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BYU President Worthen talks faith, student activism and plans for future after five years in office

Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen seats himself in front of his desk when he has visitors. His guests can see the campus through the treetops visible from his windows, while he sits across from them, with his own view of the pictures of students that line his office.

In his five years as president, it’s the stories of those students, and their desire to reach what he sees as their divine potential, that has bolstered his faith in human beings.

“When people set out to improve themselves so that they can help others, miraculous things happen,” Worthen said.

It’s a job, he said, that has strengthened his own faith.

“I see people who are struggling with things and their life improves,” Worthen said. “Sometimes it doesn’t get any easier, but it gets better for them.”

Worthen’s history with BYU predates his presidency. He’s an alumnus, former professor, previous dean of the law school and was BYU’s advancement vice president, a role he said helped him understand what the job of president would entail.

But the title of “president” isn’t one he expected to hold.

“My intent was not to become an administrator when I came here,” Worthen said.

The administrative positions in the law school rotate through the faculty, who lead for a few years before returning to teaching. Then former BYU President Cecil Samuelson asked Worthen to be a vice president, and Worthen considered his own father, a math teacher who became a principal and eventually an assistant superintendent.

While his father never said it, Worthen thinks his father believed he stepped too far up the career ladder because he was cut off from students. It took several conversations with Samuelson before Worthen agreed to the job.

“I really like teaching, I really like being a professor,” Worthen said. “It is a really good job.”

Then came another opportunity — president. The job came with the potential to magnify students, and included more interaction with them than a vice president had.

Although his father died years before he was offered the job, Worthen believes his father would have encouraged his son to take it, partly because of his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its affiliation with BYU, and because he was a teacher at heart.

Worthen has kept that connection to the classroom by teaching a seminar about integrating values into the study and practice of law, a class he won’t be teaching this year after the J. Reuben Clark Law school changed its curriculums and eliminated the class.

“They fired me, basically,” he joked.

His five years leading BYU haven’t been quiet. The church-owned university came under national scrutiny in 2016 when students said they were investigated by the school’s Honor Code Office after reporting their sexual assaults, and more recently this year, when hundreds of students protested on campus to demand changes to the honor code and how it is enforced.

“This is a different generation, more interested in causes and activism more, and I would say more other-centered in some ways, and I think that’s a good sign,” Worthen said.

He sees a university as a place where students can seek out productive ways to use their positive energy.

“As far as the underlying sense of wanting to be involved in something bigger than themselves, I think is a good sign,” Worthen said.

BYU’s administration is more willing to have those conversations than people think, he said, and that while administration tends to be more distanced from students, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in listening to them.

After five years, he has no plans to leave, but also doesn’t anticipate being president 10 years from now. But being under the church’s Church Educational System, and being led by a board of trustees made up of the religion’s leaders, he understands that when he leaves is not always up to him.

“I think I am at least two to three years removed from where it may be hard to be university president — let me put it this way, where it would be good to have a change,” Worthen said. “You only have so many ideas and so much energy, and it is good to have somebody with fresh eyes come in and say, ‘Lets me look at things a different way.’ I think that is a good thing for most organizations, but certainly for universities.”

Moving into the next school year, which begins as students return to classes on Tuesday, Worthen wants to continue to enhance students’ educational experience, which will include expanding opportunities in experiential learning, BYU Online and making limited enrollment courses less limited. It also includes continuing to advocate for the type of education the religious university provides and its mission statement.

And while he wants his legacy to be about enhancing students, it’ll also include a new element — a new flavor from the BYU Creamery named after him. The flavor, which will be released soon, includes peanut butter ice cream with chocolate swirls and peanut brittle.

But despite his input into the new concoction, he knows it probably won’t dethrone the popular Graham Canyon.

“I don’t have any aspirations to beat that,” he said with a smile.

Festival Latinoamericano bridges generations with dancing, culture

Alicia Hortall Campbell loves watching the older Latinos and Latinas watch cultural performances.

“You can see that happiness in their faces,” she said. “Their experiences are so touching, and that’s one of the rewards for me.”

Hortall Campbell has been the Festival Latinoamericano’s artistic director since the festival began at least 18 years ago. It’s an event that she said showcases local Latino talent, bringing together both children and adults to dance, sing and put on other performances.

The annual festival began Saturday in downtown Provo. It will continue from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and from noon to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the intersection of University Avenue and Center Street. Saturday and Monday’s performances are fast-paced, while things slow down on Sunday with calmer and more inspirational music.

The event includes music, food, rides and vendors.

For Andrea Zurita, who serves on the festival’s executive committee, the festival has always been a family affair. Her father was one of its founders, and she and her sister have been volunteers.

“I grew up with this festival,” she said.

The event continues to grow every year as it adds more features and draws more people. Zurita said the festival seeks to let everyone know they’re welcome and embrace all types of Latino culture. That is partly done through the cultural performers scheduled throughout the weekend.

“Each group isn’t just one country or one type of dance,” Zurita said.

She’s stayed involved with the festival, and said she’s never been to a food booth where she ate something she didn’t love.

Many of the event’s volunteers are college students or members of schools’ Latinos in Action groups. Zurita is excited to see volunteers encourage their friends to attend and become introduced to the festival, just like her family has.

“We’ve seen how it can bring so many people together,” Zurita said.

'They just want to come work': Latino migrant workers filling Utah County jobs left open by labor shortage

Recent data from the state Department of Workforce Services says Utah’s unemployment rate continues to be well below the national average, at 2.8%, compared to 3.7%. In Utah County specifically, that rate drops to 2.6%.

It sounds like good news, but there’s a darker side to a low unemployment rate: labor shortage.

