This complete interview may be heard at the Mormon Women Project podcast.
Eva Witesman is a professor of public management at BYU, and also serves as an advisor for several non-profit organizations. Her path has surprised her at times, as she has sought revelation from God and made deliberate choices to follow the counsel of the Spirit. She is the mother of four living children (including one adopted daughter), and two children who were born still. She and her husband cooperatively parent as they support each other’s personal pursuits. Eva gave a July 2017 BYU devotional called “A Future Only God Could See For You,” which commented on the right each woman has to her own personal revelation regarding her educational or personal path. In this interview, Eva follows up on some of the ideas in her devotional, and talks more about her own career and family journey.
You teach at the BYU Marriot School of Business, but your work extends far beyond your teaching. Can you talk briefly about what else you’re involved in professionally right now?
The specific work that I do, both in the school and outside, really deals with government and non-profit organizations. I do everything from talking about how best to manage those, to volunteering in them myself as a board member of a couple of different non-profit organizations. I sit on a board that deals with evidence-based research at the state level for prevention of drug and alcohol use and of suicide.
Is that the path you expected to go down when you started studying Public Policy and Management in grad school?
It’s funny, because if you look backwards it looks like a really straight line from everything that I did even in high school and college—like it was just sort of one brick building on top of another. But at the time I had no idea where I was headed, or what I was going to end up doing. I certainly didn’t envision myself being a full-time professor, much less at BYU. (I was never a student here.) It felt at the time like a totally disjointed path, or at least not a straight shot. But looking back it all makes sense.
What initially excited you about doing this work? About Public Policy and Management and the analysis that you do for non-profit organizations?
Really it’s the public and non-profit piece that was always sort of inside me somewhere. I was drawn to a lot of arts and a lot of volunteer opportunities when I was in high school. That continued in college when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah. I was really engaged with the Bennion Center there and I did a lot of volunteering with them, and actually helped develop their brand new service learning courses. When it was time to graduate, I was only interested in applying for non-profit or government jobs. I think I applied for just one private sector job, and I really didn’t have a lot of interest in taking it. So I ended up working at a non-profit.
But I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize that that was something I was choosing. That’s just what resonated with me. That’s what I cared about. That’s what was interesting to me, and I didn’t want to do a job that didn’t interest me. I wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t about making someone else money. I wasn’t even about the innovation of the product or the services, which can be really cool. For me it was about service, it was always about service.
Once I ended up working in a non-profit, I fell in love with the work. And not just the specific work of that organization (we were developing educational software), but the idea of working for the public good in general. It sort of chose me. Which sounds super cliché, but that’s exactly what happened.
You had several revelatory moments along your educational path that surprised you. How did you recognize that it was God’s voice directing you in those moments?
It’s been a serious matter of practice over time trying to understand when it’s His voice, and when it’s my voice, or maybe even coming from some place a little more sinister. For me there are a couple of experiences that sort of set apart the Lord’s voice. The first one is the feeling of the Spirit—so it is less about the message and more about the messenger. I experience it the way that it’s described in the scriptures: a burning in the bosom and a clarity in the mind. I feel it in my mind and in my heart and, especially when it’s strong, it’s an overwhelming burning sensation. It’s clear and it’s unmistakable. For the biggest moments in my life, that’s been the key distinguishing factor.
The second piece is the way that those revelatory moments are communicated to me. Often I experience those in the same way that I learn. I’m a very auditory learner, that’s my learning style. And a lot of times I will receive promptings as words or phrases, and they’re very short and not always super easy to interpret. But when I’m feeling the Spirit in that way, and I’m receiving a message in that way, I know that’s something that I need to study out. And sometimes it’s more clear—sometimes it’s just like the one that I talked about in the devotional, “You’re coming back here for a PhD.” I mean it was as clear as that. But there are other times where it’s a little less obvious what I’m supposed to be doing and it takes a little more study and effort and prayer to figure it out.
The more focused I am on the Spirit and being able to feel the Spirit—making sure that I am meaningfully taking the sacrament on a regular basis, reflecting on my own repentance process, choosing things in my life that are conducive to feeling that Spirit strongly—when I’m doing those things it’s more discernable.
