Cultivating Faith: LDS Students at New England Universities


New England nights remain chilly well into May. The twenty or so guests gathered in the living room of Alan and Marcia Parrish still wear winter sweaters and waterproof boots, even though summer vacation is only a few weeks away.

The Parrish home, however, is anything but cold. The living room, like Brother Parrish himself, is warm, large, and inviting.

Alan Parrish is the Church Educational System coordinator for the Boston Massachusetts area. His guests tonight are students from some of the universities and colleges in the area, including Brown, Harvard, Tufts, MIT, Wellesley, Northeastern, Boston University, and several others. They have taken time off from strenuous days of final examinations for a few hours of relaxation, camaraderie, and serious ice-cream consumption.

As some of the students begin work on third helpings, Brother Parrish raises his hand for silence.

“Now, those of you who know me well are probably wondering what ulterior motive is behind this party. As you know, I never do anything charitable without a good reason.”

None of the guests looks convinced.

“What I want from you tonight,” he says, “is information.”

“It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to notice that going to college is an intense experience. I’ve seen glimpses of real struggles in your lives, and I’ve seen people who’ve gone through those same struggles become some of the strongest Latter-day Saints I know.

They’re great missionaries, they’re competent leaders, and they have testimonies that have been tempered by adversity.

“What I want to know about,” he goes on, “is your experience outside of institute. What’s it like to be a Latter-day Saint at college here?”

The guests become thoughtful. Their ages range from seventeen to thirty, their interests from Gothic architecture to biochemistry. Because this is the middle of finals for many of the students, the challenges of their academic life tend to come to mind before the rewards.

Kristina Harrison, now a rather cheerful Harvard junior, shakes her head as she looks back on her first semester. “I used to call home every week or so and logically explain that Harvard was a dangerous and heretical institution, that I was not ready, able, or willing to attend it, and that a plane ticket to Utah would actually cost less than the phone bill I intended to rack up. My parents would simply tell me that I could make it.” She smiles. “The worst of it was, they were right.”

Several other students mention that their first adjustment to college was their most difficult experience. What makes the ‘initial shock’ so dramatic for many Latter-day Saints? Although every experience is different, most students mention the sudden distance from friends and families (usually for the first time); the fear of being unable to succeed academically and socially in a strange, somewhat intimidating environment; and an atmosphere that seems generally critical of religious belief.

One student comments that at his technologically oriented school, “there’s such an emphasis on critical thought and hard-core data that believing in any religion makes people question your intellect. I’ve known several people—not LDS, but religious—who gave up any kind of belief to maintain their academic image.”

Another student remembers an evening, three years before, when he went as a home teacher to visit another freshman.

“It was the night before my last final, and I hadn’t slept much for three days,” he recalls. The press of studying seemed urgent. “But this guy had been inactive for years, and that evening he really seemed to want me to come. He even called to make sure I’d be there.

“There must have been twenty people in his dorm room when I arrived. He had me sit down on the bed. He said, ‘All these people want to ask you about Mormonism.’ Then he gave me the kind of smile a thirteen-year-old uses when he’s about to set fire to a cat.

“They questioned me for about half an hour—if you can call them questions. They were more like verbal smirks.

“There was one guy there, an older fellow, whose questions really seemed insightful. It was obvious that he knew a lot about the Church already. He was getting his Ph.D. at the divinity school, and his specialty was nineteenth-century American religions. He proceeded to attack almost everything I had said about the origins of the Church, citing reference after reference to ‘prove’ that Mormonism was practically identical to a whole mess of North American religions of that period.

“Now, I think I know American history pretty well, and Church history, too. But against this guy’s knowledge and experience, I was not doing very well. There was simply no way I could refute his argument intellectually because I didn’t have the information.”

“So what did you do?” someone asks.

“The only thing I could. I told him that the LDS Church is different from all other American religions for the simple reason that God appeared to Joseph Smith and directed him to organize it. I told him that Joseph really was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true—actually, I don’t remember everything I said. I was exhausted, I was confused, and I was angry.”

He looks into the fireplace, thinking. “As I talked, though, a real change came over the room. All those smirks sort of wilted away, until everyone was watching me in total silence. The divinity student looked stunned. I don’t think he’d ever considered that I might actually believe my religion was the truth. I remember someone telling me later that they’d never felt anything like that in a campus dorm.”

Alan Parrish is smiling. He is well acquainted with such situations. His institute classes, and those of his colleague Phillip Barlow, are designed to fit the demands of an environment where analytical criticism and a propensity for iconoclasm are the rule.

He asks the students if they feel that institute experiences have helped them.

