First of all, I will have to make it clear that what I have to say cannot possibly represent every facet of the BYU experience. The BYU experience is a conglomeration of all the things each student is, and so it has been for me. As an English major and a member of the Honors program, I’ve shared some of the joys and frustrations peculiar to each of these two “subcommunities”; but there is no norm, no typical way to take this university as a whole, and my viewpoint will necessarily differ in many respects from those of the economics major who went skiing with me every Friday one winter, or the soil expert who sat in front of me in one religion seminar I had, or the birdie-smashing, brawn-bodied men in the badminton class that gave me the lowest grade I got in college. Every member of the Brigham Young University community handles the campus in a different way. That’s twenty-five thousand handles on one experience, and my point of view cannot possibly reflect them all.
I was not one of those who wanted from the very first to come to BYU. I went to a high school full of upper-middle-class students who lived right over the hill from Berkeley and liked their hair long and their skirts short (or their jeans shabby). For me they fell into two groups: the delightfully all-American with whom I edited a yearbook and went to basketball games, and the delightfully unconventional, with whom I spent long hours discussing books and art and matters of (to us) great philosophical import.
I was tempted to attend a university like Stanford or Berkeley, where so many of my high school friends were accepted and eager to go, where the campuses were familiar and the orientation highly academic. But there’s something to be said for concerned parents who planted firm ideas before I could talk back, and then refused to listen when I could.
When I was awarded a scholarship here, the decision was made, though I had never even seen the campus; and when I came to Merrill Hall in time for freshman orientation in September of 1971, feeling strange and a bit rebellious in my jeans and bare feet and braids, I was very unprepared for what was to come, and more than a little nervous.
Since then I have learned not to wear jeans, at least not to class; I have cut off my braids; and I have taken fifty-six classes under almost as many professors; but some of the lessons I have labored hardest at have had very little to do with academia.
Living away from home is something, now. Like many students here, I lived on campus my first year and have lived off campus, in houses and apartments, since. The dorms were a good thing for me because I had a sympathetic roommate and a built-in group of neighbors who were also members of my branch and some of whom are still my good friends. Merrill Hall was my entire world that first year. But when I moved off campus I was shocked at how little of Provo I really knew, and not until I bought a car my sophomore year and spent the summer traveling all over Utah in it did I come to know how beautiful this state, even this desert-mountain valley, really is, and how much I like it simply for its scenery.
Then, too, learning to live with people whose interests and background are different from mine has been (and sometimes still is) a terrific personal challenge. It can be beautiful, but I have had my share of difficult times as well, and so have my roommates. I know now, if I know nothing else, that I must choose the people I live with carefully if I want to study effectively, work efficiently, or live the gospel as I know it should be lived. I can’t operate at random, though I thought at first I could, and having seventeen roommates in six apartments over four years has taught me some things about people that I never could have learned if I had stayed at home or chosen a different kind of living arrangement.
Nearly every BYU student adjusts to roommates, though, just as we all adjust to certain other situations: registration, long lines, the constant chaos of construction. Registration hassles are diminishing, however, as registration by mail replaces the old four-hour card-pulling stints in the fieldhouse. The wait used to be either a joke or a trial, depending on my mood, and even now the long lines for everything from cashing checks to checking out library books plague us all: there are just too many of us to avoid them.
Enrollment has increased five hundred percent at BYU in the last twenty years. Because there are so many of us now, the physical face of the campus has had to be changed drastically and, lately, almost continuously. New buildings are constantly under construction to accommodate all of our needs. And every one of them serves a double function: each is a Church meetinghouse as well as a school building. Provo contains what is probably the largest concentration of Latter-day Saints in the world; we BYU students (even the five percent who are not LDS, if they will) are organized into 120 student branches in 12 stakes, and the work of the Church is carried on just as it is ‘outside,’ only student-led (except for the branch president) and student-served. The opportunities I have had to work in seven student branches have taught me more about how the Church should work than any seminary or MIA or Sunday School class ever could before.
There are two reasons for this. First, I’ve helped lead. I’ve been in MIA presidencies and a Relief Society presidency, and activity in the home evening program has provided choice opportunities as well. I count. I’m somebody in a student branch. Second, I’ve seen the members of my branches in other roles than Sunday ones. I’ve lived with them, worked with them, seen them on campus—and even been taught by some of them.
All of my professors are members of the Church. I have been taught by a stake president, by a member of the Young Women General Committee, by stake high councilors; I have attended firesides and lectures by General Authorities, as well as the biweekly devotional assemblies and 12-stake firesides, which always feature General Authority speakers. I have seen a fusion of intellectual effort and spiritual insight here that I could have found nowhere else: where else could I find a poet teaching literary criticism and encouraging me to relate the world’s criteria for literature to the needs of those who know the gospel? where else could I find the challenge to relate my own convictions about the importance of certain academic disciplines to gospel principles, but here?
