During his 1921 apostolic tour around the world, Elder David O. McKay of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles saw elementary school students in Lā‘ie from different backgrounds—native Hawaiian, mainland American, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino—all learning together. Moved by what he saw, he envisioned a Church college in Lā‘ie, a town he recognized as “the educational center and the spiritual center of our people in these Islands.” Shortly after becoming President of the Church, McKay set the project in motion. At the groundbreaking ceremony in 1955, he spoke of the school’s future contributions. “From this school, I’ll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally.”
As previously done in the Pacific, the school’s construction was taken up by building missionaries. Classes started in 1955 in temporary buildings; the completed campus was dedicated in 1958. In 1974 the Church College of Hawaii was renamed Brigham Young University–Hawaii. Generations of students from Asia and the Pacific have taken part in fulfilling McKay’s vision of spreading both temporal and spiritual learning. At one point, for example, all 12 stake presidents in Tonga were BYU–Hawaii graduates.
Over the years, BYU–Hawaii has retained its core mission. “May this school savor so strongly and so sweetly of Zion,” said John S. Tanner, the university’s president in 2015, “that it creates an appetite in its graduates to build Zion everywhere.” In the 2016–2017 school year, 25 percent of the student body came from Asia, 15 percent from the Pacific, and 10 percent from Hawai‘i.