December 19, 2016
Students begin to arrive. Slowly at first, then almost all at once. Anxious. A widowed mother of three takes a seat near the back of the room. Excited. A young man, home from his mission only three weeks, spots a seat on the front row. Scared. A father — between jobs and without a degree — pauses just outside the door to whisper a brief prayer. All hopeful.
As a retired couple steps to the front of the room to introduce the student who will lead this week’s discussion, it is clear this is not a typical online program.
A New Model for Online Education
Local weekly gatherings are at the heart of PathwayConnect. Indeed, gathering is what sets the online program apart from any other within or outside the Church Education System. Its power lies in its ability to support students and extend online learning through local student-to-student interaction.
But this program that provides students such a unique learning experience didn’t happen by chance. PathwayConnect’s foundation has been almost 50 years in the making. Inspired Church leaders in higher education at Brigham Young University-Idaho have long looked forward to a day when the blessings of education would be made available to members of the Church throughout the world.
An Inspired Foundation
For hundreds of years, higher education has been primarily available to those with the financial means and ability to travel to a central campus of learning.
These universities empowered generations of the world’s greatest leaders and shaped entire nations — providing so much for so few, yet so little for so many.
In 1971, then-president of Ricks College, Henry B. Eyring, foresaw the need for the campus that would one day become BYU-Idaho to reach beyond the limitations of campus-centric learning.
“We must also find ways for this college to serve young people whose needs are shaped by a great variety of cultures and situations, and who may not be able to come to this campus. We will find direct ways to move the blessing of education … from this campus out into the lives of men and women everywhere.”
PRESIDENT HENRY B. EYRING | Inaugural Response, December 1971
With the advent of the digital age, online courses finally allowed students to study remotely and define their education according to their own needs and schedule. By 2005, then-BYU-Idaho President Kim B. Clark understood the impact that this technological revolution would have on higher education.
“I am convinced that we will find new ways to use information technology to reach more students and to deepen the learning experience of those we touch…. In these experiences students will teach one another in new and powerful ways. The capacity to educate effectively across time and space will allow us to leverage the capacity of the university and reach many more young people.”
PRESIDENT KIM B. CLARK | Inaugural Response, October 2005
As BYU-Idaho launched its online degree program in 2007, this and many other programs still required students to complete courses on campus before taking full advantage of online offerings. Additionally, once enrolled in an online program, the distance from a university campus meant students often found themselves isolated in their studies and struggling without the peer-to-peer interaction so often taken for granted on a university campus.
Students would need something more — a program that could provide off-campus online learning while maintaining high-touch student-to-student interaction. And the solution had already been provided. Just two years before Ricks College would transition to BYU-Idaho in 2000, then-President David A. Bednar identified the Church’s institutes of religion as the focal point and potential model for this educational miracle.
“It will be necessary for us … to serve ever better the thousands of students we have on campus while simultaneously reaching out to bless the lives of tens of thousands of young Latter-day Saints throughout the world…. We must learn to assist and bless institute students and other LDS youth in Rhode Island and Rome while effectively serving our students on campus in Rexburg.”
PRESIDENT DAVID A. BEDNAR | Inaugural Response, February 1998
Looking back to this inspiration, PathwayConnect began to take shape — emulating the model of gathering. Instead of bringing students to a central campus, BYU-Idaho would bring the campus to them. By September 2009, 50 students gathered at three institutes across the United States felt firsthand the power of a university education — without stepping foot on a university campus. After that first weekly gathering, these three groups of PathwayConnect students would meet another 41 times before completing the program. And now, PathwayConnect is offered in hundreds of locations all over the world — at institutes and church meetinghouses — to both institute-aged students and older.
Strength in Gathering
To this day, PathwayConnect has not lost this vision: to provide students a path to higher education, while enjoying the benefits of live interaction with other students — no matter where they live.
“Gathering,” says BYU-Pathway Worldwide Managing Director J.D. Griffith, “is where magic happens. Each Thursday evening when PathwayConnect students come together locally, they gather with others in their area within the familiar surroundings of a church or local institute of religion — it is friendly and comfortable. Here they find the opportunity and structure that will help them relearn or develop new skills as they grow both spiritually and in their ability to shape their own future.”
Wherever PathwayConnect students gather, this familiar experience is felt with resounding constancy. Students quickly find they have a built-in support system to help them stick through the difficult moments of discouragement and self-doubt.
When Jeremy Brown attended his first gathering in Atlanta, Georgia, he says he knew he was on the right path. “There was a gathering of people my age — we were all striving to better our families and better our surroundings and income, and we found this program that enabled us to have a better opportunity for ourselves. We saw the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student, and we tried to come together as a group to balance those out. The gatherings helped us when we felt we couldn’t do it, to be motivated by our surroundings and become more than capable.”
This sense of unity and camaraderie is found across the entire program. Lara Cordon from Guatemala City also recalls the strength she found in her gathering as she learned to believe in herself and reach for her goals. “Meeting new people who were on the same path and with the same challenges I was having helped me to know that if they could overcome those challenges, then I could too. We were like one big family that wanted the same thing, and we all worked together for that goal.”
A Model for the Future
Since PathwayConnect first launched in 2009, more than 60,000 students have attended a gathering at more than 400 locations around the world. They have embarked on a journey that will forever change their lives. They have found more than a path; they have found a family and have become part of this legacy.
While many of these students are the first in their area to join PathwayConnect, even more are following in the footsteps of countless other students who have gone before them. They now stand on their predecessors’ shoulders as they reach for their goals. And as they do, through their achievements and love for each other, they will build up centers of strength where the fruits of their gathering will expand to bless the lives of countless other individuals.
During his inaugural address as president of BYU-Idaho in 2015, Clark G. Gilbert, now president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, announced to students who would never step foot on the university’s campus that the university will “amplify opportunities for local gathering in centers of strength around the world.” With the creation of BYU-Pathway Worldwide in 2017, these opportunities will continue to extend the blessings of higher education and gathering throughout a student’s duration in BYU-Pathway’s online degree programs and for PathwayConnect alumni throughout the world.1
Even though gatherings only last 42 weeks spanning three academic terms, the impact can be felt much longer. And as the program continues to grow, PathwayConnect students will find the same support, camaraderie, and friendships as they in turn contribute to building their center of strength for others to follow.
The power of gathering has only just begun.