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Provo • Bountiful native Benjamin Merrill said Thursday that it felt like both forever and no time at all since his first day of classes at Brigham Young University.

The genetics and biotechnology major was dressed in a cap and gown, sitting among thousands of his fellow students and their families in BYU's Marriott Center as they waited for the start of commencement ceremonies.

"I started in 2009," he said. "It's taken a while, but it's been great."

The bachelor's degree Merrill earned on Thursday was one of 5,498 degrees conferred this year by BYU, which is owned by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday's ceremony isn't the end of Merrill's education. He plans to enroll in medical school — at the University of Utah, University of Washington or "anywhere that will take [him]" — on his way to an anticipated career in pediatrics.

"I just love helping people, and I love kids," he said.

BYU President Kevin Worthen, in his commencement remarks, encouraged graduates to look past money and prestige when choosing a career.

He said those factors are alluring, but it is more important to maintain an "eternal perspective" when choosing what kind of work to do.

"Make your work, whatever it may be, a calling or a vocation," he said, "and not just a job."

He also stressed that while much of life is spent in a career, it should not interfere with more important things.

"Your most important work is as a family member," he said, "as a wife and mother, husband and father, daughter and sister, son and brother."

The ceremony's student speaker, Alicia Stanton, compared the multidisciplinary approach of academics to a need to maintain connections among the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

Those connections, she said, would help graduates to see the big pictures in their adult lives.

"When we apply the gospel to all aspects of our life," she said, "we avoid compartmentalizing our roles or compromising our values. We stay true to ourselves and connected to our purpose for living."

Elder L. Whitney Clayton, a senior president of the LDS Church's Quorums of the Seventy, was the school's featured commencement speaker.

Like Stanton's, his remarks focused on connections, including the importance that graduates maintain connections to their families, their friends and Brigham Young University.

"Some of my present Quorum associates in church service met each other as roommates at BYU and have friendships that extend back for decades."

But he warned graduates against maintaining some connections, particularly those of an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend after one or both members of the failed relationship have married other people.

"Wisdom suggests that you disconnect from that association," he said. "Don't do anything that exposes your own or someone else's eternal connection to a spouse to hazards in any way."

He also warned against the "selfish and gullible" sin of pornography and encouraged students to be wary of former church members who have abandoned LDS teachings.

"The faithless often promote themselves as the wise, who can rescue the rest of us from our naivete," Clayton said. "We should disconnect, immediately and completely, from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith, and instead reconnect promptly with the holy spirit."

He said students who attend BYU have a "wonderful opportunity" to participate in academic programs while staying connected to God.

"There is nowhere else that you can find a believing student body studying such diverse subjects as here," he said. "There is nowhere else you could find so many eminently qualified professors who are faithful believers."

Kevin Hubbard said he had accomplished and experienced a lot during his time at BYU, earning his bachelor's degree in biological science education while playing intramural sports, getting married, having twins and completing his student teaching requirements.

He said he plans to move to Arizona to work as a middle school science teacher and basketball coach.

"I've had quite a ride at BYU," he said. "But I'll never forget anything that happened here."

Among the degrees earned at BYU this year were 5,057 bachelor's degrees, 688 master's degrees and 203 doctorates.

The average age of graduates was 25 years old, and the oldest student of the 2016 graduating class was 81.

Graduates enrolled at BYU from 49 states and five U.S. territories, as well as 59 foreign countries.

Twitter: @bjaminwood