“Definitely,” answers a blond student. “At first I thought that Institute was really strange. Brother Barlow would put me on the defensive, then turn right around and bear his testimony. It took me quite a while to realize that he was trying to prepare us for what we might get in the university atmosphere; to show us that defending the gospel on purely academic terms is bound to fail sooner or later. The mind is free to do all the arguing it wants. But it has to take second place to the Spirit.”

While many of their classmates use Saturday as the day to relax, and then spend the Sabbath studying, most LDS students consider their church meetings a welcome chance to rest from study and to associate with other members. One of the Parrishes’ guests comments on this “unusual” behavior.

“What really amazes me is how consistently LDS students perform well in academics, without spending Sundays in the library. I think that getting away from school, being with friends, and getting an eternal perspective all keep me refreshed and ready to study harder at other times. Church helps me stay sane.”

Friends seem to be the most important factor in making a successful adjustment to college, whether or not those friends are members of the Church. “The LDS support group is great here at Brown,” says David Fulsom, a football player. “But what we really learned here was how many truly Christian people there are who aren’t (now) members of the Church.”

David leans back in his chair, one hand on his wife Mindy’s shoulder. “When we got here, we were real oddities. But on the whole we found our fellow students very willing to accept our beliefs, and us as people.

“That first year, our daughter Emily was born. It … well, it wasn’t a good week. The football team was in double practice sessions, which meant that I left at seven in the morning and came home—exhausted—after ten P.M. I was due to take the MCATs (the difficult medical school admission tests) at the end of the week. Two days before Mindy went into labor, our car was stolen. Emily’s birth was a hard one, and she aspirated some fluid into her lungs. She was taken straight to the intensive care unit. They kept her there for a week.

“The first night I spent with her in intensive care, all I could do was stand and hold Emily’s hands and look at her. They had her hooked up to a respirator and a whole array of monitoring devices. My mom had flown in from Salt Lake, and she was with me. All of a sudden she said, ‘David, there’s a man outside who has been watching you for about fifteen minutes. I think he is waiting for you.’

“It was my defensive back coach. He’d stopped by to see how things were going. He and his wife came to the hospital three or four times that week.

“I must have missed about four or five days of practice. When I came back, I really didn’t expect to regain my position right away. But no, the guys on the team had taken a vote and decided that I should keep it. I found out that on the day of the intersquad scrimmage the whole team had gotten together and offered a prayer for Emily. Then they’d started dropping by the coach’s locker with three bucks, five bucks, anything they could spare to help us out.

“We learned that year that the love and brotherhood of our non-LDS friends was every bit as powerful as our relationships within the Church. There are always people to help you.”

Since many schools place heavy emphasis on “geographic diversity” (accepting students from as many different places as possible), the influence of Latter-day Saint students at some of these colleges may touch an amazingly diverse circle of acquaintances.

“One of my freshman-year roommates owns elephants,” a student says. “He’s from India, and I think he met every Latter-day Saint in the university through me; some of them became his close friends. I have a feeling that someday his exposure to the Church will bear important fruit in India. I’m glad that he got a positive introduction to the Church.”

Telling people about the gospel doesn’t stop at the boundaries of these universities. Most of the male LDS students and many of the LDS women take time off to serve full-time missions for the Church. There is a general feeling among the returned missionaries in Alan Parrish’s living room that their experiences at school helped prepare them to serve effectively.

Taking time off from school to rest, work, or (especially) travel, is encouraged by many New England universities. It is expected that through off-campus experiences students will become more well-rounded and better acquainted with other cultures. Consequently, time off for a mission is easily arranged, scholarships are held, and even the student’s monetary outlay for his mission is accepted as a reason for a scholastic loan when he or she returns.

A graduate student, who has just emerged from the kitchen with all that remains of the ice cream, recounts a conversation with his financial aid counselor.

“He said, ‘You Mormons are such anomalies. I’ve adjusted several scholarships for people on missions. Then we’ve had some get married—as undergraduates! One student actually became a father this year, and we had to adjust his aid for that. You’re a very unusual group.’”

Diversity is a key word in describing the experiences of these Latter-day Saint students—diversity of ideas, of activities, of acquaintances, of problems. Between the culture-shocked confusion of an entering freshman and the confident enthusiasm of a returned missionary receiving his diploma lies a wealth of opportunities for personal growth, for missionary work, for intellectual, social, and spiritual development. Bruce Baker, a student at Brown, sums up the feelings of the students at Alan Parrish’s ice-cream party:

“I’m stronger now,” he says. “I’ve come to appreciate my education, my associates, myself, and, most of all, the gospel. I feel that my experiences here at college are helping me do my part to build up the kingdom of God on earth.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Martha Nibley Beck, a student in Chinese Studies, serves as a Primary teacher in the Clemti, Singapore, branch. She and her husband, John, currently reside in Singapore.