Students from Brigham Young University–Hawaii recently embarked on the newly established Church History Travel Study Program. The program is an all-expenses-paid tour that visits dozens of historically significant sites for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With over eight central locations visited across multiple states, the trip is considered a once-in-a-lifetime venture students claim they would never have been able to undergo without acceptance into the program. Visiting these meaningful locations left a lasting impact on the students and faculty involved.
Preparation for the journey began last year when students were invited to apply for the Church History Travel Study Program, a pioneering initiative at BYU–Hawaii. Upon acceptance into the program, students enrolled in specific courses for the Spring 2023 Semester: Religion 390R, History 333, and English 315. Professor Jared Marcum, one of the faculty members accompanying the students, explained how the coursework for the classes was designed to amplify students' experiences on the trip.
Gaining a deeper understanding of the early Latter-day Saints made the visit to the church site all the more special. Marcum shared, "Telling stories of the restoration where it happened adds power to the event. It also deepens one's testimony of the restoration." He added that students were tasked with evaluating the telling of history in the critiquing history course, which encouraged them to contemplate how the stories had been recorded and conveyed. As a culmination of their experiences, students completed an evaluation of one of the sites at the end of the semester. Altogether, the semester courses and the trip itself provided an all-encompassing experience.
After weeks of preparation and anticipation, an expedition group composed of 20 students and three faculty chaperones set out on their pilgrimage. Their first stop? Harmony, Pennsylvania. The company then moved along the upper East Coast, stopping at places like the Smith Family Farm, the Sacred Grove, Hill Cummorah, and other Church sites near or in Palmyra, New York. While visiting these locations, many students shared how they felt more connected to early Latter-day Saints after seeing the places they had read so much about.
Another trip highlight was interacting with the history site volunteers, many of whom went out of their way to accommodate the group. When missionaries in Nauvoo heard about the class coming, they performed little gestures to welcome and help the students. Marcum shares an experience when Illinois Historic Sites President Craig Dalton gave their party a personal tour of the sites. It was a sacred moment for students who got to walk through Carthage Jail after regular tour hours, creating a more reverent environment ideal for deep reflection. Similarly, President Ronald Scott Forsyth, Missouri Historic Sites President, rode in their tour bus and pointed out particular areas, giving his account of the history, making it a unique experience.
Carlo Barredo, a student from the Philippines, was fortunate enough to be chosen for the program after he had first been selected as an alternate. But two weeks before the spring semester began, he was notified someone had dropped out of the program, saying, "For some reason, I was the lucky alternate." However, now looking back on the trip, Barredo knows it wasn't just a coincidence that he went, as he claims the travel program has forever changed his life. When asked about the expedition, he shared, "The program complements the mission of BYUH, to prepare students to be leaders in their families, communities, and chosen fields, and in building the kingdom of God. It has strengthened my faith in the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Students visited numerous historical Church sites, but for Barredo, the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, and Salt Lake City, Utah, were on the top of his list for the most memorable. "I felt so much joy and peace in the Sacred Grove. It felt like heaven," explained Barredo. Then while visiting the Salt Lake City Temple, Temple Square, and the Conference Center, the scripture Matthew 7:20, "Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them," was brought to his mind repeatedly. He explains, "I had an image of how the Lord helped the prophets after Joseph Smith to establish His church...and if we examine the church today, it has been very fruitful." This experience further solidified the truth that there is a living Prophet today.
Another student influenced by the trip is Amelia Tamara, a sophomore from Indonesia. Tamara talks about the journey's impact on her testimony by saying, "Being able to visit these locations has had a significant effect on me. I no longer see them as just places on a map; seeing these sites has helped me better understand the gospel's history, strengthening my testimony." She shares personal highlights from their time in the Sacred Grove, Carthage Jail, and Hannibal, Missouri, explaining, "We learned a lot about Mark Twain in our English 315 class so it was interesting to learn about the importance of the Mississippi River from both a Church and American literature perspective."
Tamara also expanded on the relationships gained and nurtured from this life-changing program. She remarked, "I've gained a new family from this trip," when explaining the unique circumstances surrounding the group. Tamara stated, "Because we had the same classes for an entire semester and then went on a 13-day trip together, I got to know my classmates well. The entire group, including the faculty chaperones, got along great, we've shared extraordinary spiritual experiences."
After the trip, Professors Marcum and Bradshaw held closing interviews with each student. Those conversations solidified that students' testimonies regarding the restoration of the gospel had been strengthened, and questions of doubt some previously had were brought to peace. Marcum stated, "I know the students were deeply grateful to be in places they never thought they would have the chance to see for themselves. Many shared how they felt so much more connected to early Latter-day Saints. It was a powerful occasion."
Students continue to share their experiences with others, including family members in their home countries. One student produced a video blog that he shared with members in Mongolia. Another student returning home to China will speak in her home branch and share her insights from the journey. A student from Thailand has already shared much of his experience with his family and friends from home. The ripple effect of this trip has already impacted generations, touching lives and inspiring faith across borders and cultures.