Can you share an example of a time when you felt that kind of clarity and peace when an answer came to you?
The ones that I’ve experienced most clearly have dealt either with my educational path, or with my path as a parent, as a mother. And there are big ones and there are small ones.
I was 37 weeks pregnant with my son. We’ve had a lot of challenges with pregnancies in the past. In fact, I carried one son for 34 weeks before I lost him. My doctors were really concerned about me being able to get him all the way to term, especially because we weren’t totally sure what had gone wrong before. So they wanted to go in and surgically birth my child right then. They were basically saying, “You need to make this decision, and we want to have him in three days.” And there were questions about hormone treatments and all kinds of things to make sure his lungs were developed, just a lot of stuff coinciding with that. And my husband and I needed to make a decision that day, within a couple of hours before our doctor was going to leave. We took our other three kiddos over to a friend’s house, changed our clothes and went to the temple.
We didn’t have enough time to do a session, or really any service at all in the temple. So we sat next to each other on a couch in the hallway and prayed. I started to pray, and mid-prayer in my mind, the Spirit filled me and again I experienced it in an auditory way, so it was almost like a voice saying to my mind, “Go have your baby.” I started to argue with the Spirit, “But are his lungs going to be ok? I need to make sure he’s healthy, I don’t know if I can go through…” And it came back, “Just go have your baby.” “Yes, but am I supposed to get the hormone shots and what do I do…” “Just go have your baby.” And that third time I just knew. I knew it was going to be ok. It may be hard in some ways, but it was going to be ok, and I knew what needed to be done.
So I finished my prayer and I turned to my husband who finished his prayer about the same time, and we looked at each other and wordlessly we stood up and we walked out of the temple, got in the car, and went back to the hospital, and told the doctor our decision. We didn’t even need to have a conversation about it because we both just knew. That was about sixteen months ago.
You have four children—is that right?
I do! Well, four here with us. And then two more that we look forward to meeting someday.
You referred to the story of your second daughter in your devotional, about the moment where you and your husband received the inspiration to adopt her. Can you share that story here too?
It’s actually really similar to the story that I just told. My husband had a job offer in Washington DC, and the idea of going and living and working in Washington DC was very attractive to both of us. But I couldn’t get confirmation that that’s really what I was supposed to do. I was preparing to be a stay-at-home mom to my, then, very young eldest daughter. With the salary that he had been offered we would have been living out in the suburbs, and I was just trying to get Heavenly Father’s confirmation that that’s what He wanted for me, and that I was going to be okay. Because frankly the whole thing, as perfect as it seemed, was a bit scary for a variety of reasons. I was looking for that sense of Spirit and that sense of confirmation. This was a very tense time for my husband and me. He was really excited about the job. And I couldn’t give him any good reasons not to take it, other than that I didn’t feel good about it yet.
We had been praying and fasting and we went to the temple together. We were asked to do sealings that day. As we were doing that, I just again had this overwhelming sense of the Spirit, followed by an impression that we needed to adopt.
This was not at all the question we had gone to the temple with. We wanted to know whether or not to take the job. That’s what was causing stress in our lives and our marriage, and that’s what we really needed help with, or so we thought. But this was the answer that came. We were walking out of the building and we were headed toward our car, and Owen asked me, “Did you have any impressions?” And I said, “I did, but it was kind of weird.” And he said, “I had one too, and mine was kind of weird.” And I said, “Ok, I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours.” And he said ok. And I don’t remember which of us said it first, but we both had had the same impression that we needed to adopt. So rather than worrying about the job for the next few weeks, I started figuring out adoption papers. And that was the beginning of the process that led to our adoption of Amelia.
What an amazing story. How did that influence the job decision? Did he end up taking it in the end?
We ended up actually not taking the job. We were both in Master’s programs still at this point, so I was still in classes. At some point after the adoption revelation I was sitting in my very last non-profit management class of the semester and it was being taught by a professor who studies non-profit collaboration. She was sharing some of her research, and seemingly out of nowhere I felt the Spirit overwhelmingly and again, a voice in my mind said, “You’re going to come back here for a PhD.”
