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Embrace surprise, remove contention, Sister Wendy Nelson tells UVU graduates

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



OREM — The largest graduating class in Utah Valley University history should embrace surprises and root contention from their lives, Sister Wendy Nelson told 8,729 graduates on Friday night during the commencement keynote speech on the Orem campus.

"Graduates, if you want to have a wonderful life, a life filled with momentum and optimism and accomplishments, remove contention from your mind and heart, from your conversations and relationships, from your home and from your workplace," Sister Nelson said.

The retired marriage and family therapist acknowledged that removing contention from one's life, relationships and conversations is easier said than done, but insisted it absolutely is possible to remove "destructive contention" from debates over important, substantive topics even with those with whom one disagrees.

Sister Nelson received an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from UVU, the largest public university in the state of Utah with more than 40,000 students, as part of Friday's graduation and commencement exercises.

UVU President Astrid Tuminez presented honorary doctorates to Sister Nelson, former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and autism advocate and philanthropist Melisa Nellesen.

Sister Nelson said contention is fueled by those who hold an idea to be true to the degree that another's idea is wrong. She said those who do that commit "emotional violence," a concept conceived by the late Humberto Maturana.

"When one person says or implies, 'You are wrong and must change your view,' when we force our ideas on others or insist that they must think or believe or vote or behave like we do, that is emotional violence," Sister Nelson said. "And emotional violence is the breeding-ground for contention."

Her speech and honor Friday night come in the wake of some LGBTQ students taking issue with the choice of Sister Nelson as commencement speaker, citing past positions she spoke and wrote about as a therapist. She was greeted warmly by school and public officials in the Noorda Performing Arts Center's concert hall where about 100 people watched in person, while the ceremony was live-streamed to a parking lot where students and faculty participated from their vehicles.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson,
right, pose with others at Utah Valley University’s graduation in
Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church
President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family
therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson, right, pose with others at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sister Nelson, the wife of Church President Russell M. Nelson, is a professor of marriage and family therapy, author and a former nurse and psychologist. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Herbert, an Orem native who served as Utah's governor for 11 years, lieutenant governor for four and on the Utah County Commission for 14 years, received an honorary degree of public service. Earlier Friday, Herbert spoke at Dixie State University's commencement and received an honorary doctorate for significant contributions to education.

"To get two in one day, I'll probably be in the Guinness Book of World Records," quipped Herbert, who turned 74 on Friday. "And to have it on your birthday, I'm as honored as I can be.

Herbert signed the legislation that made Dixie State a full-fledge university and his fingerprints are all over UVU, where he went to school briefly when it was a trade college to learn to be a draftsman, later joined legislative efforts to help UVU move from a college to a university, provide funds for campus infrastructure and offer the first four-year degrees. He also helped bring the events center and baseball park to the campus. Finally, UVU recently launched the Herbert Public Policy Center.

Nellesen, who serves on the national advisory council of the eponymous Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism at UVU as a mother and local resource expert, received an honorary degree in humane letters. Nellesen is married to Keith Nellesen, a co-founder of Vivint. Together, they provided the initial donation for UVU's Cole Nellesen Building. The building is named for their son who has autism and is the home of the autism center. The center's goal is to improve the perception of autism and help the 1 in 58 Utah children with autism reach their potential.

"I feel very humbled by it, and a little surprised," Nellesen said of the honorary degree. "You just do what you do when you have kids with autism, you just go along and help them, so to be recognized like this for that is so unexpected."

Sister Nelson counted her honorary doctorate as a surprise. She also recounted another during her remarks, the 2009 attack on her and her husband, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a home invasion and robbery in Mozambique.

"One robber immediately kicked my husband to the floor," she said. "Another shoved a pistol into my back and started to rock my chair, attempting to pull me from it. He said over and over again, 'You are coming with us. You are coming with us.' The intent of the robbers was to kill my husband and to kidnap me. However, thanks to the actions of some courageous, inspired local friends, our lives were spared."

The attack was a surprise, and so was the peace she felt during it and after, Sister Nelson said.

"When I'm in the midst of a 'terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,' I think to myself, 'Wait a minute, my husband is alive, and I'm not being held hostage. Life is good.'"

She advised the graduates to be willing and prepared to experience surprises and to learn from them.

She also said removing contention from their lives would help them change their lives and the world for the better. Sister Nelson defined contention as extreme forms of discord, strife and antagonism in disagreements with others.

Sister Wendy Nelson receives her honorary degree from
UVU President Astrid Tuminez and UVU board of trustees member Elaine
Dalton at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday,
May 7, 2021.
Sister Wendy Nelson receives her honorary degree from UVU President Astrid Tuminez and UVU board of trustees member Elaine Dalton at Utah Valley University’s graduation in Orem on Friday, May 7, 2021. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"Over thirty years of my professional life were devoted to helping people remove contention from their lives," she said. "From my teaching, clinical practice and clinical research, I can tell you that contention is lethal. It can ruin your physical health, ravage your relationships and play havoc with your productivity, creativity and stamina."

Different viewpoints are welcome and enriching but can be shared passionately while remaining congenial in debate, she said.

"In my experience as an academic, the university is exactly the kind of place where these debates and conversations can and should occur," said Sister Nelson, who spent over a quarter-century as a professor and 30 years as a marriage and family therapist.

She endorsed the diversity of ideas.

"No matter what influences our perspective, multiple perspectives can become a rich seedbed in which creativity, productivity and human dignity can flourish, if we remain respectful, curious and kind," she said, encouraging healthy, healing conversations that seek to understand and see the other's point of view.

She said love, peace and joy are powerful healers. She also noted that Maturana's definition of love is to open space for others.

"When we 'open space' in our lives, and in our hearts and minds, for others, they can arise as who they really are," Sister Nelson said.

It is not necessary to adopt another's ideas, she added, "But when we open our ears and our hearts to their ideas, contention leaves and love enters in. With love present, we may be surprised how easy it is to offer commendations and encouragement, or to apologize for not previously listening or for previously attempting to push or force our ideas."

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Tad Walch

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