The Only Mormon in the Dorm

By Elizabeth S. VanDenBerghe

Assistant Editor

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    Getting along doesn’t have to mean giving in.

    The week before classes began at the University of California at Los Angeles, Mark Myers was ready to move into the dorm. Mark, his parents, and his younger sister drove down from Mission Viejo, California, to take a look at the campus and to find his new dormitory and room.

    But they also discovered a few other things. Mark’s new roommate had been anticipating his first year of college as well and, with several friends, had celebrated the event throughout the night before. When Mark and his family walked into the room, they were greeted not only by several incoherent stragglers and empty bottles strewn about the room, but by the roommate, who called out, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Myers, we’ll take care of your son!”

    College dorm life poses definite problems for LDS students—problems not unlike those faced by Latter-day Saints in the military, in shared apartments or houses, or even at home with family: they often live with others whose values differ from and sometimes oppose their own.

    For some students—like Mark Myers, who went on to become UCLA’s Latter-day Saint Student Association President after completing a mission to Denmark—the challenges become opportunities for growth. The successful ones make friends and take advantage of missionary opportunities. They contact their new bishop, ask for home teachers, and attend church meetings and institute. They also learn tolerance. When these students leave college, they leave better equipped to live in the world without either being afraid of it or submitting to it.

    But the successful ones also leave behind LDS friends who weren’t up to the challenge of dorm and college life. At eighteen, nineteen, even twenty-five, some LDS students find that peer pressure to drink, to indulge in sexual permissiveness, and to abandon religious traditions is an assault on their values they are unequipped to handle.

    The “lost students,” institute instructors and priesthood leaders call them: students who come to college without their records being forwarded from their home wards and then never make contact with the Church on their own. Without the Church’s influence, they sometimes succumb to the downside of dorm life.

    The scenario is tragic not only because these students usually leave college completely detached from the Church, but also because the “lost” route is avoidable, claim LDS students who have succeeded in remaining active. Certain choices and especially goals, say these students, determine whether dorm life makes or breaks a student’s faith. Their examples and advice, while limited to college living situations, can apply to any Latter-day Saint who finds home a sometimes uncomfortable place to be, whether a barracks, an apartment, or a house.

    Right from the Start

    Choices made when students first arrive at the dorm have far-reaching consequences. Students who arrive at college with specific goals in mind, such as keeping the Sabbath day holy or avoiding compromising situations, find it much easier to continue making the right decisions.

    Vicky Clifford arrived at the University of Wales, College of Cardiff, from England on a Saturday and immediately called her new bishop to ask for a ride to church. “Everyone asked me, ‘Isn’t it rude to ask a stranger for rides?’” she says of the incident, “but I just explained that Church members aren’t strangers.” In retrospect, Vicky considers that phone call an important decision she almost procrastinated. “It led me in the right direction. After that, all the members knew me and could watch out for me.”

    On the other hand, Lorri Smart says that her hesitancy to get involved in Church activity when she first moved into the University of Alberta, Canada, dormitories, “let the dorm’s negative influences get to me. I wasn’t very strong when I arrived. With no goals in mind as far as the Church was concerned, I just got off to a bad start.” Only through persistent home teachers and a boyfriend who became interested in the Church did she become fully active again.

    But initial decisions aren’t easy. John Griffin discovered that “you have to have enough faith to trust in God and to sacrifice social acceptance.” When John returned to Harvard University from his mission to Frankfurt, Germany, his first conflict arose when the water-polo team he played on scheduled practices and games on Sunday.

    “I was a little tempted to just practice one Sunday and tell the coach I wouldn’t the next time,” he says of the experience, “but I sensed that one compromise would just lead to others.”

    His decision wasn’t particularly popular with his teammates, who needed him on the big games scheduled on Sunday, but John’s early decision to keep the Sabbath ultimately paid off. He remained active in the student ward and later was elected captain of his water-polo team. One of the student newspapers also honored him as “athlete of the week,” running a full-page story that detailed John’s efforts to get back into shape after contributing two years of his life to service as a Mormon “missionary man.”

    Observes Robert Venebles of Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Within the first two weeks in the dorm, everyone will question you and test you to see if you’re actually sincere. But if you prove yourself at the beginning, they won’t let you forsake your standards after that!”

    Wise as Serpents

    While students should strive for innocence, many recommend that an approach to dorm life should remain realistic. Lisa Leonard of the University of Southern Mississippi discovered naivete to be less than helpful when she attended her first dorm party. The noise prompted a police visit. “Needless to say, I became a lot more careful about what I did and didn’t attend after that,” she says.

    “It helps to realize,” says John Griffin, “that dorms are trendy places. No one knows anyone else, and a lot of students are trying to live out their expectations of what college students are supposed to be. That’s why the peer pressure to rebel, to experiment, is high. With a strong testimony you can ignore the trends, but if you’re worried about instant social acceptance, you’ll have problems.”

    Being realistic about having problems, according to Chris Widholm, becomes the first step to resolving them. Chris returned from a mission to attend a state university in his native New York, a school with no other members and, thus, no institute. “I was too far from the ward to participate other than on Sundays,” he recalls, “and the dorm life there wasn’t a good situation for someone like me, who’d had problems with the Word of Wisdom in high school. Although a lot of people in my dorm would tell me, ‘I wish I could quit drinking like you did,’ I was still lonely and needed more support.”

    Chris solved his problem when he transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., an area with a larger LDS population and, he says, “a much better environment”—one that includes institute classes, ward callings, and two supportive roommates.

    Milana Reiche, too, discovered that some environments are better than others when she transferred from a university where she attended a faraway small branch and never received home-teaching visits, to the University of Minnesota. A violinist, Milana says that “sometimes it’s especially hard in the arts to maintain a religious perspective. I began losing that perspective, and with it, my happiness.”

