Like so many institutions of higher education across the world, Brigham Young University will see a semester unlike any other this fall. It will be unique in many ways. But unlike this past winter semester when the pandemic first hit, we have much more information on how to not only respond to these unusual circumstances, but to emerge better positioned to achieve our distinctive mission.

In March we saw an incredible effort take place on our campus as we moved to remote coursework. I am grateful to our students, faculty and staff who adapted almost overnight to a new and different way of learning, teaching and managing the university. The swift action allowed us to both survive and improve as a university.

‘No choice but to change’: Perspectives on the future of K-12, higher education amid COVID-19

I am grateful for the lessons we as administrators, leaders and teachers have learned over the past five months to help us get to where we are today. For example, we have learned that maintaining a digital community while being physically separated — although not without its challenges — can make a difference in the emotional well-being of everyone involved. We have been reminded that our students, faculty and staff are extremely resilient and innovative. And we have come to understand that everyone has to be committed to taking the right steps for us to be effective and safe.

Adapting to the changing conditions has allowed us to move forward, as we have learned the importance and benefits of being adaptable. It has been a remarkable experience to see everyone at BYU work so hard for such a meaningful purpose.

As we have met, discussed, planned, prayed, worried and worked to find a way to bring our BYU community back to Provo, we have been reminded of the strength that comes from gathering and what it means to come together as a university.

At the beginning of each new academic year, it is my privilege to speak to the entire campus from the Marriott Center. In my opening address just last year, before the life-changing effects of the global pandemic, I spoke on the importance of gathering and how it is essential to the kind of education we aspire to provide at BYU. I began with the premise that the educational endeavor in which we are engaged is greatly enhanced by our gathering, quoting Joseph Smith, who observed that, “One of the principal objects then, of our coming together, is to obtain the advantages of education; and in order to do this, compact society is absolutely necessary.”

I reminded students that a “BYU education does not focus solely on the acquisition of information, as important as that critical task is to the educational process. 

“As our mission statement makes clear, a BYU education focuses more broadly on ‘the full realization of human potential.’ And that potential is much greater than most people understand. … Our goal is to provide an education that is ‘(1) spiritually strengthening, (2) intellectually enlarging and (3) character building, leading to (4) lifelong learning and service.’ It is that kind of holistic education that I believe is greatly enhanced or made fully possible only by gathering together in one location.”

Safely returning to campus is important for our community, but it will be challenging. For us to succeed in this new and different environment, we all have to play our part, making adjustments that, while perhaps are personally inconvenient, are necessary for the good of the whole. The BYU mission statement says that all relationships within the BYU community should reflect “a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.” That love for each other is what can make this year’s BYU experience a remarkable period of growth for each member of our university community. We look forward to safely gathering soon.

Kevin J Worthen is the president of Brigham Young University.