It’s this kind of shortage that leads employers to bring foreign and migrant workers to Utah and Utah County to fill in gaps with skilled workers. Chad Graham, co-founder of immigration law firm Graham Adair, estimates most of the foreign workers coming to Utah are coming from India, followed by China, with Canada and Mexico tied for third place.

Graham Adair specifically focuses on immigration law when it comes to business, helping clients navigate and file government-required paperwork to bring employees to the state on work visas, typically H-1B. H-1B visas allow employers to temporarily employ foreign workers with highly specialized knowledge, with a bachelor’s degree or higher or its equivalent in their specialty.

If a company wants to keep an employee, Graham Adair then helps them through the green card process.

“Depending on where the person’s from, (it) can take from two to 12 years to get,” Graham said. “Essentially, what we have to demonstrate is that the employee is not displacing U.S. workers ... as long as we can demonstrate that, then they can get their green card.”

In the past, Graham said, H-1B visas have never been much of a “hot button” issue, but with the current White House administration, it’s become one — tripling rates of visa denials in the last few years.

“More than half the cases filed are getting these sometimes very significant challenges,” Graham said.

Outside of paperwork, Graham said he thinks people typically want to embrace diversity, but when it comes to losing one’s job or seeing the economy take a turn for the worse, people may turn to incorrect notions about migrant and foreign workers.

“You hear that people say things, like (companies) ... are importing cheap labor to take our jobs, which is really not what’s happening,” he said. “But it’s a perception.”

Bringing workers over legally also requires employers to prove they’re paying a certain salary threshold, the same as what other laborers who are local to the area would receive for the same job.

“I’m not saying that the H-1B visa program can’t be abused,” Graham said, “But most companies ... they’re doing this the right way.”

For farmers in Utah County, without the opportunity to hire migrant agricultural workers through the H-2A visa program, many of their farms would go under. The H-2A visa is specifically for temporary agricultural workers. In order to have visa applications for migrant agricultural workers approved, farmers have to first advertise their job openings in four states.

“In the last five years, I’ve probably had two (local) people apply for work ... There just isn’t the workforce,” said Jake Harward, owner of Harward Farms. “The argument that we’re taking jobs from people, I don’t feel like (is) a valid argument because we try and hire locally.”

Similar to the H-1B visa program, Harward and other farmers have to prove what they’re paying workers to get them approved. Harward pays his workers well above minimum wage, and said the workers he hires are skilled at what they do.

“It’s not like we’re bring these guys here for cheap labor,” Harward said. “(Some of) these guys worked for me 10-plus years. They know the routine ... they’re skilled laborers.”

As part of the program, farmers also have to provide housing for the laborers they hire, who work and live in Utah County for the better part of the year; for Harward Farms, it’s roughly the middle of April to the end of November. Lodgings are inspected by the state, Harward said; they also have to pay for their transportation to the states, but not for their return to their home countries.

Celso Placencia has worked for Harward the past 13 years, leaving his family in Nayarit, Mexico, to work and send money back. He has four children, the youngest of whom is 11 years old. Placencia said he loves working in the fields, and although none of his children so far have followed in his footsteps, he’s very proud of them — the two oldest are a teacher and a civil engineer, respectively, while the two youngest are still in school.

Placencia said he hasn’t dealt with any problems having to do with racism or felt affected by the immigration politics, although he has a lot of sympathy for people who come across the border “without permission,” or without work visas.

“People suffer a lot to get here,” Placencia said in an interview translated from Spanish. “It’s very difficult, and once they get here, there’s no jobs.”

Of course, it’s also difficult to leave one’s wife, children and parents behind for more than half the year to work, he added. But he’s grateful to have the work.

“Things are good because we come here to work hard and send money back to Mexico,” Placencia said.

Outside the H-2A or H-1B bubble, however, according to the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, both immigrants with documentation and without are suffering the consequences of negative attitudes towards immigration.

Alex Guzman, president of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said immigrants bring goods and help to local and state economies, because the vast majority of them come with the intent to provide for their families. But with a crackdown on immigration policy, and deportations in particular, Guzman said it fills immigrants with fear, even causing them to give up full-time work in favor of day-to-day labor.

“Every single day we hear on the news about deportation, about ICE officers looking for some specific people ... but of course when they are looking for someone, people who are at the wrong place at the wrong time are going to be captured and deported as well,” Guzman said. “So of course, rather than put themselves at risk, they hide themselves ... that is affecting jobs.”

As for the conditions at the border involving migrants being detained and parents being separated from their children, although it may be physically far away, Guzman said it affects the Latino community emotionally.

“I am pretty sure that every single one of the (Latino immigrant) population here, the ones that have the fortune and blessing to be here and have the job opportunity or the business opportunity, we feel sometimes a little bit guilty,” he said. “Every single one of us, the immigrants, we know someone who is related to someone who is there (at the border) right now ... at the end of the (day) it’s our own, very own people. Not just because we are Hispanic, but because we are all human.”

Even for Latinos who feel safe remaining in full-time work, Guzman said, the emotions surrounding what is happening at the border to fellow Latinos can harm work productivity, as well as home life.

“If my children are raised with some financial situations, with some immigration stress, of course that is being absorbed by the second generation,” he said. “That is contaminating their souls, their minds, their feelings, their vision, their enthusiasm, their energy.”

Guzman encourages Utahns to hire Latino workers as much as the law will allow them. Similarly, when it comes to H-1B visas, Graham said there’s a misconception that there aren’t enough visas to go around, when that’s simply not the case, he said. Both Guzman and Graham said employers just need to work to understand the systems that will allow them to hire foreign labor, like Harward and other Utah County farmers have done.

“They just want to come work,” Harward said.