We’d just had this experience with our independent revelations about adoption, and so that was now the new model for me of how this was supposed to work. I believed that we would receive our personal revelations in parallel and that we would share them and reconcile them. I told him, “I have had what I feel like is an answer to my prayers, and I know what I’m going to do. And I need you to be as sure about what you’re going to do and then we’re going to figure out how to do both those things that the Lord is asking of us.” He went away and prayed more about all of this and came back to me and said, “You know what? My clearance for this job in DC is still coming through. But in the meantime, I’ve been offered this internship in Finland with the Finnish Literature Society and I’d really like to take it. So, can we go to Finland for the year?” And that totally worked with my plans. I couldn’t apply for my program for another six months, because that’s when the application deadlines were. I was like, “Sure! Let’s go to Finland. That sounds like a great adventure.” I felt totally good about that.
For me, it wasn’t a big revelatory answer. It was just, sure, this fits with what I already know I need to be doing. So we did that, and then later as we reconciled things, we decided indeed to go back to Indiana to start more graduate work. We never did take the job. That was hard for both of us. It was hard for me to give up living in DC, it’s still a goal of mine to do that someday. And for him, it was difficult because this was a dream job opportunity for him. But in the end that wasn’t meant for us, at least at that time.
You have been so bold in following this path. Giving birth to, and adopting, and mothering four children without taking a break from your professional pursuits. I think for a lot of women, it sounds really daunting to balance graduate school with mothering. So can you talk about how you balance those two callings?
The first thing I’ll say is, we did what the Lord was asking, so that’s what made it easy. Not easy. It was never easy. That’s a terrible word to use. But that’s what made it emotionally possible.
We were in school, so it ended up that there were classes he wanted to take that he couldn’t take, and classes that I wanted to take that I couldn’t take because we couldn’t get our schedules to work out. There was a lot of give and take in that. Honestly, being parents and students at the same time was great because we could trade off. It was hard in a lot of ways. We were super exhausted all the time. There’s a lot of stuff we just didn’t do. People hear that we lived in Indiana for close to seven years, and they’re like, “Oh, did you go to basketball games? Did you do all these other things?” No! We didn’t do anything. We did our school and we parented, and that was pretty much it. Our church callings were in there somewhere too.
But just surviving parenting and school was enough for the two of us, just trying to stay sane and get some sleep here and there. It was super hard but it was so fun and it was so good for our partnership.
I had Julia, my eldest, during the spring semester of my first year in the Master’s program. I had set up as much independent schooling as I could do. I took a couple of online classes that semester. I took a research class. I also took a class that only met on Saturdays, but it was all day Saturday and it was on the Indianapolis campus, which is an hour North of where we were in Bloomington. My daughter was really young—I’d just had her right in the middle of that semester—so this is how we made that work. Owen and I would both go up to Indianapolis, and I would sit outside the door of the classroom and nurse Julia, then hand her over to him. He would go wander around campus for about two hours until she started to get fussy again, and then would come back and bring her to me. I would go and sit just outside the door so I could still listen to the lecture. (Had I been a bolder person, I probably would have just brought her in there with me, but at that time I wasn’t ready to own it all quite that thoroughly.) I sat there on the floor, nursing my baby next to the open door to the classroom, and I just have this strong memory of imagining him walking around campus to make this possible for me. He’s not getting any of his studying done on Saturday because he’s just supporting me. And of course I try to do the same for him in the things that he is endeavoring to do.
If you could give one piece of advice to other LDS mothers who feel called to further their education during their childbearing years, what would it be?
If I only get one piece of advice, it’s always going to be the same advice, and that is seek the Lord’s council and follow it, and he will make the world possible for you.
I very much feel the devotional was not my message, but His message, and I felt very humbled to be the messenger. Through that process I had this overwhelming sense of love from Him and empowerment from Him for His daughters. That’s the message. That’s it. That’s what we need to do. We need to seek his council, and trust it, and follow it, and sometimes it is so hard in so many ways. Socially, and emotionally, and physically even, it can be so hard. But He will make possible for us to do what we need to be able to do.
