“What? You’re not going to BYU?”
I had announced my decision to attend a different university, but the reaction I got sounded more like I had decided to quit going to church or something.
Living in southern Salt Lake City, I had grown up with the idea I’d go to BYU someday. Members of my ward encouraged it. My parents thought it would be a good environment for me. Many of my LDS friends were planning on going there. But when it came right down to it, I chose a state university instead. And for me, that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The Church is growing at such a fantastic rate that Brigham Young University, Ricks College, and BYU—Hawaii are flooded with applicants. The reality is that not every Latter-day Saint student will be able to attend a Church-sponsored school. There just isn’t enough room for everyone, and not everyone can financially afford to attend a school away from home. In fact, the First Presidency has said, “We suggest that where possible [LDS students] attend school in their own communities, particularly during their freshman and sophomore years” (First Presidency letter, Nov. 15, 1977).
And more and more LDS students are making significant contributions at colleges and universities that are not Church affiliated. Even though these students face challenges as individuals at the schools they attend, they are also gaining a great education. They may at times be challenged by strange ideas and conflicting philosophies, exposed to loose morals and substance abuse, and isolated by loneliness that comes when their beliefs aren’t shared by the majority of the people around them. But these LDS students are also finding increased faith, developing a confidence in themselves and a surety of their values, developing a respect for others’ ideas, finding opportunities for missionary work, and understanding people who are different from themselves. They have brought to life the saying, “Be in the world but not of it.”
How can I keep my testimony strong?
Although some challenges you will face as a college student are difficult, you can stay as active as you decide to be. Essentially the things you do to keep your testimony strong are the same no matter where you study.
Ray Ward attended BYU for his undergraduate work and is now a medical student at the University of Washington. He says, “The things that strengthen me are the same wherever I am. Going to church with a good spirit, really thinking about what I ought to do, listening to the Holy Ghost, and taking time to pray and be introspective strengthens my testimony.”
Association with other LDS students offers a vital support system. Harvard University sophomore Mary Carol Jones located three other LDS students when she arrived on campus her first year. The four of them came up with a creative way to support each other. Each morning they rolled out of bed early enough to spend an hour jogging through campus before classes. Not only did they exercise physically, but spiritually too. They took with them their scripture mastery cards from seminary and memorized them together, reciting in between breaths.
Tyler Cozzens, a senior attending Stanford University, gained support from his student ward. He says, “It’s nice to be able to go to family home evening and talk about issues that are nagging me or that I don’t quite understand. It helps to hear that other people face similar crises and difficulties in reconciling the teachings of the world and the gospel. Without that, a lot of people might feel they are the only ones struggling and that there’s something wrong with them for having a lot of unanswered questions.”
Where can I go for help?
One of the greatest places to find other LDS students is at the LDS Institute of Religion. Institute can offer spiritual refueling to help balance a secular education. “In these institutes,” the First Presidency has said, “our young people may receive religious training comparable with that received in Church schools.”
Heather Park, the president of the Latter-day Saint Student Association at the University of Washington, says, “Institute has been a very good influence for me because you come from classes on campus to institute and get to make sure you’re getting a balance from both sides. If you’re not attending institute and not keeping up on your personal scripture study, you can get pulled away very easily.”
It boils down to what Mary Carol Jones from Harvard calls “inner commitment of the heart”—a commitment to sincere daily prayer, active church attendance, personal scripture study, and a desire to be close to the Lord.
What about an LDS social life?
College life must be balanced between spiritual, academic, and social growth. Several organizations are sponsored by the Church under the direction of the priesthood to provide such a balance.
Every LDS student is a member of LDSSA—the Latter-day Saint Student Association. There are 360 organized units of LDSSA located on campuses all over the United States, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
The purpose of this organization is to reach the individual needs of the LDS student. Its aim is to help LDS students in their educational pursuits, to assist them in staying close to the Church, and to motivate them to be an example of light on their campus.
On many campuses, an important part of LDSSA is the Church-sponsored sorority, Lambda Delta Sigma, and fraternity, Sigma Gamma Chi.
“Lambda Delta Sigma and Sigma Gamma Chi are the best!” says Jennifer Powell, a junior at the University of Utah. “They provide a sorority/fraternity experience with LDS standards on college campuses around the nation.”
Usually the sorority and fraternity will get together for exchanges such as service projects, date parties, cultural evenings, firesides, and dances.
How do I deal with challenges to my personal values and beliefs?
The curriculum at a non-LDS college can be overwhelming. For Latter-day Saints, it may be painful and frustrating to be exposed to ugly theories about God, religion, and morality. Sometimes the things most sacred to you will be challenged, and your whole belief system may be put on the line.
Shanna Tanner, from the University of Puget Sound, is a returned missionary. She never dreamed she’d struggle so hard with reconciling her beliefs with the teachings of the world. “I have an atheistic teacher presenting as fact that there is no God,” she says. “These ideas are so different. They don’t even put God in the picture.”
There is a positive side, however. Through opposition, the truth shines brighter. Hannah Clayson from Princeton University says, “I now have a much greater appreciation for the incredible message of the gospel and how unique it is. There are a lot of really good people out in the world who are not LDS, and in their minds, they have found the answers that work for them. Through talking with them, I’ve been able to realize how incredible the plan of salvation is. We know what our purpose is, and we know where we’re going and where we’ve come from. I have realized what a blessing the gospel is in my life.”
Learning to handle the life-style differences can also be a positive experience. Jason Anderson, a junior at Southwest Missouri State, is a member of the swim team on campus. “A lot of the guys on the swim team are nonmembers. All they really do is party on the weekends. We don’t have the same standards, but we respect each other. I don’t condemn them, and they don’t judge me. It works out really well.”
If all this talk about opposition and challenges has scared you, don’t let it. Margaret Pearson, a senior at Stanford, sums it up when she says, “People considering a non-LDS school really shouldn’t be afraid of it or of losing their beliefs. If their beliefs are strong, they’re going to stand out and shine through the darkness.”
“Eventually you will have to face complex issues and reconcile your spiritual life with your career or book learning,” says Tyler Cozzens, also from Stanford. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Ultimately, it’s not where you go for your education; it’s the way you gain it. “As long as you’re reading scriptures and staying in touch with the gospel, you can get an education that’s in line with your beliefs,” says Nancy Jennens of the University of Puget Sound. “You just have to control that yourself.”
Your education depends on you. You decide if the Lord is going to be a part of your life. The quest for truth and knowledge is exciting, especially when the Lord is your Master Teacher because then you will gain not only a temporal but an eternal education.
For More Info
Contact the institute closest to your campus, or call (801) 240-4682.
Lambda Delta Sigma
Contact your institute director on campus. Call (801) 240-2739 for more information.
Sigma Gamma Chi
Contact your institute director on campus. Call (801) 240-4682 for more information.
Contact your local bishop, branch president, or stake president.
Single Adult/Student wards
Your bishop can tell you the name and telephone number of the stake president on your campus, or look in the telephone book under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it will list all the LDS wards in the area of your school.
For any additional questions, write to: