Kristen Oaks Delivers Keynote Speech at 20th Annual Education Conference

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Kristen Oaks

Southern Virginia University’s 20th annual Education Conference on June 3 and 4 began with a keynote address by Sister Kristen Oaks, who was also joined by her husband, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sister Oaks, who serves on the board of trustees for the Deseret International Foundation and the Primary Children’s Hospital, gave an address titled “Staying Connected: Faith in Every Footstep.”

“I come to you as a learner in process, with a hunger for truth and a desire to build the kingdom of God,” Sister Oaks began. “I bring the perspective of a woman, the heart of a mother, and the experience of a teacher.”

As she progressed through her address, Sister Oaks presented five spiritual connections that would “reinforce and preserve [faith] in the days ahead.” These connections were: first, to “connect with the Savior Jesus Christ and learn and teach as He does”; second, to “connect with the word of God and feast upon the words of eternal life”; third, to “share truth and doctrine and expect miracles”; fourth, to “connect with those you love and inspire them to study and learn”; and fifth, to “connect with Christlike qualities within you — to reach out to the needy, the discouraged and the disenfranchised among us.” Sister Oaks shared brief examples for each connection, such as how daily scripture reading can connect individuals to their family members, or how giving service to refugees can connect one to Christ.

After Sister Oaks finished her address, she invited her husband, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the stand, where he shared a few remarks of his own.

Elder Oaks stated that “patriarchal blessings are personal scripture,” emphasized the importance of family prayer, and shared his testimony of Jesus Christ, testifying to audience members that “it is the destiny of all God’s children to see [Jesus Christ], and to be like him when they see him.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Sister Kristen Oaks

After Elder and Sister Oaks, audience members heard from John Welch, Professor of Law at Brigham Young University, editor of BYU Studies, and a contributing scholar for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Welch’s address was titled “Faithful Study and Studious Faith” and focused on how Gospel knowledge and faith can be enhanced as one seeks to be “taught from on high.” Welch spoke of ten concepts that have helped him and others in their efforts to be “taught from on high,” and included ideas such as: “work as a team,” “be open to more,” “learn from others,” “give the benefit of the doubt” and “a good question is half the answer.”

Bronco Mendenhall

Closing out the first day of the conference, Bronco Mendenhall, former head football coach at Brigham Young University and current head football coach at the University of Virginia, spoke to audience members on “The Power of Purpose,” stating that “when you are a tied to a purpose, you perform better.”

Mendenhall shared stories of his time as head coach at BYU, and talked specifically about how his decision to align his work in football with his own personal purpose to “mentor others as they strive to magnify their divine potential as sons and daughters of God” helped him achieve success in his role as a football coach, a husband, a father and a child of God.

The second day of the conference began with an address from best-selling author and recognized influential management thinker Whitney Johnson. Her talk, titled “Come to Your Senses,” began with a question: “Did you know that 90 percent of women have body image issues or anxiety well into their eighties?” After a long pause, Johnson added that men are similarly concerned with their body image and continued with her address.

Whitney Johnson

“So here we sit, many of us not liking how we look, not liking our bodies,” Johnson said. “What I want to talk to you about … is my journey of learning, by study and by faith, why it is important that we love our bodies.”

Johnson then spent the remainder of her talk explaining how our bodies — through our physical senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch — can be used to increase our spiritual connection to God and the people around us. Praying out loud, singing hymns, kneeling during prayer, and giving service to others are all ways, Johnson mentioned, that our physical senses can enable us to realize the “gloriousness of our lives” and the knowledge that “Heavenly Father loves us truly … and deeply.”

After Whitney Johnson, audience members watched video interviews provided by prominent LDS painters Elspeth Young and her father, Al Young, who were unable to attend the conference in person because of health difficulties. Elspeth Young, in her interview, spoke of the creative process as it related to her relationship with God and with revelation. Al Young highlighted the importance of asking questions with real intent to act on answers and urged audience members to appreciate the good moments in their lives. Both Elspeth Young and Al Young had paintings on display in the Stoddard Center where the conference was held.


Madison Sowell, Provost at Southern Virginia and scholar on the Italian epic tradition from Dante to Tasso, gave a talk titled “Lessons Learned ‘Out of the Best Books.’”

Madison Sowell

Lessons that are learned ‘out of the best books’ have a staying power … that can lead to happier, better, and… more fulfilled lives,” Sowell said.

He then went on to explain three lessons he has learned “out of the best books.” Dante’s “Inferno” taught him that the “spiritually mature person… will accept full responsibility for [his or her] actions.” From Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” Sowell said that he learned, just as Ten Boom did in her encounter with her former jailer, “that sometimes [when] pain is so great, the only way we can forgive someone else is to pray for God to give us His forgiveness.”

“If we will accept personal responsibility for our actions, if we will forgive others so we can be forgiven, and if we will follow the spiritual promptings that come to us, our lives will be fuller, happier, and more enriched,” Sowell said at the end of his address.

Throughout the conference, attendees were also privileged to hear inspiring musical performances from David Fletcher, Eric Hanson, and Cynthia and J. Jonathan Austin and their daughter Gracyn.

Fletcher, a well-known composer, spoke of his desire and career goal to give Latter-day Saints a musical tradition that they could call their own. He then performed some original music he had written to be used in a play about the life of Joseph Smith.

Eric Hanson, an accomplished tenor and an assistant professor of music at Southern Virginia, sang a number of songs, both secular and religious, and spoke briefly about the impact that good music has had on his life and the lives of those around him.

The Austin family, involved with Southern Virginia in various ways from its early years, closed the last session of the conference on Saturday with selections of music from shows such as “Les Miserables,” “Secret Garden,” and others.

Austin Fam
Cynthia and J. Jonathan Austin
Eric Hanson
Eric Hansen