Jeremiah Tolento remembers what it feels like to be completely alone.
It was after midnight in 2017 when he stepped outside into the brisk southern California night air, his step-father and mother had just kicked him out after he told them he’d received a call to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I was the only member of the church in my family. They weren’t talking to me, I had nowhere to go, and I had no money,” Tolento explains.
His bishop took him in for a short time, and then drove him from California to the Provo Missionary Training Center where Tolento spent the next several weeks learning Portuguese before embarking on his mission to Lisbon, Portugal.
Among the unfamiliar, yet breathtaking, vistas of Lisbon, Tolento began to discover his divine worth. “It was cool to work and see people’s lives change because of Jesus Christ, and my own life was changing too,” he says.
Upon returning home, Tolento’s family grew more hospitable but remained less than enthusiastic about his religious devotion. Tolento traveled back to Utah where he lived with friends and enrolled in classes at the BYU Salt Lake Center to improve his grades. His plan was to apply to a few universities and go wherever he was accepted. To his surprise, a BYU acceptance email landed in his email inbox.
“BYU changed my life. I love it here. I love being with people who are living these standards because they choose to. I’ve learned that truth encompasses everything, and the Lord can teach me what I don’t know."
“BYU changed my life,” he says. “I love it here. I love being with people who are living these standards because they choose to. I’ve learned that truth encompasses everything, and the Lord can teach me what I don’t know. He’s led and guided me.”
For Tolento, a first-generation college student, the BYU experience was deeper than a world-class education. It was a place that helped him realize his full divine potential – a caring community of faith and friends unlike he’d ever experienced before. “BYU’s community helped me do what I needed to do and become who I needed to become,” he said.
Last year, with the help of a Global Opportunity Scholarship from the BYU Kennedy Center, Tolento returned to Portugal for his first academic study abroad experience. This time, he returned speaking fluent Portuguese and studied the nation’s healthcare systems – an invaluable experience for a pre-med student who will take the MCAT exam after graduation.
“The different hospitals and healthcare systems I learned about, though they operate differently, each have the same goal of helping God’s children. It was inspiring to see the love that motivates these professionals,” he recalled.
At BYU, Tolento found a place of refuge and acceptance. Now, with his sights set on graduation and a degree in Portuguese in tow, he’s eager to extend love, help, and healing in his own way. He’s focused on applying to medical school and hopes to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders. Of course, that will all have to wait until after a summer marriage to his sweetheart.
“Enter to learn and to serve,” says Tolento, smiling as he ponders the impact of his BYU experience. “All the opportunities I’ve had have come as I’ve been serving people – from the BYU Student Alumni Association or the Portuguese Honor Society, I’ve found opportunities as I’ve been helping others.”