These paragraphs should probably come at some more climactic place than here—at the end, perhaps, or at least printed in bold type or set off by asterisks and stars. Because this is the crux of the BYU experience for me: this is what makes the fears and frustrations worthwhile. The scholarship and counsel I have access to here are LDS. That was not so in my high school. It might even be said that I was going sour on the Church there, neglecting meetings and believing that there could be no integration of Church and school friends as I did. I had thought that I lived in an impossible division of interests; but here there is struggle and search directly relevant to my situation. The potential dichotomy between Mormon thought and Mormons’ thought, between God’s word and the world’s opinion is being acknowledged and wrestled with here everywhere I care to look. Before I came here I hadn’t known anyone who was concerned with a “Mormon art” or a “Mormon literature”; I hadn’t known any women who were interested in the roles as scholars as well as in their roles as wives and mothers; I hadn’t known any “intellectual” Latter-day Saints; frankly, I hadn’t really talked to any Latter-day Saints—except my parents—about the things that really concerned me, until I came to BYU. It was coming here that made me see that Latter-day Saints can be my kind of people—in fact, they are more my kind of people than anyone else on earth because they are my people, many of them as willing and as able to discuss poetry and music and criteria for quality as any of my Berkeley or Stanford friends—and with infinitely more respect for the things of the Spirit.
It has taken all four years here to discover this. I didn’t find a circle of friends quickly or easily, because I was slow to find the confidence (and to lose the nervousness) to ask my way to my niche. (Perhaps all I have really learned in the past four years is how better to deal with people, and how better to pray.) The fact remains that I am now much more committed to the Church than I was when I came here because now I know people in it who are committed to the same concerns I am. There are education-minded people here, dedicated to the building of a right and righteous Kingdom; there are Latter-day Saint academicians, artists, and writers here, as well as Latter-day Saint skiers, soil experts, and birdie-smashers. For me there has been great joy in discovering this, for as I have said, I had believed in an intense seventeen-year-old way that there was a split between the secure Latter-day Saint way of life of my family and the philosophically baffling non–Latter-day Saint world outside; I had thought there could be no union and I was angry, quicker to reject my family than to reject the world because the world’s knowledge seemed so ready to prove itself. But here I have been shown that it is possible to correct the “hollow man” philosophies I loved so much in high school with the “whole man” principles, and I am coming to terms with my book-loving Latter-day Saint self, slowly but surely.
I could write pages and pages to be more specific; mostly the specifics deal with people. I have not attended any other university, so I can’t say whether other faculties are as warm and personal as those at BYU, but many of my professors, both in and out of my department, have been quick to show me in specific ways that they care: they have befriended and encouraged and stimulated me, and now that I am a student instructor teaching my own classes, the friendships are even warmer, the discussions even more relevant. Whatever else it has been, my BYU experience has not been one of being lost in the crowd.
A handful of particularly dear people at BYU have lifted and strengthened and entertained me more than I sometimes like to admit. One religion professor taught me the gospel for four semesters; it was he who persuaded me to pray after a senior year (in high school) off my knees, by telling our classes over and over that Jesus is the Christ, that to come to know that for ourselves we must develop a personal relationship with Him. Between him and my first contact with the English department, an amazing woman who taught me freshman English and directed me to my major, coaching me in personal religion all along, I learned to recognize and desire revelation, and to at least know the reasons—the lack of faith and honest searching—when my life seemed to fall into disorder. These two people had a tremendous impact on me during my freshman year, and of course on every year since, for I think they began to truly convert me to the Church.
Branch members have been dear as well. In my sophomore year I was called to the MIA presidency of the BYU Forty-third Branch. My branch president told me my calling was inspired; I had to believe him, for I had been praying for two months for a chance to serve the branch better, and nothing but inspiration could have convinced him to call me: I was terribly inexperienced in Church organization, and had not been serving as faithfully as I could have up to that time.
Other branch member friends were in the BYU Sixty-first Branch MIA presidency with me; two were not BYU students at all, but were the dearest friends I had that year (my junior year) because they loved the Church and were involved in non-Church, nonstudent activities, and they made me feel welcome and competent and comfortable in their quick, confident, non-BYU Provo world.
My roommates almost all seventeen of them over the years—have been remarkable friends, sharing and giving and taking spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. Linda helped me through my freshman year by listening to me talk and laughing with and at me; Sue and Karen taught me about apartment prayer and about the practical joke side of nondorm life; Marsha and Marcelyn saw me through some important lessons in spiritual and social grace; and Bernice, who traveled with me that summer all over Utah, taught me to love Provo. They, and several others, are as precious to me as anyone I have ever known for the things they have shared with me.
The men I have dated have been delightful. All the rumors about this campus as a marriage bureau are well founded; but the best reply to all the outcry came from one branch MIA president: “We talk a lot about marriage here,” he said, “because we do marry. At some universities they don’t much, you know.”
There is much to learn in any college situation. What I have taken from this school in Provo—now my school because I have associations here and am as familiar with its map and its seasons as with my own face in the mirror—almost has been according to my own needs and conscious desires. I brought a certain kind of confidence and enthusiasm with me, though when I leave there will be many things I did not learn because I lacked interest or confidence or the humility to ask for help. But everything I want is here, to some degree; and the spirit of prayer, which opens and closes every meeting, lecture, concert, performance, or athletic event, softens and tempers whatever things frighten or frustrate. There are good people here to know. This is a good place to be.