It sounds like your husband was a big part of how it was made possible, that you two have followed a really cooperative model in your parenting and in your marriage. That anecdote was a good demonstration of it, but I’m wondering about today. What does your cooperation look like on a day-to-day basis in your parenting?
My husband actually also finished a PhD and has the opportunity if he so chooses to go into academia, but he’s also had other things that he’s interested in doing. He is an entrepreneur, he runs his own translation business and is one of the most sought after Finnish to English translators in the world. He has his own stuff that he is passionate about and that he’s excited about. He’s also a certified mountain guide, and rock climbing guide, and he loves the outdoors and loves doing all of that and especially working with clients.
What that looks like today is a lot of us talking about it and trying to figure out what works for him, and what works for me, and what isn’t working for him, and what isn’t working for me, and sometimes there’s conflict involved in that—trying to figure out how to make sure each of us is being able to follow the pursuits that we care about and that we find fulfilling while also supporting the other. And then of course, especially while our kids are home and so young, primarily that we are raising them well, spending time with them, having fun with them, guiding them, and doing all those really important things.
I mentioned my husband runs his own business. He works from home. When I’m on campus teaching or meeting with students, I know that he’s at home watching our now 16-month-old kiddo, or handling pick-ups if necessary. We communicate about who’s doing what, and sometimes things fall through the cracks—that’s sort of inevitable. But we try to make sure we’re on top of the important things.
I try to do a fair amount of my work at home, although frankly working at home brings its own challenges. It’s hard enough to be trying to do as many things as we’re doing. It’s even more hard to do them all at exactly the same time, which is what parenting at home and working at home looks like. That’s one of the things we’ve learned over time, is that it’s really best if the parent who’s working is working, and not trying to parent at the same time. Juggling that is a challenge.
How are you and your husband preparing your own daughters to make deliberate life choices in consultation with the Spirit. You talked in your devotional about how we sometimes clip the wings of women and girls in the church, and just in the world, and I want to hear about what you’re doing to make sure that you don’t clip your daughters’ wings.
The first and most important thing is trying to teach them to feel the Spirit themselves so they can be empowered themselves to find God’s direction and to follow it. By our own examples, what we do day in and day out is itself going to be empowering. My parents empowered me in that way. They did what they did, and they didn’t need to tell me to do things or be ambitious. I knew it was acceptable because it’s what they were doing. The example and role model that I had in my home was my mom—she was a top management executive. That’s what she did. She was doing things of worldwide consequence. She’d come home and she’d talk about it, and so I knew that that was an option for me. I never imagined that it wasn’t.
I think just having a home where everybody’s supporting everybody in doing what matters to them of one of our top priorities. My eldest is into all kinds of arts right now. She loves the sciences as well, and does a lot of stuff with science and technology. But her passion right now is in the arts. She sings, and she does photography, and so we just encourage that, and we imagine different career paths that could lead to, and we try to connect her with people who have followed those career paths.
My six-year-old is kind of a naturalist. She’s an outdoorsy person, at this point in her life—she loves bugs, and plants, and rocks, and all those things. So we have rock collections around the house, and we talk about what it would be like to be a geologist, and we’ve connected her with different people who do careers like that. There’s a joke that any of our kids’ friends who come over and stay for dinner will be asked by my husband at some point, “So what are you going to get your Master’s degree in?” That’s just kind of the environment in our home, mostly because that’s what we’ve done.
I think really it’s just about getting in there with the kids and imagining with them, rather than saying, “You can’t, or you shouldn’t, or you oughtn’t do whatever it is.” And sometimes that’s harder in others. I have tended more toward the sciences in my professional and educational life, even though I love the arts and I’m doing things more with that now. So for a while it was hard for me to imagine sending my daughter into an arts career, and I was trying to pull her a different direction. At some point I realized that was not what I needed to be doing. What I needed to be doing was encouraging her in what her passions were, and it’s been so exciting to watch her flourish the more that we’ve done that and encouraged her in what she wants to do. And it may change, or it may stay the same. People do all kinds of different things in their lives. And life is long.
