Brigham Young University launched 6,812 new graduates into the world on Thursday morning with charges to make wise choices, preserve that ability for others and create an inclusive Zion.

More than 19,000 people arrived under bright blue skies to pack the Marriott Center for the annual commencement exercises. When outgoing BYU President Kevin Worthen greeted them with a message about exclamation points, they punctuated his tenure with a thunderous, minute-long standing ovation.

The commencement address was given by a member of the BYU Board of Trustees, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU. Deseret News staff writer Samuel Benson was the student commencement speaker.

Elder Christofferson said BYU’s latest graduates “have come of age at a time when agency and accountability are, to say the least, underappreciated.”

He defined agency as the ability to choose and act for oneself and said it has a moral dimension. He said agency used in a manner consistent with moral truths looks like a blessing, while agency used in a way that rejects moral truths looks like a curse.

“When we choose in the light of, and in harmony with, moral truths, we reap redemption, peace, joy and eventually, eternal life,” he said.”

Graduate Kara Hunter, 21, of Boise, Idaho, embraces her parents, Stephanie and Ryan Hunter, after Brigham Young University’s commencement at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 27, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Elder Christofferson called the Allies’ victory in World War II a victory for freedom and moral agency, but he said the following years have seen an increasing number of attempts at “despotic enslavement.”

“Of particular concern are trends and philosophies that deny the reality of individual moral agency and societal conditions that disable the effective exercise of individual agency,” he said. “You are familiar with voices that would classify entire races as hapless victims on the one hand or irredeemable oppressors on the other.”

He issued a charge to graduates to foster the ability to choose in their own lives and in the lives of others.

“My plea to you today is that in the years ahead you will work hard to preserve and wisely exercise your own moral agency, and work equally hard to preserve and provide that same blessing of moral agency to others. Let us all be agents rather than objects,” he said.

Brigham Young University President Kevin J Worthen shares a moment with his wife, Peggy Sealey Worthen, while he speaks at the university’s commencement at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 27, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

President Worthen’s farewell

President Worthen conducted commencement for the ninth and final time. He called graduation a day of exclamation, and the graduates laughed along with his descriptions of the history and use of the exclamation point, especially when he quoted one expert who called it “the selfie of grammar.”

In his final chance to speak as president to a large BYU audience, he asked the graduates to think of three things when they see exclamation points:

  • “Just as adding spaces to the end of words allow the ancient Greeks to turn a cacophony of letters into a comprehensible message, creating sacred spaces in your daily lives will allow you to make sense of the sometimes seemingly chaotic events that swirl around you.”
  • “The desire to enthusiastically express joy and admiration for the accomplishment of others is a divine trait which we should all cultivate. That will help us build bridges of understanding and avoid contention and be peacemakers as President (Russell M.) Nelson has encouraged all of us to do,” referring to a recent General Conference address given by the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • “The need for resilience in your life. ... The exclamation point can remind us that as long as we have faith in Christ, the best is yet to come.”

Elder Christofferson honored Worthen’s leadership as president and said Worthen and his wife, Sister Peggy Worthen, had been exemplary models for BYU students.

“Kevin and Peggy, you have made us proud, and we wish you Godspeed and the Lord’s continuing blessings in the endeavors of the future,” Elder Christofferson said.

Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal has an honorary degree conferred upon him by Brigham Young University President Kevin J Worthen, left, and academic vice president C. Shane Reese during the university’s commencement at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 27, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘Truly excellent integrity’

Brigham Young University further cemented its relationship with the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal of Oxford University by awarding him an honorary doctoral degree.

He said the honorary degree “fits all that I aspire to and hold most valuable. It really fits because this university points us towards our eternal nature and destiny.”

Elder Christofferson said the Rev. Dr. Teal has helped the poor, promoted religious freedom and cultivated goodwill and collaboration among Christian communities.

“Yours is a life well-lived, and your association with Brigham Young University adds a certain brightness to the reputation and stature of our school,” Elder Christofferson said. “We have sought to honor you, but you conspicuously honor us by your character and contributions.”

In 2017, the Rev. Dr. Teal met with Elder Matthew S. Holland, then president of Utah Valley University, while Holland was on sabbatical at Oxford’s Pembroke College, where the reverend is a chaplain and lecturer on theology. The following year, he and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, and the former president of BYU, held a theological discussion at Oxford’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

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In fall 2021, the Rev. Dr. Teal lived in Provo and worked as a visiting scholar at BYU’s Maxwell Institute. He also delivered a BYU forum address.

He embraced his new degree on Thursday, calling graduates “my fellow Cougars” and “fellow graduates” and saying BYU is “our university.”

“I know that whatever else the future may hold, I will know no greater honor than this,” he said. “I am really humbled, and I freely admit my love and gratitude to BYU and the church it serves.”

He echoed Elder Christofferson’s talk, saying that BYU imparts an education of moral virtue characterized by justice and self control.

“BYU models a rare and particular dimension of profound and accepting excellence, which stands back from the conventional attitudes and judgments and explores the truth in all its wonder, beauty, complexity and unity. This university has in its spiritual DNA a commitment to divine excellence, rather than being married to the flavor and prejudices of each passing moment.”

He encouraged graduates to spread the university’s and church’s values.

“Because what you know is less important than what you do with what you know. And what you have already achieved is less important than what you will do with what you have achieved,” he said.

“Truly excellent integrity keeps on exploring and steps out of our comfort zones. Our particular university’s identity is bound up in that quest for continuing integrity.”

Samuel Benson speaks during Brigham Young University’s commencement at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, April 27, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

What the graduates said

The student commencement speaker was Samuel Benson, a Deseret News staff writer who earned a sociology degree.

He told his fellow graduates not to fall prey to imposter syndrome, the feeling that one is a fraud or not enough or not ready. He said they each belonged in this graduation class.

But he also said they are needed in the membership of Zion.

“Zion is the beloved community, the pure in heart,” Benson said. “Its mission as described by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal is this: We need to show that whoever somebody is, whatever their color, creed, background, gender, sexual orientation, you name it, the Lord loves them. ... If we’re serious about this whole idea of building Zion, we need to make room for everyone. Because Zion isn’t Zion without all of us.

“That is essential if we’re to create the community BYU’s statement on belonging describes, a community whose hearts are knit together in love.”

He left his fellow graduates with two questions:

  • How has BYU shaped us in ways that other universities would have not?
  • How can we in turn shape the world in ways that other university graduates cannot?

“We sit together today as graduates, 7,000 strong, with distinct skills and experiences and identities, some that we brought with us to this campus and others that we refined or developed here,” he said. “We need all of them to build Zion. In Zion, there are no imposters and no frauds. We all belong.”

Another student said he was awash in gratitude throughout the commencement exercises. Aydan Huezo, 24, who graduated Thursday with a degree in geography and geospatial intelligence, said he also was inspired by the calls to spirituality and excellence from Elder Christofferson and the Rev. Dr. Teal.

Huezo is the first college graduate in his family and the second in his extended family. He will be commissioned on Saturday as an Air Force security forces officer.

“I loved the idea that excellence comes and grows as we seek divine connection with our Lord,” he said. “That really impacted me. It changed my perspective of what it means to be excellent. It involves more on my part to be spiritually active, to strive for spiritual excellence to inform the rest of my life.”