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Veteran presenters describe challenges and rewards of BYU Education Week

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In a large crowd, all those who attend have different needs. If ‘I’ teach, I’ll fail. If ‘the Spirit’ is the teacher, I will succeed. – David A. Christensen

It’s challenging and stressful to prepare for, but ultimately it’s rewarding and results in tender experiences.

That’s how a handful of longtime presenters summarized their experience of teaching at BYU Campus Education Week.

“When they contact me in January and ask if I want to participate, I feel very gung ho about it. But when it’s upon us, I think, ‘Did I make a mistake in committing to make these presentations?’” said Richard O. Cowan, who has consistently taught classes at the event since the early 1960s. “But you realize people are taking their vacations or making sacrifices to be there. I think there is a special energy that we feel to participate in Education Week, not just from the content, but from the spirit of the occasion and the people you associate with. It’s very fulfilling. I keep coming back because I enjoy it.”

Diane Bills Prince, a presenter of 20 years, agrees.

“Education Week is such a wonderful opportunity for all of us to grow and develop in our personal lives,” she said. “I have grown over the years as I have spent countless hours in preparation and prayer. … It is a week of edification and an overwhelming outpouring of the Spirit.”

This year there are 190 returning faculty members and 40 new presenters teaching more than 1,000 classes to about 19,000 participants at Education Week.

To become a presenter, an individual must undergo a screening process that includes filling out an online application, submitting a video of the person giving a presentation and getting clearance from the individual’s local priesthood leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The person’s professional background, qualifications and communication skills are also evaluated. The applicant must also submit a proposed class title and outline one year in advance, said Bruce Payne, administrator of the annual event.

“Will the topic draw interest?” Payne said. “We need classes that will fill seats because if not, it puts demand on other classes.”

Any given year, Payne said, 120-150 applicants will submit applications and 25-40 new presenters will be selected. Presenters are also evaluated on a year-by-year basis.

“The hardest part of the job,” Payne said, “Is not inviting somebody back that we feel good about. But we need to keep the program fresh and we only have so many spots.”

It’s rare for a presenter to consistently teach for two or three decades, but it has been done, Payne said.

The Deseret News recently interviewed six veteran presenters — three men and three women — regarding their overall experience with Education Week. They include David A. Christensen and Terrance D. Olson, who have each presented for 30 years; Cowan, upwards of 50 years; Bills, 20 years; Merrilee A. Boyak, 16 years; and Carrie Wrigley, 13 years.

What is the biggest challenge you face in preparing for Education Week?

Cowan, a Brigham Young University professor of LDS Church history and doctrine, is blind. As a result, feeling prepared is the biggest challenge.

“I have a unique situation. Point and click doesn’t work for me, so I need to be a little more prepared with logistics,” Cowan said.

The biggest challenge for Christensen is “teaching with the Spirit,” he said.

“In a large crowd, all those who attend have different needs. If ‘I’ teach, I’ll fail. If ‘the Spirit’ is the teacher, I will succeed,” said Christensen, a retired seminary and institute instructor.

Borrowing the words of the late LDS Church President Harold B Lee, Christensen said another challenge is teaching so well that students do not misunderstand.

“At BYU Education Week, we have to be very careful of what we say, and even in the way we say it.”

Generating new topics and titles after 20 years is a tough task for Prince.

“However, I feel up to the challenge because I love it so much.”

For Boyack, it’s having enough time to attend other classes.

“I adore going to the classes, but it’s really hard when you teach because you don’t have time,” Boyack said.

What is the highlight of Education Week for you as a presenter?

Among the highlights, each presenter relished the chance to meet people both young and old.

“It touches my heart. You can feel the love of the Saints sitting before you. They want you to succeed. We can become one with each other and the Lord,” Christensen said. “Most of all I look forward to my wife’s reaction to my teaching. Her evaluation counts.”

For Olson, another highlight is finding out if what he teaches his regular students at BYU is realistic or not.

“Education Week becomes a laboratory for me to measure whether my ideas are realistic and applicable to people in the midst of raising families, serving in the church, and seeking to do right in their professional and personal lives,” Olson said. “I’m less interested in presenting facts than I am in helping people answer the questions, ‘What is the meaning of this?’ ‘How is this practical?’

Describe your overall experience with Education Week. What keeps you coming back?

Spiritual experiences keep Prince and other presenters coming back.

“I have had some of the sweetest spiritual experiences as I have prepared and taught at Education Week,” she said. “I have also felt that this is a way I can thank the Lord for his outpouring of blessings in my life.”

Olson returns because “if he had nothing else to learn, then he would have nothing else to teach.”

“I learn from the audience responsiveness, from their questions, and from my preparation to deliver something meaningful,” Olson said. “I’ve discovered that if the material is meaningful to me, there is a great chance it will be meaningful to them.”

Christensen keeps coming back because Education Week lifts his spirit and makes him want to be a better man, husband, father and teacher.

How has presenting at Education Week blessed your life and strengthened your faith in the gospel?

Boyack said Education Week first impacted her life when she was a student at BYU in 1976. On a day when she was feeling homesick and depressed, she happened by a class and sat in the back for the final 15-20 minutes. As she listened her heart was touched by the speaker’s message.

“It was almost as if a conduit from heaven showed down on me. It changed my life so profoundly, that lesson I learned from that man in a few minutes literally affected the rest of my life,” Boyack said. “Speaking became a passion for me because I wanted to help other people the way I was helped in that class. That’s why I started presenting. To be able to experience things in my life and then turn around and share them with other people helps me grow and improve, it helps others, we all learn together and it’s a terrific growth experience that has blessed me for many years.”

Olson agrees.

“What we become when we teach is a reminder that we are to be tools and seek to be an influence for good,” he said. “I have both rejoiced with and mourned with Education Week attenders over the years. Both are enriching. To be true to what I am teaching is no small blessing either.”

Please share a life lesson you have gained as result of your experience as a presenter at Education Week?

Education Week has helped Prince to be more open to the promptings of the Spirit. At times she feels impressed to share something that is not in her outline.

“Invariably, someone comes up after and tells me it was exactly what they needed,” she said.

One lesson came to Boyack right before she stood to present in a jam-packed room.

“The Spirit whispered, ‘It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.’ That changed the way I look at what I do,” Boyack said. “I am merely a conduit for light, knowledge and truth that comes to me. We are all still learning.

Christensen shared a similar thought.

“I am there to serve, not be served. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of presentations and those who greet you,” Christensen said. “We are all servants of the Lord and depend on him. I know who I am and I know who I am not. It’s a great lesson to learn.”

Olson shared several lessons. Even though some in the audience will think you speak for the leaders of the LDS Church, remember that you do not. Teaching is a way of inviting people to see possibilities and find enhanced and renewed meaning in daily life. The variety of meanings people come to understand are broader and richer than my narrow ideas. Be ever willing to receive what a given person or audience teaches you.

“Teaching at Education Week is an offering more than it is a performance,” Olson said. “The message should be such that the audience always finds the messages are more important than the messenger.”

If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear, Wrigley said.

“Be willing to work as hard as you can to prepare for whatever situation life may deal you, but in that moment, let go of preconceived ideas and let God guide you in what needs to happen,” she said.

Cowan said everybody has something to contribute.

“All of us have something to offer and should take advantage of opportunities to do so, whether in church callings or in the community,” he said. “We may feel inadequate, but with the help of the Lord and effort on our part, we can come up with something meaningful to contribute that people will appreciate. If we will step out of our comfort zone and serve others, we will feel rewarded and excited for doing what might have seemed impossible before we did it.”

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