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Being Bilingual

Being Bilingual

President Reese's vision for the Honors community combines rigorous intellect and genuine discipleship.

Story by Jayci Eyre, photos by Ben White

Honors students and faculty listened raptly as BYU President C. Shane Reese spoke at the Honors Disciple Scholar lecture last Tuesday evening. During his remarks, President Reese shared one of the most difficult decisions of his life: to take a lucrative job with the Philadelphia Eagles, offered by coach Andy Reid himself…or to remain as a stats professor at BYU. Reaching an impasse, President Reese and his wife decided to flip a coin:

“I grabbed the coin that was sitting on the countertop and I flipped it…. Have you ever had those moments in your life where everything went in slow motion? This was one of those moments. I remember watching every rotation of that coin—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—coin hits the ground—clank, clank, clank, clank—I heard every clank of this coin that ever hit—it rolled around. It was like, ‘Can this be any more excruciating?’ It rolled around…and it landed on its side against the wall.”

This was only one of many enthralling stories he shared that night while over 250 attendees were seated at elegant round tables decorated with blue and white splashes of floral arrangements. Students, faculty and members of the President’s and AVP Council enjoyed a catered dinner while they visited. As the program began, Honors student Rachel Olson performed a beautiful vocal arrangement of “Lead Kindly Light/How Great Thou Art,” accompanied and composed by another Honors student, Ben White. Then, following a brief introduction, President Reese rose to speak.

Honors students were thrilled to get to know our new university president better. Claire Birmingham said, “I think my favorite part was the stories that President Reese told…. I love that you could tell—not just in the tone of his voice, but also in the way that he presented it. He was nearly in tears. He talked about how much this [university] meant to him, and [we got] to know a little bit more of the background of how much he gave up to be here.”

How does the story end? The failed coin flip reminded President Reese that the choice was between him, his wife, and the Lord. This was his own test of “skills of inquiry.” He and Wendy went to the temple and “had a beautiful experience where it was made infinitely clear…that the decision for us was to stay at BYU.” Rather than taking the job with the Philadelphia Eagles, President Reese decided to stay. Ever since then, his goal has been to help students achieve their potential.

True to the “Disciple Scholar” theme, President Reese spoke about how vital it is for students to involve a higher power in their educational journey. He emphasized his vision of a “bilingual” community conversant in both rigorous intellect and genuine discipleship. “These are paired aspirations, not competing demands,” he said.

“The Lord cares about your learning. Sometimes we're reluctant to invite Him in,” President Reese said, before sharing several personal experiences including this one:

“Elder Neal A Maxwell said, 'None of us ever fully utilizes the people-opportunities allocated to us within our circles of friendship. You and I may call these intersectings “coincidence.” This word is understandable for mortals to use, but coincidence is not an appropriate word to describe the workings of an omniscient God. He does not do things by "coincidence," but instead by "divine design."

President Reese continued: “I was preparing to submit my first paper for my dissertation; at this point, I was four years into becoming a disciple scholar. I had it all figured out, right? I was looking for a project and Ray Tarpley, this leading expert on whales in Antarctica, invited me to come over and do a consulting project of all things.

Ray invited me to his office and he said, ‘Hey, I've got this problem about bowhead whales. I'm trying to figure out the length of their pregnancy…. I've got this estimation problem that I can't figure out.’ Well, it turns out that around this time, the editor of the Journal of the American Statistical Association—which is the top journal in all statistics—happened to step down very early. This is usually a three-year post. One year into this editor's tenure, he stepped down as the editor.

[In the meantime] I go work on bowhead whales. I think I've got some tools that would help, so we built this nonlinear model and added hierarchical effects (for those of you that are statisticians getting a little geeked out about this, I love you). We came up with a way to estimate the gestation length of bowhead whales. I know you're all dying to know—it's 14 and a half months.

I thought, ‘Oh, this is an interesting paper,’ but it didn't seem like it was transformative—and the Journal of the American Statistical Association (JASA) was way beyond me. I never saw myself as a JASA publisher. I’m not a JASA guy.

…It turns out that when the editor of JASA stepped down, the person that took over happened to be an editor who had done a seminal study on estimating the size of the bowhead whale population in Antarctica. We had not yet heard that the editor had been changed to a guy named Adrian Raftery at the University of Washington, who was this bowhead whale expert? Is this a coincidence? Or is this divine design?

So on a whim, we submitted our paper to JASA. Shortly afterwards, I got an acknowledgment from the editor who said, ‘We received your paper,’ and it was signed, 'Adrian Raftery.’ I remember my heart skipping a beat. And it wasn't because I had this nerdy hero worship of Adrian Raftery, but I knew he’d done research on bowhead whales. He was part of my literature review!

We sent the paper out for review—and this is a story that only those who have published in academic journals can appreciate—but the letter I got in return on my very first paper... was, ‘Dear Dr. Reese,’ (I had to laugh because I wasn't a doctor yet) ’we are pleased to inform you that your article, ‘Estimation of the gestation length of bowhead whales,’ has been tentatively accepted for publication. That just doesn’t happen when you submit your paper for the first time.

Now…I’m not a JASA guy. But I think the Lord cares about what happens to His children. What this made me realize is that the coincidences that some would attribute it to are, in fact, divine design. There are so many people opportunities the Lord has placed in your way. I invite you to pray for eyes to see and ears to hear the ‘people opportunities’ the Lord has placed in your way.”

From laughs to gasps to applause, the audience was fully engaged in President Reese’s stories. Not only was he an enthralling storyteller, but his messages were also insightful to the problems that Honors students and faculty face every day. One student, Riley, said that these stories were “really inspiring. My motivation starts to lag at this time of the year, and it made me excited to be a student again and invest in learning.”

As he urged students to involve God in their education, President Reese also reiterated his focus on BYU students, saying, “The reason I came to BYU was not to spend my career with faculty. It was to be with students.” President Reese practiced what he preached when he remained after the lecture for nearly an hour, shaking hands and talking with the multitude of students one by one. He was the main feature in dozens of BeReals as well.

Andrew McKenzie said, “I love being able to see our president, Shane Reese, and see him as a person. He’s great in his speeches—very entertaining and energetic. He’s not afraid of being human and confessing his mistakes, and he’s very respectful.”

We also learned that the Honors Program holds a special place in President Reese’s heart. In a private conversation during dinner, President Reese shared why he feels the Honors Program is so essential:

“I had a conversation with a guy named Rob Daines. He is now a General Authority Seventy. He was formerly an Associate Dean of Stanford Law School. So this is a distinguished guy. [Elder Daines] came to me when I was the Dean of the College [of Physical and Mathematical Sciences]. And he said, ‘If you ever get in a position where you can make change to this university…you need to re-enthrone the Honors Program as the preeminent program for students who are serious about their education, because it changed my life.’ It makes me realize that we might, as an Honors community, take for granted some of the experiences we're having. I know that everyone thinks it's great, but I think it will be only after we leave the university that we realize what an incredible blessing it’s been in our lives.

It’s a remarkable program, and too often, Honors students don't mention this. Many BYU students don't see themselves in that light. Obviously, everyone in this room has seen that in themselves. And that's an amazing thing. My feeling is that we have more students on this campus who need to see themselves as Honors students because of what a blessing it can be.”

From his powerful stories to personal interactions, Honors students and faculty were blessed in turn by President Reese, and he extended his love to the entire Honors community – including those who were unable to attend. We are truly grateful for the time and message that President Reese shared with us that evening!