You made this clear in your devotional by talking about the experiences of some of your friends, but I want to give you the opportunity to make it clear here as well. If one of your daughters decided that she didn’t want a professional career, and wanted to be a stay-at-home-mother, would you feel like she is not spreading her wings?
Not at all. Being a mom is the most challenging and fulfilling experience. It’s incredible. I don’t think anyone in any circumstance is limiting themselves if they’re following what the Lord wants for them, and if they’re happy. I think what’s limiting is if Heavenly Father opens doors for you and encourages you to walk through them and you choose not to. And I think that’s true whether that’s being a stay-at-home mom, which is itself a courageous act, or whether it’s taking a job, which is also a courageous act.
Do you feel like you have overcome any wing-clipping in your own life?
This is a funny thing. My parents and my grandparents (with whom I was very close) were so encouraging of my education and of an ultimate professional life. The school environment I was in was also incredibly encouraging and nurturing of any pursuit that I was interested in. I didn’t notice any of that for myself, really possibly ever.
It wasn’t until much, much later in my career that I even had offhand comments that rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve been really lucky in that regard. But now, being a professor I get to make contact with a lot of people, including folks who are mid-career. It’s through their stories that I’ve started to see all the limitation that get put on people, either in their home environments, or their work environments, or their school environments.
I used to teach a math refresher course before the Master’s, we called it Math Camp just for fun, for students to brush up on some of the mathematical concepts they were going to be expected to know. I had several women students come up to me and say, “When I was learning this stuff the first time, my teacher told me I didn’t need to know it because I was a girl, and it wouldn’t matter in my life.” To have a teacher tell you that! And more than once I had women who would literally break down in tears talking to me about this and say, “I didn’t even know I was capable of learning these concepts because of the messages that I have received from the people in my life.”
So that does two things for me. One, it makes me really grateful for the experience I’ve had, and the mentorship that I’ve had, and the belief that people have placed in me. But it also makes me absolutely want to advocate a world in which everyone gets that opportunity and experience the way that I did. I find it incredibly upsetting and frankly a little disturbing that these experiences are so prevalent.
Is there a way that we, in particular as Mormons, do this? Clip the wings of women and girls?
This is a hard question, because there’s a culture and a time period in which the answer is “yes.” I don’t want to label all Mormonism, and certainly not the doctrine as something that is stunting for women. Because I don’t at all feel that way. But I do feel like there’s been a period of time, in the broader society as well, where there’s been a pretty specific view of what a woman’s role is—not just during the childbearing years, but during her whole life. That this is the one and only appropriate path for her. And I see it originating out of some cultural and industrial shifts that happened around the 50’s, and I think that that’s something that the LDS culture has been particularly susceptible to. I think it’s a worldly falsehood, and I think in some ways Mormon women lost their way and became worldly, but not in the way that we usually think of that. Not “worldly” in the way of contributing to the world of work or of society, but rather the opposite. “Worldly” in that we were following a pattern that did not originate from God: the idea that we do not have a voice in society, or oughtn’t. Or that we shouldn’t have a place in the workplace. None of that is consistent with the early LDS church. None of that is consistent with the role and prominence of the Relief Society and other organizations within our current church organization. It’s not consistent with the words of prophets.
It’s kind of a flip, because usually when we talk about women being worldly, it’s this idea that worldly women don’t want to have kids, or do things in male-dominated fields. But I actually think about it very differently. I think that there is this other “worldly” idea, this iconic and stereotypical image of the pearls- and heels-wearing stay-at-home-mom who’s using her brand new appliances in the 50’s to cook dinner for the family. And cooking dinner for the family is great. I’m not a big fan of heels because they hurt my feet and hips. Pearls are lovely. All of that is fine. But this image is not God’s image. I think we adopted this commercial image, and it’s about the same time that TV was happening and becoming prominent in people’s lives. This image was literally transported into people’s homes as an example, and I think our love of our families and our love of our children made us particularly susceptible to that iconic imagery. I think we lost ourselves a little bit.
