in political science, he said, “That’s what I’m getting my degree in - people, people, people.”
Augustin said, “Everything he does is always connected to his concern for others and how he can be a help to them, even in the future.” Smith said within the department, Lidang “leavens everything. He raises the quality, [and] brings the humor.
To push through the difficulties of college life and his studies, Lidang said finding and having a purpose is what moved him forward, and the message he always strived to share with those he mentored.
Lidang said to find his purpose in his studies, he always remembered his parents' sacrifice. He recalled a story of a time his mother received a 25 cent tip, and after only living in America for a year, she did not realize how little that was. “She came home, and she was crying at the dinner table” out of gratitude. He said he encouraged her to keep that tip as a reminder for the future. “That was huge for us.” He said he looks back at that moment with amazement that he is now able to pay thousands of dollars a semester for tuition.
“The hard thing about a purpose is we can’t see it. It's hard to believe sometimes that it is there, but it is the same way as faith,” Lidang explained. “I feel like purpose is this tangible, organic thing that we always work to cultivate. It’s like a plant. If we stay away from the purpose, like if we step away and not water it for a day or two, then it starts to wilt. For me that's what really kept me going.”
Agustin said finding your own purpose is one of the lessons she has learned from her time working with Lidang and being his friend. She said, “The first question he asked me is why I am taking political science? … One thing I've learned is if you have purpose, and that's your foundation, you'll try harder.” She said this was always a main point he tried to share with his mentees as well, asking them, “What inspires you to do things?”
Accomplishments and goals
In his time at BYUH, Lidang said he has accomplished many things and been a part of several projects to push him towards his future goals of working in international law.
As a student Lidang has interned at the Utah Attorney General's Office and Government Relations for the Church. He also took first and second place at the Undergraduate Research Conference for his research on “the effects of religiosity on violent crimes,” and he was a finalist in the Empower Your Dreams business competition. In addition, he said he has won several awards within mock trials and in his graduating program and served as a vice president of the Pi Sigma Alpha Honor Society.
With all his accomplishments, Lidang said he plans to continue to dream big and go into international relations and foreign diplomacy, with the goal of someday being a judge or president for the International Court of Justice for the United Nations.
He explained, “Originally, I wanted to be in an international field where I get to empower people saying, ‘If I can do this, so can you. Don't be scared.’” But connecting it to education in a religious institution, he said, “It gives me a glimpse of how the atonement of Jesus Christ really works” as government to him is the “language of heaven.”
He explained the words they use in court and in preparing for heaven are the same. “The trials we go through in life, the Savior being our advocate or a lawyer, we’ve got witnesses that attest to what’s true and what’s not, and I think most importantly testimony.” He continued, “I get to understand how heaven works a little more. It gives me a view of how the Lord’s forgiveness works. It teaches me about second chances, what is worth fighting for and giving me an eye of what the Savior is willing to do.”
After graduating, Lidang will be attending BYU Jerusalem in the spring and preparing to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) after.
Words of wisdom
The first time Lidang said his family was together in America, it had only been about a month, and they went to McDonald's. He said a hamburger was $1, but in the Philippines at the time, that amount of money (50 pesos) could feed a family. He said, “We got a burger. We split it in four, one for my mom, dad, my sister and one for me.”
So when the university leaders asked him to give a speech and were questioning their decision, Lidang said, “It is similar to people’s experiences, and if I can make it from there to here, then why can't you?” He encouraged further, “People are going to make fun of what you sound like [and] look at you differently, but you just keep walking. Because at the end of the road, you'll realize it's up to you, the Lord and those who really, really believe in you. We owe it to those who believe in us to keep going.”
Lidang said his advice to current students is, “Sometimes it feels like there is no use for what you are accomplishing. When it gets really hard, it's easy to forget your purpose. But that's all a part of this. The process of education is not meant to be an easy walk, because if it was, then everybody would do it.” He encouraged students to write down their experiences, and if something is hard, “Do it.”
As for his fellow graduates, he encouraged them to “always remember that education is a gift and the Lord needs us to use that. Knowledge is a stewardship and an endowment. It’s for us but also for others.” He explained there are needs in the world to be filled and each graduate will fill these needs in different places with their gifts and what they learned. However, he reminded them to ask on the journey, “Where am I needed, and how do I do this for Heavenly Father?’”
Lidang stressed the importance of not forgetting the gift of gratitude. “When all the celebrations are over, I want them to take a moment to thank [others but] recognize that this was also your hard work. Express thanks. Let's never forget and always remember why we are doing it. Close this with dignity.”