It was winter semester 1995, and Hillary Hatt Nielsen (BS ’97) had just gone with her husband-to-be, Jared S. Nielsen (BA’97), to a lecture by Elder Henry B. Eyring. “He talked convincingly [about] how science and religion mesh together, and he was just filled with the Spirit of the Lord,” she recalls. “We were not surprised when he was called to be an apostle just a short time later.” Nielsen, then a biology student, recalls that “his powerful witness was among the most foundational moments of my undergraduate experience, and it shaped my science studies and my faith.”
BYU has long been an anchor in the life of Nielsen, who began her service this year as BYU Alumni president. Raised in Orem, her family bowled at BYU, bought Nutella at the Bookstore (the only place that sold it then), and held season basketball tickets.
By Study and By Faith
But more significant, as she said in her speech to BYU graduates in April, was being raised in a household that thanked God for BYU’s influence. Nielsen’s father, from rural Idaho, had worked doggedly in high school to save money for BYU and a mission—only to lose it all when the local savings and loan went under. His redoubled efforts to recoup his losses led him to feel immense gratitude when he was finally able to attend BYU. And “he cultivated that love of the Y in us,” says Nielsen.
Nielsen graduated in molecular biology in just three years, but she loved religious study too. A class in family history grew into a passion. After graduating, Hillary worked in genetics and scientific research in various labs, from the University of Utah to Abbott Laboratories in Illinois, while Jared attended medical school.
Nielsen says her BYU education prepared her well: “I knew the science cold, but I also knew the underlying spirituality of it.” That understanding gave her the confidence to respond thoughtfully to colleagues who asked her how a scientist could be religious.
Connected for Good
For the last 15 years while raising their two sons, Nielsen has also served BYU and her community in Waukee, Iowa, where Jared works as a vitreoretinal surgeon. Whether welcoming and housing Afghan refugees or organizing blood drives, she’s not a person to do a job by halves. Now chosen to oversee BYU Alumni for two years, she takes seriously her charge to keep 500,000 living grads connected to BYU and its mission.
Nielsen knows the value of connection with BYU. She recalls learning that the president of a local medical school, which had previously accepted many BYU students, felt her institution should admit fewer of them, despite their high qualifications. Nielsen says, “We made friends with her and invited her to see BYU’s Living Legends with her two kids, including a meet-and-greet with the dancers. Her kids loved it, and she was amazed at the spirit the dancers brought. It touched her, and her attitude towards BYU shifted.”
Ever engaged in the good work of BYU, Nielsen is actually shy by nature. “As I focus on my role, keeping alumni ‘Connected for Good,’ the Spirit helps me overcome that shyness,” she says. “I’ll befriend anyone, especially those who feel vulnerable. That connection is more than being connected back to BYU; ultimately, it’s keeping people tethered to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”