LAIE, Hawaii — Several years ago, John S. Tanner and his wife, Susan W. Tanner, stood in front of a statue on the campus of Brigham Young University-Hawaii and pondered a question.
The statue, titled "Pioneers in the Pacific," depicts early apostle George Q. Cannon and Hawaiian native Jonathan Napela, who worked together to translate the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian and establish The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the islands.
Cannon is Susan Tanner's second great-grandfather. Her grandfather also served a mission in Hawaii. John Tanner's grandfather had been a missionary in Samoa and assisted with the translation of the Book of Mormon into Samoan. They had also worked alongside previous BYU-Hawaii presidents and administrators over the years. Because of these familial and professional ties, the couple felt a special connection to Polynesia, they said.
"We wondered at the time, 'Do you think our lives will ever intersect with BYU-Hawaii or the islands?'" John Tanner said.
Their lives seemed to go in the opposite direction of BYU-Hawaii for the next few years with different opportunities and assignments. Then, in 2015, they were invited to the office of President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Tanner was called to be the 10th president of BYU-Hawaii. Although he was shocked, in his mind's eye, Tanner could see the Pacific Ocean, and he reflected on the memory of standing next to the Cannon-Napela statue years earlier.
"Our hearts immediately turned," John Tanner said. "I remember my heart leapt over the ocean to Hawaii."
It's been one year since the Tanners arrived on the BYU-Hawaii campus. During that time, they've embraced President David O. McKay's prophetic vision for the university. They've delighted in teaching and serving students from around the globe and have worked to increase enrollment. The Tanners discussed these and other aspects of their BYU-Hawaii experience in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
Service at 65
In March 2015, it seemed things were slowing down for the Tanners.
John Tanner had enjoyed a productive career as an English professor and administrator at Brigham Young University. The couple had presided over the Brazil São Paulo South Mission. Susan Tanner had served as the Young Women general president, and John Tanner was about one year into his calling as first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency. They also sought more time with their five children and nearly 20 grandchildren.
Then President Eyring's secretary called to schedule a meeting. Susan Tanner was out of town with a daughter who had recently had a baby, so the couple had a few days to ponder the purpose of the meeting.
Finally, the day arrived and President Eyring extended the call to serve as president of BYU-Hawaii. The Tanners were stunned, even as President Eyring showed them a document signed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.
"We had no idea. It was quite a surprise," President Tanner said. "I thought I had done the service the church and the Lord had wanted me to do."
President Eyring bore his testimony of the calling, which comforted the Tanners, then counseled them to seek revelation. Pointing upward, President Eyring said: "Go to heaven and find out what the Lord wants."
At a time when others his age were retiring, President Tanner found it ironic that his first day at BYU-Hawaii, July 27, 2015, was also his 65th birthday, he said.
Aligning with President McKay's vision
Inside President Tanner's office is a small statue of LDS Church President David O. McKay, who at the school's groundbreaking in 1955 proclaimed that "from this school will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally."
President McKay came to Hawaii as part of a world tour in 1921 and witnessed a flag-raising ceremony involving a small group of students from countries along the Pacific Rim.
"When he saw this little group of students here, he saw that the gospel could unite cultures (and) preserve the diversity of those cultures while uniting them in brotherhood. That vision was in his heart from the time he was a young apostle until he became president of the church," President Tanner said. "David O. McKay was the first president of the church who emphasized the church as an international church, and this is very much an international school."
Since coming to BYU-Hawaii, the Tanners have studied and been inspired by the words of President McKay and other university leaders and are doing their best to build upon their legacy, President Tanner said.
"I feel like we embraced this prophetic mission just by reading about it before we came," Sister Tanner said. "Since we've been here, it has been so thrilling to watch it unfolding under our eyes."
'Leaven in the lump'
President McKay once used the New Testament metaphor "leaven in the lump" to describe BYU-Hawaii students. As they graduate and go forth, these relatively few alumni will help the gospel to grow in their families, communities, businesses and nations around the world, Sister Tanner said.
For example, when church leaders organized the first two stakes in Cambodia in 2014, the new stake leadership consisted of graduates from BYU-Hawaii. When two LDS wards in Mongolia were divided to create four, the new bishops were BYU-Hawaii alumni, Sister Tanner said.
She illustrated the metaphor when she baked more than 200 small loaves of bread for their inauguration breakfast, President Tanner said.
For Sister Tanner, one highlight of the first year involved teaching a "Daughters of My Kingdom" course to female students from the Philippines, Mongolia, mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Colombia and various locations in the United States, she said.
"I felt like I got to know their hearts and stories," Sister Tanner said. "We had some marvelous experiences toward the end where I felt the eyes of their understanding were opened and they were prepared to go back to those places."
The Tanners hope students have a transformative experience at BYU-Hawaii, President Tanner said.
"Our desire here is to have an education that is not just about learning information, but it’s about becoming something and transformation," he said. "We are seeing people grow up and become better, more deeply committed lifelong learners, leaders and builders."
'Pivoting to the Pacific'
BYU-Hawaii administrators would like to give more students a unique educational experience. One of the school's top goals is to increase enrollment from 2,700 to about 3,200, with the Pacific Rim as the target growth area, President Tanner said.
"We feel that has been our assigned mission by the brethren, to focus on this part of the world," President Tanner said. "I've called it 'Pivoting to the Pacific Rim.'"
To help generate the necessary funds for 500 more students is the main reason the school eliminated NCAA athletics in 2014, President Tanner said in an October 2015 statement (for more information on this, visit newsroom.byuh.edu).
International students are not able to apply for Pell Grants or financial aid from the U.S. government. At BYU-Hawaii, their education is largely possible thanks to the I-Work program and the school's partnership with the Polynesian Cultural Center. In many cases, these foreign students are the first college student in their family and come at great sacrifice to the family, Sister Tanner said.
She told about a school organization that recently raised the money to award 10 students $300 to help cover the cost of books. This allowed one student to purchase the books for his final four classes and another to remain at the school, Sister Tanner said.
"In another place, $300 wouldn’t seem like so much," she said. "But to these students, you would have thought we’d given them $3,000."
Teaching English to eligible student candidates through programs and online resources is another top focus for the university. There is also a need to upgrade some campus facilities, President Tanner said.
"It's (all) an expensive proposition, so for anybody who wants to contribute, we really depend on that," he said. "We are grateful for that support."
For information on how to donate to BYU-Hawaii, visit LDSPhilanthropies.org.
'Lead, Kindly Light'1 comment on this story
Both President and Sister Tanner have made personal goals to teach and continue to be involved with the students. Moving forward, they find guidance and inspiration in the words of hymn No. 97, "Lead, Kindly Light," President Tanner said.
Their favorite line reads: "Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me."
"I believe in the principle that often the Lord reveals his will step by step as we move forward with hope and faith," President Tanner said. "We feel we have been blessed so far, but that is still ongoing."
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