Written by Hannah Benson Rodriguez

The 16th annual Southern Virginia University Education Conference, with the theme, “Journey to Higher Ground,” will be held Friday and Saturday, June 1-2, on the university’s campus.

“The insights that (the presenters) have are very illuminating,” said Ron Wickman, who has made the trek from his home in Johnson City, Tenn., to the annual conference five times. “It’s an opportunity to be in a room with 500 other people who have common interests in the gospel and a desire to learn more and to take something away that they can share with the people back home.”

This year’s presenters include Elder John M. Madsen, an emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and Virginia H. Pearce, bestselling author and former member of the Young Women general presidency.

A number of popular speakers and authors also will present, including Heidi S. Swinton, author of “To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson”; Jason F. Wright, New York Times bestselling author of “Christmas Jars”; Brad Wilcox, a popular speaker for youth as well as adults who also has authored several books; and David J. Ridges, a former CES instructor who has authored 22 books on gospel study.

Additionally, the university’s provost, Dr. Madison U. Sowell, and his wife, Dr. Debra H. Sowell, will present at the conference. In addition to their experience in higher education, the Sowells presided over the Italy Milan Mission from 1998 to 2001.

Wickman said that what initially drew him to the conference was the quality of the presenters. When he first arrived on campus, he said that he felt very welcome and attending the conference was an “adventure” for him. Afterward, he began publicizing the conference in his stake, ordering posters and brochures and sharing them with others.

“I loved every minute of it and just felt that more people should take advantage of the conference,” Wickman said. “It’s a way to build a stronger testimony.

Since its formation, the conference has featured presenters from across the country including prominent Latter-day Saint scholars and speakers, such as Dr. Truman G. Madsen, Sheri L. Dew, Ardeth G. Kapp, Dr. Robert L. Millet, James L. Ferrell, Chieko Okazaki and Ann M. Dibb. Additionally, the conference has featured presentations by Southern Virginia faculty, staff and students.

“I love Southern Virginia University and treasure the moments I can participate or engage in any activity there, especially those of a spiritual nature,” said Kathleen Knight, who founded the conference in 1997. “I have been blessed to see much good come from the conferences. Many have expressed their deep feelings to me personally for the conferences and have been so appreciative to have conferences of this caliber close to their homes.”

Like the university that hosts it, the education conference is unique due to its size, benefiting from what those at the university call “the genius of small.” At Southern Virginia, conference attendees not only listen to speeches but often also get the chance to interact with the presenters on a more personal level during the two-day conferences.

“This year’s theme was inspired by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s conference talk, Journey to Higher Ground,'” said Knight. “Elder Wirthlin observed, There is one consistent, never-changing theme of all the prophets: Depart from iniquity and journey to higher ground.’ We will be reminded in this conference that our journey to higher ground must be a journey to Christ.”

This year, keeping with this theme, the conference will feature a guided nature walk in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also, many attendees will take advantage of other area highlights, such as scenic views at the Blue Ridge Parkway, historic sites in nearby Lexington, Va., or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – located an hour away from the university’s campus.

The conference also will feature two musical performances. Southern Virginia’s theater program will present a live production of the musical, “110 in the Shade,” which was nominated for four Tony Awards at its 1963 Broadway premiere and five Tonys for the 2007 revival. The university’s student a cappella group, The Fading Point, which is managed by Justin Smith – a member of the contemporary Christian group “Jericho Road” – also will perform at the conference.

Full biographies of each presenter and registration information are available at  svuconference.com.

Hannah Benson Rodriguez is a communications and marketing assistant at Southern Virginia University. She currently resides in Buena Vista, Va.