Thank you for answering a hard question. In your devotional talk, you read a quote President Eyring that I’m going to read here, “Part of the tragedy you must avoid is to discover too late that you missed an opportunity to prepare for a future only God could see for you.” Do you feel like there’s such a thing as “too late”? I’ve heard from women who say they wish they had gotten degrees and pursued careers, but that they hadn’t realized it was a legitimate choice when they were newly married or when they were in school. I’ve heard from other women who regret postponing motherhood, or who regret not serving a mission. Women who feel like they missed the opportunity that President Eyring describes, and have found themselves facing this tragic regret. I want you to answer, if you can, what is her way forward, the woman who faces that?
It’s really key to remember that in the scriptures the Lord says that all things can be consecrated for our good, including the more difficult experiences in our lives. Any mistakes or regrets that we might have, or difficult experiences that we’re dealing with—they don’t have to stay tragic.
Even the regrets and missed opportunities—and I think there is such a thing as opportunities that won’t come again—even those things can be consecrated for our good. I think we can learn from them. I think we can teach other using those. I think we can pick up wherever we are and improve, always.
I don’t think it’s ever too late to get knowledge, certainly not knowledge, especially in the day in age that we live in, where knowledge is freely and widely available. We can stream it straight into our home and learn and wrestle with ideas and talk to other people in real time, so we never have to feel like we’ve missed the opportunity to learn in that way. I don’t even think it’s ever too late to return for a formal education. We see periodically folks in their 80s who are getting their first degree, or getting their Master’s degree, and I think that’s something that can and should be embraced by people who might feel those regrets if it’s right for them now. There may be opportunities that aren’t right, or aren’t right at this time.
I would say the same thing that I said before: get the guidance of Heavenly Father. What does He say about how to make sense of the opportunities that have passed you by? I am one of those who regrets not having served a full-time mission. I had always intended to, and when the time came I found myself unprepared. I chose not to do that, and I regret that decision. And that is gone. I can’t go back and be a young sister missionary again. But I can take that regret and I can allow God to consecrate it for my good. I can let him teach me through that experience so I don’t make that mistake again, so that I can encourage others, using my experience to help invite the Spirit into their lives, so that they can make the decisions that are right for them. I think it’s possible to miss a future that we could have had, but that doesn’t mean that the Lord won’t make something beautiful of the future we have now.
How do you feel that your education or your career have helped you build the kingdom? Have helped you serve the purpose God has for you?
I’m still figuring that out every day. I think about what drew me to some of this and the visions I had as a younger person that through government and non-profit work I was going to make these broad and sweeping societal improvements, and touch so many lives, and I still believe some of that. But what I’ve found more and more as time passes is that the real influence that I have is one-on-one. It’s the individual student who comes into my office with something either related to class, or more often, totally unrelated to class, and the ways we’re able to talk and connect and share and bear our testimonies. That’s the stuff that really matters, and that’s the stuff that impacts the world, and that, I think, is what God wants of all of us.
I don’t think you have to be some professor or some PhD somewhere to have the kind of influence God wants us to have. I think it’s moment to moment, day to day. How do you treat the sales clerk at the grocery store? Do you stop and talk to your friend who it even if you’re going to be late to your meeting? Do you take the phone call from your mom even though you have a million other things to do? I think that’s influence that everyone can have, and that I think is my real calling. And frankly, it’s much harder than writing a research paper or teaching a class, because it requires being emotionally present. It means listening, it means making time, it means all kinds of tiny sacrifices that we don’t really think of or honor on a day-to-day basis. But I think that’s the vision, and it doesn’t require a PhD or a career. It just requires us to be in tune moment to moment, and to seek that guidance and follow it.
At A Glance
Name: Eva Witesman
Location: Springville, Utah
Marital History: Married since 2001 to Owen Witesman
Children: Julia (14), Amelia (9), Sophia (6), William (1), plus two more boys who were born still.
Occupation: Professor, BYU Marriott School of Business
Schools Attended: U of U (Bachelor of University Studies), Indiana University, Bloomington (MPA, PhD)
Favorite Hymn: How Firm a Fountation
Interview Produced by Meredith Marshall Nelson