    She came to Minneapolis determined to make the gospel a fundamental part of her life and prayed to know if it were true. When the missionaries at her Minnesota ward began teaching the discussions to Milana’s roommate, the two of them began reading the Book of Mormon. “We both read it aloud to each other during every spare minute we had and finished it in seven days,” she says. “My roommate was baptized, but we were both converted. When other students noticed how happy we both became, this one missionary experience had a chain-reaction. Looking realistically at my discontent brought this to pass.”

    Being realistic for Mark Myers at UCLA meant talking to his roommate about drinking and dating habits that extended into their room. They arranged an amicable roommate switch through the dorm adviser that made life easier for both of them.

    The most highly recommended route, however, is that students phone their future bishop, who will usually be aware of student living situations in his ward. He can recommend the living accommodations best suited to an LDS life-style. Institute instructors are also willing to help.

    Friends, Roommates, Parties

    In spite of peer pressure, trendy expectations, and loneliness, LDS students find sincere friendships in the dorms. These friendships, however, are gained only through tolerance and unfeigned acceptance, through a difficult balance of being an example without being condescending. Once a student reaches that level, he makes friends, and his roommates seem willing to appreciate his standards and even help him steer clear of compromising social situations.

    Says Paul Innis of the University of Sydney, Australia, “Zion can be wherever you are, and you can bring that to a lot of people whether or not they join the Church. I’ve made good friends here and feel that I’m needed. Australia needs strong LDS youth to stay and build up student programs, to contribute to their own country, and to befriend a lot of good people who aren’t LDS.”

    As in other aspects of life, actions speak louder than words in the dorm. If LDS students do not show proper respect for different faiths and customs, they can create problems for themselves and others.

    “Susan,” a former college student in California who is not a member of the Church, recalls unpleasant memories of her LDS roommate, “Karen,” during her freshman year. Karen always put Susan on the defensive about everything from Susan’s religious preferences to her habit of morning coffee. Because Karen always saw herself in the right, Susan found open discussion about anything—even matters unrelated to religion—impossible. It also didn’t help that on Sundays, Karen blasted choir music early in the morning as Susan tried to sleep, bustled about the room getting ready for church, and then slammed the door on her way out. Susan came away never wanting to meet another Latter-day Saint, until other members made her feel liked and accepted for who she was.

    Vicky Clifford found that treating her roommates’ and friends’ religious beliefs with respect was a better method. One friend even told Vicky, “I wish I were a Mormon,” a response that surprised Vicky. She had done little of what she considered direct proselyting. But the friend had noticed that when Vicky went into town with a friend, members on the street always stopped and chatted with them; when Vicky first arrived at school, a member had come to give her a ride to church; and when Vicky was busy with schoolwork like everyone else, she still spent Sundays and spare time at church, working with the stake young women, teaching the Laurels, and attending meetings—all without fanfare or any attitude of superiority.

    Most students also advise a realistic approach in making friends and in getting along with roommates. “You can get along with everyone,” explains Chris Widholm, “but it doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to follow or join in. I’ve learned clearly that the wrong friends lead you to the wrong places.”

    When Robert Venebles returned to school in Edinburgh after serving a mission to Minnesota, his newly acquired American accent “piqued everyone’s curiosity,” making it easier both to discuss the Church and to make friends. Yet he still remained careful in choosing his friends: “I didn’t do it in a snobbish way. I just wanted to find honest, nice people who weren’t ‘party animals’ and with whom I’d enjoy spending my time.”

    One year later, Robert feels that his efforts to find good friends paid off: “My friends at school have been good examples for me; they help me live my religion and are very loyal, close friends.”

    Choosing friends, according to many students, is easier than choosing which activities and parties to attend with them. Some LDS students find college parties offensive and avoid them altogether. However, other LDS students, in an effort not to offend friends or seem aloof, attend selective activities: birthday parties, small get-togethers, cultural activities, and other occasions that don’t revolve around drinking alcohol.

    The answers aren’t easy, and some situations don’t readily fall into wise or unwise categories. But students who combine their religious convictions with a sincere love for others find that they can socialize in healthy ways without offending their friends.

    Keeping the Faith

    Even with good friends and strong convictions, LDS dorm students have a hard time staying active without help from priesthood leadership. Richard Dunn, bishop of the student ward for California State University at Chico and Butte Community College, explains that “it’s so easy for young adults to give in to the world without putting the gospel to the test. I know as a former participant and a current observer of the college phase that if students go without the support of home teachers, institute instructors, and concerned parents, then they’ll probably drift away from the Church.”

    Brother Dunn says that the problem of what he calls “underground students”—students who never make contact with the Church after arriving at college—could be largely solved by leaders in the students’ home wards. Many students’ records don’t get forwarded to the wards they’ll attend at college. Of those records that are forwarded, information about the students’ whereabouts at school is frequently missing. Consequently, home teachers, visiting teachers, bishops, and institute professors can’t reach them.

    “If the home-ward bishop would even just make a quick phone call to the student’s new bishop or write a short note about the student,” says Brother Dunn, “then someone would be watching out for him when he arrives.”

    Many LDS students attribute their activity in part to home or visiting teachers, graduate students, or family ward members who offer advice, invite them into their homes, and help them maintain a gospel perspective. Institute plays the same vital role in student religious life. Lisa Leonard in Mississippi says, “the intellectual and spiritual knowledge I gained allowed me not to wander the broad ways of the world.”

    Fortified with a strong testimony, the long arm of concerned leaders, stimulating institute programs, and sincere friends, LDS students who want to stay active, can and do remain active. They allow their college and dorm experience to renew their faith rather than break it.

    Illustrated by Mark Graham