ASU president and Latter-day Saint apostle promote education and lifelong learning

Four panel participants sit in armchairs onstage

(From left) ASU Assistant Professor Derrick M. Anderson, President Michael M. Crow, Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Sister Susan Lindsay Gong engage with high school students and parents at Family Education Night. Photo by Shane Baker

“Can I defer my admission and scholarship if I want to serve my mission before college?” “Is college a good investment for somebody who plans on owning a business or being an entrepreneur?”

“Yes, and yes,” were among the many answers to questions asked during Arizona State University's third Family Education Night, hosted by ASU for more than 1,000 Latter-day Saint high school students and their parents in Arizona.

The focus of the event was a conversation between ASU President Michael M. Crow, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Susan Lindsay Gong. Topics ranged from broad concepts like the evolution of education in the 21st century and how education shapes democracy, to the ASU-specific themes including resources for Latter-day Saint students and the university’s continued commitment to and relationship with other faith communities.

Gong spoke of his own education journey and perspective on the importance of education.

“Part of education is to be employable, but part of education is to learn to ask questions that we never would have asked. Part of education is to appreciate things we might have never appreciated. Part of education is to be able to be prepared for a future we can't imagine until we get there,” Gong said.

Prior to his full-time religious service, Gong was a Rhodes Scholar, receiving his doctorate in international relations from Oxford. He worked in the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., and as a special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to China, and later as an assistant to the president at Brigham Young University. 

Susan Lindsay Gong also worked at BYU, where she taught courses in advanced composition and Chinese.

She shared reflections on the broad benefits derived from a university education, saying, “[Y]ou go to universities to learn how to learn in a different way. College helps you refine your analytical skill, your skills of observation, your powers to work with people and your ability to collectively build something. Those are all parts of university experiences. And as the world moves faster and faster and technology changes faster and faster, you really need to learn how to learn and know what tools are really out there. I don't know what a better way to do that than coming to a university.”

Connecting a university education with the success of democratic society, Crow instructed students that “being educated is not a function of your money‑making outcome. It can affect your financial outcome dramatically, because you may have access to jobs that have higher compensation. Being educated is essential, it turns out, among many things, to the success of our democracy. … If you look for the need to be educated, for democracy to be successful, for your family to be as successful and adaptive as possible, as well as for you to have some opportunity to acquire resources, I think education is a really, really important part of that overall process.”

In response to Crow’s remark, Gerrit Gong quoted Thomas Jefferson’s famous line that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Continuing, he said: “Ignorant and free means, we can't be a knowledge economy ignorant and free. More than ever, we're going to need people who can contribute in homes and families and communities and in countries by knowledge generation, which makes possible all of the things that are happening around the world.”

As part of its charter, ASU assumes responsibility for the health of the communities it serves, including communities of faith. When asked why ASU had an interest in faith communities, Crow responded that “the public university has the duty and the responsibility to be true to the design of the Constitution and the design of our society around the aspiration of the Constitution. … So freedom of religion would mean that any public university that creates an environment in which the exercise of a person's individual religious beliefs is somehow pressed down or diminished or not recognized or not empowered or not enabled is an institution not living up to the actual design of our republic. … Religious freedom is not your right to denigrate and block another person's freedom expression. It's your willingness and openness to allow another person to be religiously expressive and focused on their own development.”

Prior to the Family Education Night at ASU Gammage, the Gongs visited with 250 ASU students at the church’s Tempe Institute of Religion, greeting each student individually. The institute provides religious courses, activities and worship services for a robust Latter-day Saint community, nearly 1,400 students in Tempe and nearly 400 students at another institute located on ASU’s Polytechnic campus. Commenting on the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, Gerrit Gong noted that the Samaritan placed the wounded traveler on his beast and took him to the inn, where he could be healed. Gong asked, “Where is the inn today? The institute.” He then encouraged students to ensure that they were connected to God, in order that they could reach out and provide kindness and healing to the wounded who would be placed in their paths.

During their visit to ASU, the Gongs also toured the Biodesign Institute, where they met with ASU students that had been awarded the Beus Family Scholarship. Following this gathering, the Gongs met with another group of ASU students who had been awarded the Pioneer Heritage Scholarship. Concerning the Gongs’ visit, Pioneer Heritage Scholar and ASU senior Charly McCown, a computational mathematical services major, said, “Elder Gong’s interest in us as students impressed me the most, as he spent his time asking us questions about our backgrounds, experiences and goals. I could tell that he cared deeply about us, and they left me full of love and gratitude.” 

The Family Education Night was moderated by Derrick M. Anderson, an ASU assistant professor and adviser to President Crow. Another question posed by Anderson noted that both ASU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taken steps to expand learning outside the classroom and into the home. Anderson then asked how these decisions would impact the community. 

In response, Gerrit Gong said, “Learning has never been limited to a classroom, just as learning the gospel has never intended to be limited to church. … Beyond the classroom, there are so many other opportunities to learn all the different things that we need to. … [W]e don't see ourselves only learning in a classroom. And we're not only learning in traditional ways, but we're learning in all kinds of new ways as well.”

Crow built on Gong’s response, saying, “You want to embrace this concept that you are a learning creature, and this learning process is going to allow you to become a comprehensive person. You're going to be able to raise your family better. You're going to be able to help the democracy to be more successful. You're going to help our country be more successful. And that's what the product of your learning is about.”

As the evening came to a close, Susan Lindsay Gong invited those present to make a difference in the world: “[Y]ou can choose what problem you want to solve, and you can choose the education that will allow you to solve that problem. And that will happen if you are diligent and disciplined and have an open heart. So great things are going to happen as you make those good decisions. This is a wonderful time to be seeking an education.”

In the face of potential barriers that may prevent someone from educational attainment, Gerrit Gong provided encouragement to those present that they can succeed.

“[L]earning is for us. Some people say, I'm not really cut out for more education, or I can't afford it, or something. … [What] we hope you'll really have a sense of is that you can do it. It would be really wonderful to have every … learner say whatever my strengths, whatever my talents, whatever my circumstances or background, I can do this. This is something I can do. … We hope you feel this is something you can do, that it will be a blessing to you for all of your life, for your family, for those around you. Because if you feel that, God will help you, he really will. And you'll be able to do things you never imagined before.”

Much to the delight of those in attendance, he noted that given ASU’s mascot, “if there's one place in a world where saints can be Devils and Devils can be saints, it’s here.”