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The Transformative Power of Service

Professor Marie Orton focuses on the power of gifts, grace, and service during her 2023 Britsch Lecture.

Professor Marie Orton posing in front of a bookshelf.
Photo by David John Arnett

Sometimes our best attempts at service don’t always work out. Professor Marie Orton (Italian Language and Culture) once tried to serve a colleague by bringing him a loaf of bread, only for her to find out that he had Celiac disease. Despite the occasional failure, she has striven to integrate service into her life, and when she received the 2023 Britsch Lecture on Citizenship, she used it as a “chance to reflect on the many forms of service that have blessed [her] life and celebrate Todd [Britsch’s] legacy and his ethos of service.” In her lecture, titled “Grace, Gifts, and Service,” she shared lessons she has learned about how service enriches our lives and helps us understand grace.

Orton explained that we can receive the gift of grace when we serve because “service facilitates change.” Throughout her time as an educator, Orton has had the opportunity to see how sharing her knowledge and skills has changed the lives of her students, and in seeing that change, she herself has experienced a transformation. She said, “Anytime we interact with someone else, anytime our words serve to commiserate, to reassure, to express friendship, or to uplift, we participate in something potentially transformative.”

In Orton’s first year at Truman State, she taught an Italian language and literature class to 25 junior high students at a program called the Joseph Baldwin Academy. After the program ended, the director called Orton into his office to read her a letter from a student’s parent. The letter explained, in great detail, everything the student learned. When Orton learned the name of the student, she was shocked, because Orton had been under the impression that the student did not care about class. However, Orton’s effort to create a positive experience helped this student grow and develop in their knowledge of Italian, even if it did not seem outwardly apparent. This experience helped Orton completely transform her perspective on the value and impact of her hard work.

Sometimes the act of service works more like a gift than an exchange, where the blessings you receive from serving others is greater than what thanks or gratitude could repay. Orton recognized that the effort that teachers and professors put into their work can go unacknowledged, but she says, “It’s a tremendous gift to work with people during their decades of decision, to empower them with words, and even more hopefully, with faith, hope, and charity.” Just because an act of service seems unappreciated does not mean it’s unimportant. In King Benjamin’s address in Mosiah, he discusses how service should not be transactional because “when ye are in the service of your fellow being, ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). Every single one of us is indebted to God, which we cannot pay back, so service allows us to become more like God and show gratitude for the gift of the Atonement.

At the conclusion of her lecture, Orton emphasized that one of the aims of a BYU education is forging a dedication to lifelong learning and service. As King Benjamin believed, learning to serve allows us to better understand the divine. Orton echoed these sentiments, saying, “I’m convinced that our value as a university is dependent upon our capacity to live together in charity.”

Watch Orton’s full lecture here.