An Intergenerational Legacy of the Humanities and Discipleship

Hi, I’m Bobbe May, and I’m just hitting my year mark of being (and loving my work as) the Associate Director of the BYU Humanities Center. My academic training is not in the humanities, but from day one something about this job just felt right. As I have reflected on why this could be, my mind and heart have been reminded of my grandparents and parents and the intergenerational legacy that they have built. I have come to realize that my predecessors’ experiences in the humanities were a critical part  of helping them create their own lives of Christlike love and service.  While we each measure success differently, my grandparents’ love of the humanities has been a catalyst for creating what was most important to them: a legacy of faith and love that has been instilled in their posterity.

Grandma Bobbe and the Love of Literature

My maiden name is Bobbe Graham. If you’ve ever met a Bobb(i)e or two around BYU campus, there’s a high likelihood that we’re related. If you know THE Bobbe Graham, there’s a 100% chance that she is my grandma. As “the firstborn of her firstborn in the wilderness” (2 Nephi 2:1), I was gifted with her name. And, like Book of Mormon prophet Helaman’s sons, Lehi and Nephi, this gift has become so much more than a personal identifier; it has been a consistent opportunity to “remember [my grandma and her] works… that they were good” (Helaman 5:6).

From the time she was a young girl, Grandma Bobbe loved words—the way they sounded, the interesting ways they could fit together, and especially the emotions they could evoke through narratives. In her biography she wrote the following about a series of literature classes she took while at BYU: “I used to wait and do the reading assignment for my literature class on Saturday afternoon as a sort of reward for having completed all my other homework.”[1] From these classes she grew to love thinking deeply about Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, and she also found greater purpose in the texts of Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni. Although she had read the Book of Mormon for the first time as a 10-year-old, it was after reading it with the skills from her literature classes that she, “felt that [she] really gained a testimony of it.”[1] To this day I will find her doing close readings of scriptures, biographies of church leaders, and a variety of other religious texts. I have no doubt that her training as an undergraduate and graduate student of literature at BYU prepared her to love and be able to teach the scriptures to her posterity.

Grandpa Graham and Communicating with Compassion

Grandpa Graham is also a lover of words, but more importantly, he is a lover of people. He spent his professional life at BYU learning not only languages, but the realities of human experiences as expressed through nuances in language. His capacity to communicate beyond cultural, racial, and even national boundaries, paired with his love of the Savior, has been a life-changing and sometimes life-saving blessing for many to whom he has ministered. For him, the true utility of learning another language has gone far beyond technical proficiency. There have been countless times when I have found Grandpa on the phone, speaking in another language with a friend-of-a-friend-of-one-of-his-kids, doing everything he can to connect them to the community resources and people they need. My Grandpa is such an incredible example to me of ministering in the Savior’s way with the spiritual language proficiency to “mourn with those that mourn; yea and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Because his love of language has always been people-focused, his training in the humanities has been a consecrated gift for the Savior.

Mom and the Capacity to Question

One of the pillars of an education in the humanities is the capacity to think critically. As a French education student, this was an inherent piece of my mom’s BYU experience. Although it would be decades before she applied her degree in a French classroom, the skills she learned about how to ask constructive questions and find responses through the instruction of the Holy Ghost were always a central feature in our home. For some people in my family the gospel is black-and-white, straightforward, and intuitive. For others, the beauty of the gospel has come through the struggle of having questions, seeking answers, and being enlightened by the Spirit. Over the years I have watched my mom give up pride, possessions, and personal comfort in order to “seek diligently out of the best books” (D&C 88:118), “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), “Seek for the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (3 Nephi 13:33), and “seek this Jesus” (Ether 12:41). Through this diligent seeking she has been able to “teach…wisdom” (D&C 88:118) to many who have had their own questions. This, I believe, is a skill that was fostered and nurtured as a piece of her BYU humanities education.

Dad and the Interdisciplinary Humanities

While my dad was a student of engineering and now a professor of education, he grew up in an environment saturated in the humanities, which surely shaped his commitment to understanding and loving all people, which he then instilled in his children. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the breakfast table with him one morning learning about each of the five pillars of Islam and how they paralleled our beliefs. Similarly, some of my most cherished memories are of attending BYU devotional weekly with my dad as an undergraduate student, and now again with my dad and kids as an employee. It doesn’t matter who the speaker is or what their discipline is, my dad is able to find personal relevance and learning from what they share. I have found repeated inspiration, insight, and forward momentum from sharing these experiences with him. His commitment to engaging in the humanities through this interdisciplinary lens has reinforced my testimony of the love the Savior has for all people, “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33).

My Family and the Humanities Center

One year ago, when my husband, two toddlers and I moved back to Utah, we landed ourselves in my grandparents’ basement, just a block away from BYU campus. A month or so later, while in the process of interviewing for multiple on-campus jobs, I mentioned to my grandparents the possibility of working for the BYU Humanities Center. My Grandma’s eyes lit up and she said to me, “Bobbe, we are the humanities. Our family is the humanities.” (No one could have sold me better on this job than that!). Of course, a life immersed in the humanities will not automatically bring a person closer to Christ, but in the case of my family and many others, the humanities have been a valuable guiding light in the journey along the path of discipleship.

So now it’s up to me. I’m the next connecting link in this inter-generational legacy, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that despite my undergraduate degree in business from SVU and my master’s degree in public health from USU, I’ve landed for a season at the BYU Humanities Center. I am learning so much here, and I am confident that the Lord has many more lessons for me to learn—t hrough the people who are mentoring me, the events I am attending, and the skills I am developing. I can only hope that this experience extends the power of the Savior’s hands so much further than my own individual life. Because of the legacy I have benefited from, I know that my experiences in the Humanities Center are intended to impact generations. I am equally confident that this does not only apply to me. Each of us, as we strive to be disciples of Christ who are immersed in the discipline of humanities, can create such a legacy too.

This blog post was written by Bobbe May, Humanities Center Assistant Director.

[1] The Autobiography of Roberta Tanner


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