Read Time: 17 minutes
It’s a brisk, sunny day on Temple Square, and groups of sister missionaries stride along the Main Street Plaza. Many pause as they pass President Bonnie Cordon, ’87, and Sister Michelle Craig, ’87; a few say hello. But one group of four missionaries is bolder. “We love you!” one calls to Cordon, Young Women general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Craig, her first counselor.
“We love you more!” Cordon calls back.
But the missionaries are having none of it. “We love you most!” another shouts, before the two groups, laughing, pass one another, the sisters heading south to their work and Cordon and Craig, arm in arm, heading north to theirs.
In their loving greeting, those young women salute leaders they admire. But perhaps they also see their own possibilities in the two women, just as Cordon and Craig see their younger selves in those missionaries.
Cordon and Craig have taken disparate journeys to arrive at the helm of an organization that guides more than 500,000 young women worldwide. But their paths have points of connection: accompanying their parents as they served as mission leaders, experiencing uncertainty and loneliness, and studying at the BYU David O. McKay School of Education.
And, above all, this: setting their feet each day on the path God lays out for them.
“It’s the consistency of allowing the Lord to be in our lives—just choosing Him,” Cordon says.
“The Lord takes ordinary people and gives them extraordinary opportunities,” Craig adds. “We give Him our hearts and trust that He will make up the difference.”
Craig grew up in Provo, the oldest of seven children of BYU professor Robert Daines and his wife, Janet. “I grew up close to BYU and remember going to the Creamery and the swimming pools at Helaman Halls and Deseret Towers. I loved BYU. I enjoyed school. I babysat a lot. It was a pretty idyllic childhood.”
Cordon grew up in Idaho, the third of seven children of orthodontist and later Elder Harold Hillam and his wife, Carol. Wanting his children to learn how to work, Elder Hillam had built the family home on 80 acres outside Idaho Falls. “It wasn’t a huge farm, but we thought it was huge!” Cordon says. “Everyone had responsibilities, and mine was the chickens. And I hated it!”
Cordon, a gymnast until she got too tall and still an exercise lover, remembers trekking across fields to the chicken coops, gathering eggs, and taking them to sell to teachers at school. “They called me the chicken girl, or the egg girl, depending on the day.”
Craig describes herself as “quiet”; Cordon jokes, “I probably should have been more quiet.” Both were drawn to teaching.
“I loved school, I loved reading, I loved children, and I just thought, ‘I want to be a teacher,’” Craig says. “When I got my patriarchal blessing, some things were mentioned that sealed the deal.”
And Cordon? Her mom told her to do it. “She always told me, ‘You need to be a teacher.’ She was an educator. She put my father through school by teaching.”
Cordon planned to study education despite lacking Craig’s love of reading. “That’s one thing I love about Sister Craig,” she says. “For me, if I’m in a position in which I need inspiration, I get out and start running, and ideas come.”
“I wish I liked to run!” Craig laughs.
Before they started college, Bonnie Hillam and Michelle Daines accompanied their parents “into the field” when their parents were called to lead missions: the Daineses in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Hillams in Lisbon, Portugal. Both women remember struggling with loneliness as teenagers.
“I was lonely even before we moved [to Pennsylvania],” says Craig, who would later serve a mission herself in the Dominican Republic. “Once I ran the mile really fast in a PE class, and I thought maybe I could be on the track team, but I was too scared to try out. And then my family moved. I felt so lonely. I started BYU while my family was still in Pennsylvania; that was such a blessing.”
In Portugal, Cordon, too, felt isolated: “I had never had to make new friends because I lived in the same place all my life. I moved to a spot in which I didn’t know anybody, . . . and I couldn’t go to the parties they had. I had to create a space in which people could come to me and in which we could be friends.”
Through extraordinary circumstances, she began a full-time mission in Portugal at age 17—just before she would have graduated from high school. “I thought, ‘In 18 months I’ll come back and figure out how to graduate,’” Cordon says. “But the Missionary Training Center president, Joe J. Christensen, brought me in and said, ‘I understand you haven’t graduated from high school yet.’ I was mortified! But he said, ‘I can help you.’ I realized that what mattered to me mattered to the Lord, because I matter to the Lord.
“On preparation days, I would go to the testing center and test out of courses. I graduated from Orem High School, and I’ve never set foot in Orem High School. They never invite me to their reunions!”
Cordon loved her mission, from training as a 17-year-old with a 27-year-old companion to serving in Portugal with her own sister, Linda, as her companion. But loneliness returned when she began attending BYU.
“I was so used to having a companion—a buddy—and now I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “I walked around thinking, ‘I’m lonely, surrounded by thousands of people.’ At least when I was lonely in Portugal, I was with my family. I remember getting on the bus and taking it to the mall, walking around the stores, and getting back on the bus to return to my apartment. It was such a lonely feeling.”
Both women worked doggedly to change. “I made a real, intentional shift once I started college,” Craig says. “My younger brother told me to learn the names of three people a day. That became a goal for me. I saw a flyer for a dorm leadership council for Deseret Towers. I applied, and I got it. BYU was a place to grow, find communities, take opportunities, and make new friends.”
