[This post has been updated.]
I am a high school senior seriously stressed out about college. I have serious issues with conformity and the lack of diversity at BYU, but I secretly feel like I wont be happy unless I go there, even if that means possibly turning down Harvard, Columbia, and full scholarships to USC and UVa. Can you tell me about your experience at BYU?
JL in Arkansas
My experience at BYU?
Just this week, JL, I was digging through an archive bin in my garage when I laid my hands on a prized letter from Rex Lee, who was the president of Brigham Young University during my years as a Cougar. It was a letter I received after sending my diploma back after graduation.
That’s right. I sent back my diploma. Had to do with the firing of one of my favorite professors, Cecilia Konchar Farr, on some pretty shady grounds: BYU said it was her scholarship, but we all knew it was her feminism that got Ceil in hot water. And Ceil wasn’t the only BYU faculty member or student feeling the heat of retrenchment during the 1990s.
Those were some times.
Here’s President Lee’s letter:
To this day I appreciate President Lee’s gracious response to my 21 year-old expression of hurt and anguish.
But that whole diploma scenario is really only a small part of my BYU story. You can read more of it in chapter 10 of The Book of Mormon Girl. There was also silly fun with Mormon girlfriends in the dorms and the ragtag band of friends from the Student Review, the off-campus student newspaper. And many hours in Utah’s beautiful Wasatch mountains and incomparable red rock deserts. And bona fide learning in the Karl G. Maeser Building.
(Note that I did not say I got a world-class education at BYU. Because I didn’t. My husband got a world-class education. He went to Columbia University. Almost every one of his classes was taught by a demonstrated world leader in his or her field. His classmates came from around the world and many were exceptionally connected to world networks of knowledge and opportunity.)
I was a smart, hardworking Mormon girl, like you. And I too had some options. But my heart was absolutely set on BYU.
I went in a wide-eyed completely orthodox Mormon girl hoping to study something portable enough to fit into a life following husband and raising children.
And I came out a husbandless (but not boyfriendless) feminist with amazing connections to the world of Mormon thought headed for a Ph.D. program in a big city.
To this day, I wonder if my diploma is still in a file cabinet somewhere in the Abraham Smoot Administration Building at BYU. And to this day I wonder what would have happened had I gone to the other college that accepted me. The one in northern California with the eucalyptus groves and the famous marching band. Would I have found that nice nerdy Mormon boy in my small campus ward? Would I have missed the whole tumult of the Mormon feminist 1990s? Would I be, right now, sitting in a really sweet gated community with a much more conventional view of the world, a husband in the bishopric, and a killer Pinterest habit? Instead of sitting here with my not-so-orthodox Mormon life and a career I never imagined and running the Alice’s Restaurant of the Mormon bloggernacle?
My dissertation advisor, the wily and beloved Dr. Michael Colacurcio, once told me that when one makes a decision of this level of momentousness, one comprehends but a tiny fraction of the factors that will shape everything that follows. You’re reading glossy brochures and meditating on abstractions like “diversity” and “happiness” and somewhere in Asia that proverbial butterfly is flapping its wings setting off a chain of random events that will crash your “diversity” into your “happiness” and ruin the rest of your life or, by the same token, make it the best dang life you could never have dreamed of living.
So I’m going to tell you all the regular Mormon stuff—yes, pray about it, and listen to how the spirit guides you.
And, then, remember a few basic axioms:
College is awesome.
Go to the very finest college you can get into. What does “finest” mean? Are faculty members world leaders in their fields? Can they connect you with world-class opportunities for study and work? No matter what Mormons like to say about BYU being the “Harvard of the West,” it is verifiably untrue in most fields by measures of university assessment. (Take a look at the US News & World Report College Rankings, for one set of assessments.) There are some exceptionally strong fields at BYU, like engineering and accounting. But notice that BYU’s strengths are in pragmatic fields. Mormon culture is too anti-intellectual to have fostered enough support for robust inquiry in humanities and social sciences. There are some truly outstanding faculty members in these fields at BYU, but the faculties across the board are not as strong and faculty may not be in a position to connect you with world-class opportunities for study and work.
Remember too that beyond the classroom the friend connections you make at college can also shape your horizons and life chances. If you go to an Ivy League or comparable university, you will be making what could be lifelong connections with people from around world bringing a world’s breadth of opportunities. At BYU, you will be making what could be lifelong connections with Mormons largely from the Book of Mormon belt. Their attitudes about life and achievements will impact your own.
Wherever you decide to go, learn and live as much as you can while you are there.
Get out with as little debt as possible.
And embrace everything that follows.
Because it’s all connected.
It’s all part of your story.
Make that story a big one.
Readers, what about you? To BYU? Or not to BYU? How would you advise JL?
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