Russell Henriksen came to BYU in 1979 but left before earning a degree. The excitement of serving an LDS mission, job opportunities and marriage all seemed to make it unrealistic for him to finish school.
Now, after years of being in the construction business, along with a stint in mortgage banking, Henriksen has come back to school and is finally getting his degree in geology. Despite such a sporadic start, Henriksen is renewed with a sense of hope, and a degree, to help shape his future.
“Because of my decision, I now get to do something I love every day and work with minerals,” said Henriksen. “The more that I learn about their properties and structure, the more I’m intrigued. For me, life has been about getting to a point where I can organize myself enough to study it.”
Forming a Passion
Henriksen’s passion for minerals started developing when he was a preschooler.
“I found a really cool rock in my front yard when I was five years old. After a bit of investigation and help from my parents, I found out that it was calcite and if vinegar were added to it, it would fizz,” Henriksen said. “I’ve loved geology ever since.”
Incidentally, one of the first classes he took after getting accepted to BYU as an undergrad 37 years ago was a geology class. However, even that didn’t prove to be enough to keep him grounded in his studies.
Soon after he started taking classes at BYU the first time, Henriksen decided to leave and join the family business, Western States Construction. He was hired on as a construction supervisor and contractor.
Although Henriksen put his studies on hold, going to work did not take him away from BYU. In his position he was asked to help manage aspects of the construction of BYU’s Wilkinson Student Center, Joseph Smith Building, Spencer W. Kimball Tower, N. Eldon Tanner Building and two Missionary Training Center (MTC) buildings.
“Another funny twist to all of this is that after I had finished all of these projects I was called to serve an LDS mission in Ireland,” Henriksen said. “I ended up living, for a few weeks, in one of the MTC buildings I had just helped build. I remember looking up at the very ceilings I had paneled just weeks before and thinking, ‘Oh the irony!’”
Upon returning from his mission, Henriksen went back to what he knew: construction. Henriksen worked on projects including Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Vivint Smart Home Arena (then known as the Delta Center) and Terminal 2 (serving Delta Airlines) at the Salt Lake International Airport.
“I’m glad I was able to get back into work,” Henriksen said. “On the other hand, there have always been aspects of the construction industry that I don’t enjoy and I knew I wanted to do something else.”
That is when tragedy struck. After years of high-profile business, Western States Construction, then renamed Mountain West Building Systems, closed in 1990, leaving Henriksen without a job.
“It was then that I assessed the reality of my situation and founded Aspen Mortgage,” Henriksen said. “It was something different, but it worked for a while so that I could get myself back on my feet.”
Little did Henriksen know that would be 15 years later and, when things finally did get more stable, it was not his degree that Henriksen went back to, it was construction. This time the projects ranged from a hotel in Park City to the Olympic Ski Park to the east block of City Creek Mall.
After years of putting off formal education, Henriksen found the courage to go back to school after reading President Monson’s message in the 2012 January Ensign titled, “Living the Abundant Life.”
“His ABCs for living an abundant life were to me the ABCs of change,” Henriksen said. “It was a tough decision, but I’m much happier now.”
Despite the inherent difficulties of going back to school three decades later and grappling with learning disabilities, Henriksen looks back on both of his BYU experiences with fondness.
“The faculty and staff have gone out of their way to help me succeed,” Henriksen said. “I’ve been dealing with some memory and comprehension problems that have adversely affected my ability to work and learn. Because they cared, great professors like Randy Shurtz and Jeff Macedone took the time to actually sit me down and show me how to succeed.”
To those who are interested in going back to school to learn something new or to start a career change, Henriksen has some straightforward advice.
“Figure out what you’re passionate about and go for it,” he said. “Go as fast and as hard as you can.”
Writer: Beau Jones