Dean of Undergraduate Education speaks on navigating spiritual journeys

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Richard Gill, the dean of Undergraduate Education and the BYU Biology Department chair, gave a devotional counseling students on how to navigate their spiritual journeys on Tuesday, July 9.

Gill has been the dean of Undergraduate Education since 2022. His research interests lie in conservation biology, plant physiological ecology and global change ecology. He also headed the BYU course UNIV 101: BYU Foundations for Student Success.

Gill began his address with an anecdote from the father of one of his graduate students who is involved in the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Polynesian Cultural Center. He taught Gill that Pacific Islanders employ historically accurate navigational approaches when sailing canoes without modern technology. He said they constantly ask themselves two questions both at sunrise and sunset: Where are we? What is our heading?

Gill applied this concept to BYU students’ lives in a spiritual context. “We should daily ask, as a disciple and a scholar, what are the observations and choices that I’m making that tell me where I am and where I’m headed?” Gill said.

The lessons and pieces of advice Gill offered in his address were structured around many accounts of voyaging and discovery he has either learned about or experienced himself throughout his research. While he spoke of voyagers using a variety of resources to discover far-away lands like the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, he mentioned that those stories can inspire students at BYU as well.

“Our task is to discover how we can use the refining experiences, resources and community of BYU to stay on the covenant path, to let God prevail in our lives, to building bridges of understanding that help us to reduce conflict and division in our communities, to live a life of gratitude, become peacemakers, to repent, seek forgiveness, and forgive others and ultimately build a life that’s guided by celestial ideas,” Gill said.

Gill offered a framework for how students can make essential observations in their own journeys of discovery.

“First, observe how the Spirit is drawing you toward particular people or problems,” Gill said. “Second, observe how to develop your unique suite of spiritual strengths so that you might become a better disciple. And third, observe how the hand of God blesses and guides you, and give thanks for those blessings.”

Richard Gill, dean of undergraduate education, delivers a devotional on Tuesday, July 9. Gill spoke on how BYU students can navigate their spiritual journeys. (Courtesy of BYU Photo)

After receiving many scholarly successes and living a busy life of research, deadlines and academia, Gill realized he had to take time to pause and express gratitude for the Savior’s hand in his life.

“Gratitude emerges when we recognize the source of joy in our lives and couple that with the wonder of how God’s hand guides and blesses us,” Gill said.

Gill continued by sharing an experience he had earlier this summer while he was conducting research off the coast of O’ahu, Hawaii. His team was using an underwater robot to survey coral reefs that did not have GPS or Wifi features. After launching the robot in an unfamiliar area, the research team realized the robot had become stuck after clipping the top of an old outcropping of lava flow.

Thankfully, the team had programmed a way for the robot to “safely fail,” according to Gill. The robot was able to push through the rock and resurface so they could recover it. He explained how this experience reminded him that all individuals often face the need for course-correcting in life.

“Our covenantal commitments coupled with the promises of our Savior can reassure us that as we journey into the unknown, we can sense when we are off track, face looming obstacles or how we can fail safely,” Gill said. “Failure, reorienting repentance and setting out again is part of the perfecting process. If we don’t sense a need of course correction, it likely means we aren’t voyaging at the edges of our abilities, our experience or current knowledge.”

Gill added that he and his family wishes they had a “spiritual GPS” to guide them through life. Instead, they must find out how to navigate through their own discernment.

“We sail toward the horizon with faith, a little bit and sometimes a lot of anxiety, and certainly excitement,” Gill said.

To truly become a school in Zion, Gill explained students must take after the examples of voyagers that adopted an attitude of meekness in building a community. He referenced President Jeffrey R. Holland’s BYU address in August 1988, where he asked students to prioritize fusing together gospel perspectives into every discipline.

“If we are to navigate by the ideal of mission-inspired scholarship and covenantal belonging, we will need to be meek enough to see the divine aspects of all disciplines and integrate our religious, general and disciplinary education,” Gill said.

Gill concluded by expressing how a journey always ends with the return. He put this in the context of students’ return to Heavenly Father while on their spiritual journeys.

“It is my prayer that as we look back on our life journey, we see how our discipleship shaped every single choice,” Gill said. “I’m grateful for the reprieve that I’ve been given and hope that we can all journey together, surrounded by wonder and evidence of God’s hand in our journey.”

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