August 1, 2015
As he gazed over the BYU-Idaho campus from his office window, Brigham Young University-Idaho President Clark G. Gilbert couldn’t help but think about the thousands of students throughout the world who may never step foot in Rexburg — PathwayConnect students. What were their needs? What were their hopes and aspirations? And how could the university better equip these students for academic, professional, and spiritual achievement?
To more completely understand the answers to his questions, President Gilbert knew he needed to interact with more PathwayConnect students.
He wanted to visit with as many students as possible and also felt it was essential to meet with groups that would reflect the needs and goals of PathwayConnect students, both internationally and within the United States. So, he made arrangements to attend PathwayConnect gatherings in Ogden, Utah, and Mexico City, Mexico, in mid-July.
Visit to Ogden — The Power of Gathering
Because of the size of student enrollment and its proximity to Rexburg, Idaho, Ogden was a great location for President Gilbert to visit. As he pulled into the packed parking lot of the church facility where weekly gatherings were held on July 9, he was astonished at the number of students waiting for the gathering to begin. Throughout the evening, he briefly visited with each of the 17 different learning groups that comprised Ogden’s 298 students.
President Gilbert observed the gatherings with deep interest and discussed with the various groups how PathwayConnect has affected the students’ lives. Many expressed how the gatherings had created close friendships and had knit them together in their learning. For others, the gatherings had instilled a greater sense of confidence and self-worth. President Gilbert shared his experience:
One group I met with was in its last semester of PathwayConnect, and the students were looking back on the whole year. One of the students had created a puzzle with everyone’s name on it. They discussed how each person fit into the puzzle and how they had come together to support each other. A particular student shared how he couldn’t keep going and thought about dropping out. He said, “The whole group rallied around me, and they would not let me fail. I knew if I wasn’t there, I would be letting someone down.” Hearing these stories and having the students share their experiences really took my breath away. The gratitude they have for the program is overwhelming.
President Gilbert left the gatherings in Ogden with uplifted spirits and confidence that PathwayConnect is indeed spiritually and temporally blessing the lives of its students and providing hope for a brighter future.
“More than anything, I felt that the students realized they have the power within them to do great things. There was a hope and a light in their eyes. They were confident that they could continue on with their education and goals,” shared President Gilbert.
Visit to Mexico — The Need for More Educational Options
Less than a week after his visit to Ogden, President Gilbert journeyed to Mexico City.
“Ogden was so inspiring because there are so many students in one location. But Mexico was inspiring because there are so many PathwayConnect sites in one country. To think about more than 70 different sites in one country is remarkable,” said President Gilbert.
The trip was short — less than 24 hours — but President Gilbert walked away with personal insights and inspiration that will be sure to guide program decisions for years to come.
“My visit certainly changed me spiritually. The Lord taught me where He plans to take this program and how it will bless the lives of our students and the Church. It made me ever anxious to make sure we’re doing what the Lord wants and to provide what our students need to have an immediate and lasting benefit in their lives,” said President Gilbert.
Upon arriving in Mexico on July 16, he attended PathwayConnect gatherings at two Mexico City area sites: Tepalcapa and Churubusco.
“At the sites we visited, one group was studying PathwayConnect’s math course, and another group was enrolled in the life skills course. It was so great to watch them. They were in teams, evaluating each other’s work and giving feedback,” said President Gilbert. “It’s the same dynamic throughout the world — gathered together, working together, strengthening each other.
The following day, President Gilbert attended an online meeting with Church employees throughout Mexico. Together they discussed how BYU-Idaho’s Online Degree Program can better align to the needs of international students who are completing PathwayConnect and continuing their education. They also examined which local career paths could be most beneficial to students and how academic offerings can be improved to provide students the marketable skills needed to succeed in these careers.
Shortly after this meeting, President Gilbert had the opportunity to meet with students throughout the area who had completed PathwayConnect and are currently enrolled in the BYU-Idaho Online Degree Program. Here, he had the unique and valuable opportunity to learn from the range of perspectives and struggles faced by students after PathwayConnect. He shared:
A few observations really came out for me in that visit. First, the international growth of PathwayConnect will continue, and it will be a force in the countries where it is growing. It will bless not only the lives of those students, but it will also be a strength and a lift for the Church.
Another observation is that English continues to be very important for our international students. We know, both from this visit and from other research we’ve done, that achieving a minimum level of English proficiency will bless students as they move into the Online Degree Program or into the workforce.
My last observation is that when students finish PathwayConnect, we increasingly want them to know that their first option should be a professional certificate. This is for two reasons. One, certificates can be completed in just five courses, which all count toward a bachelor’s or associate degree. And second, certificates offer opportunities for students to find or improve their employment while they continue pursuing more education.
From a whirlwind of meetings, personal observations, and student visits, President Gilbert certainly had much to ponder during his journey home from Mexico. During his two visits, he had met with countless PathwayConnect and online students — all with unique needs, goals, and backgrounds. He wondered what PathwayConnect and the university could do to better meet these demands and provide an even greater experience to Church members worldwide.
Bridging the Gap from PathwayConnect to BYU-Idaho
This fall semester, PathwayConnect’s enrollment reached a record 14,983 students. And with on-campus, online, and PathwayConnect students combined, BYU-Idaho currently serves more than 43,000 students, making it the largest school in the Church’s education system.
It certainly changed me spiritually because the Lord really taught me where He plans to take this program and how it will bless the lives of our students and the Church. It made me ever anxious to make sure we’re doing what the Lord wants and to provide what students need to have an immediate and lasting benefit in their lives.
With thousands of students enrolled from “Rexburg to Rhode Island to Rome,” there is much the university must consider in providing a meaningful education — including language barriers, differing culture, and various job markets and career options. A change in perspective will be needed moving forward in providing a quality educational experience to each student, no matter their location and culture.
I felt anxious to make sure we’re doing what the Lord wants and to provide what students need.
“It’s a slight change of the way we are looking at things,” said Jon Linford, newly appointed online vice president at BYU-Idaho. “Rather than saying, ‘This is what we offer on campus. We think it will help you,’ we’re now saying, ‘In Mexico, or Albania, or Russia, or Brazil, these are the needs. These are the career opportunities. How can we give the students an educational experience that will help them get these jobs locally?’” continued Linford.
While many needed innovations and changes are on the horizon for PathwayConnect and online-degree students, one thing is for sure — through his professional experience as the former CEO of Deseret Digital Media, his hands-on style of leadership and learning, his bright and inspired advisors, and his mantle as president of BYU-Idaho — President Clark G. Gilbert is equipped and determined to continue moving all of BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway forward.