Cordon took a similar approach: “I remembered my time in Portugal, and I thought, ‘Everybody needs a friend.’ I decided I would be the friend. That changed things for me. I’d see someone in class by themself and go sit by them. The Lord has His hand in everyone’s life. I think—I hope—I carry those pieces of that time with me now.”
Cordon and Craig loved their major, elementary education—they graduated the same year—though Craig was scared to perform in front of an instructor in music education class, and Cordon feared the critiques that followed being filmed while teaching. They know today’s students face similar fears, plus the anxieties of navigating a complex world.
“The Lord sends us down, but He doesn’t send us down unprepared,” Cordon says. “Today’s students have to navigate some very hard, complicated, heavy, heart-stretching, and soul-stretching things, but we have complete confidence in them.”
During their BYU years, Cordon and Craig each got married, which affected their post-graduation plans. Craig was expecting her first child with her husband, Boyd, when she graduated. She worked as a substitute teacher for several months before devoting herself to full-time motherhood.
Craig learned at the McKay School about the importance of reading, so she bought a children’s poetry book and read aloud 20 minutes each day to her unborn baby. Decades later, she read aloud from that same book in a hospital NICU to a grandchild born prematurely.
“BYU taught me to be a lifelong learner,” she says. “I involved my kids in learning with file-folder games, flannel boards, laminated activities, and singing songs. Being intentional about teaching and learning has been a blessing from my time at the McKay School.”
After her graduation, Cordon moved to the Bay Area with her husband, Derek, who attended graduate school there.
“The Lord’s hand is in everything,” Cordon says. “I didn’t teach right away in California because Utah’s license was not effective there. I had to take a test to get licensed in California, and the test wasn’t offered until months after we had moved. So I thought, ‘I’ll get a job for now, and then I’ll go teach.’ But then I got a job, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, I am not teaching. . . . But I’m supporting my family; I can’t afford to go teach!’”
Cordon worked at management-software giant Oracle, putting teaching skills to use in a new arena. “One thing I loved about classes in the McKay School was that they were helping us think outside the box and find that learning isn’t the same for everyone,” she says. “That was very helpful in business because I realized that I couldn’t just verbally give instructions and that learning sometimes has to be visual. Sometimes we need to do something hands-on or do role-playing. Learning these things has been valuable in this calling because we get a chance to instruct and love and train people all over the world. I walk in a room and think, ‘How many types of learners are here?’”
Cordon also used her education to help her balance the demands of her career, family, and church callings. “I had an instructor who would say, ‘You’ll never have enough money and you’ll want things to happen in your classroom. So look for your resources. Could it be a parent? Could it be in the community? What could it look like?’ That is really useful even now.”
Cordon even leveraged group work into a professional asset for mentoring her colleagues: “I hated group projects as a student. But those projects taught me to think about how you can creatively, with long-suffering and gentle persuasion, encourage people to get the results you hope for. That was fascinating. When I was with a corporation, I found it was a lot like school—trying to get people on board and get the vision of what needs to happen to make the organization a success.”
Cordon went back to full-time motherhood when her husband was transferred to Indiana. “I was on the plane with my two boys. One was six and one was about four. And the six-year-old said, ‘Mom, who is gonna take care of us?’ because they always had a nanny. And I said, ‘I am!’ And my oldest son looked at his brother and said, ‘Tanner, we are in trouble.’”
Cordon missed her job while also relishing her chance at full-time motherhood. When the family moved to Boise, Idaho, some years later, she started a small business selling Oracle products to niche markets.
Craig says, “I love how there isn’t one way to be. There isn’t one way to use your education. There isn’t one path that is the right path. The truth is, we all have different opportunities that the Lord provides, and those are the things that are right for us.”
Cordon agrees. “I’m always intrigued when women say, ‘I don’t fit in.’ I’m like, fit in what? There is always a place for you. You take Michelle and me: we are two totally different experiences. And guess what? We’re both disciples of Christ. Diversity is unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In that commitment to diversity and unity, both Cordon and Craig say, they are following the lead of the youth they serve.
Cordon says, “This generation is hungry for a cause because they were prepared by the Lord to have a cause. They were prepared differently. They were prepared to take up this cause of Christ. They really help us see things fresh, they help us have renewed energy, and they are already a force. I love sitting down with the youth and listening to learn. Our challenge is that we don’t listen enough to our youth, and often we don’t implement what they suggest. But truly, as we get out of their way, they surprise the adults.”
Living in joyful surprise, despite challenges, is a goal of any disciple. And Cordon and Craig appear to have achieved that delicate balance more than most.
“The Lord needs everybody. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ, and that might look different for you than it does for the person next to you,” Craig says as Cordon takes her arm.
“We are salt of the earth. No big deal,” Cordon says. “But what we do do is love the Lord. We are all kind of just rocks. But the Lord takes us up, and He will touch each one of us with His finger. He will fill us with His light. I just think Michelle and I have enough courage to give Him all we have, which is our hearts, and that’s about all we can do.”
Written by: Stacey Kratz
Photography by: Bradley Slade