Ask Mormon Girl: I’m a high school senior. Should I go to BYU?

[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:

redact rex lee

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?

Send your query to or follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.


Filed under social connectedness

123 responses to “Ask Mormon Girl: I’m a high school senior. Should I go to BYU?

  1. I had my heart set on the University of Oregon my senior year and, miraculously, got a 60% scholarship which made it affordable. I burst into tears when I got the letter; although it made her apprehensive, my mother–who met my father at BYU–knew it was where I was “supposed” to go as well.

    The Church had a rather weak presence on campus and I struggled with staying active. Beginning with dating a non-member, I “strayed.” It took 2-3 years for me to return to Church, and they were painful years. I wouldn’t trade my time at that wonderful university for anything…but, JL, I would ask yourself two questions:

    – How important is your identity as a member to you?
    – How willing are you to struggle with competing influences/philosophies that may challenge your standing in the Church?

    I ended up figuring things out in the end but it wasn’t without difficulty. If “holding to the rod,” so to speak, is of paramount importance to you and you don’t have confidence that you’d be able to hold tight in a non-LDS-dominated environment, BYU might be the place for you. But there are so many rewarding things about going to a non-church school! I loved my experience at Oregon and, like I said, don’t regret it. Who’s to say that going to BYU would have made a difference in the choices I made?

    • I support asking yourself (as well as praying, pondering, and fasting about) those 2 questions.

      My personal experience is that I chose to not even apply for BYU (or any predominately school, for that matter) because I had spent my entire life being different from everyone else. I was concerned about the culture shock I would face with suddenly finding myself the same as everyone else. I ended up choosing a teeny-tiny Catholic school in the corner of Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The school sat atop a hill, and the Sioux City Stake Center sat at the bottom. Like Kathryn, I wandered a bit, and eventually found my way back. Most of what I learned at college wasn’t in the classroom. But I was able to form relationships (personal and professional) that helped me learn who I was and what I wanted from life. I would have learned those lessons elsewhere, but they would likely have different answers.

      My best advice for when you can’t tell the pros vs. the cons comes from a radio clip I heard from a Focus on the Family radio segment. “Successful people don’t worry about making the right deciscion. They make a decision and then work to make it right.”

  2. Jonathan

    Great advice.
    To this day, I regret my decision on where to go to college (it wasn’t BYU). I was guided to it by other people’s expectations, and it was evident early on that it was entirely wrong for me. But I allowed those expectations to continue to guide me and stayed until I got my degree. By the time I was done, I was so sick of that place that I did not attend graduation ceremonies, even though my family had come down to see me graduate. I tore up my diploma. And I haven’t used a single thing I “learned” (and I use the term loosely) there in the entire 13 years since. Most of what I’ve done since was what I picked up from the job I had while attending school.

    First and foremost, trust yourself. Get advice, but ultimately you’re the one that has to live with this decision.

    Second, avoid recruiters. Unless you’re the star QB of your football team, you should keep away from people trying to recruit you to their school.

    Third, do your research. Find out what you want to do with your life. See if you can schedule a visit to a company or talk to someone that does that. See what their typical day is like, the good points and bad points, whether it’s something you think you would be good at and enjoy. Once you know that, talk to them and find out where they went, what schools they recommend. Get opinions from multiple sources.

    Fourth, don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake. If you get into it, and you decide it’s not for you, move on. You’re not locked in. Credits will transfer, especially in your early years when you’ll be taking a lot of general classes. You can switch majors, switch schools, whatever.

    Fifth, consider alternate routes. These days, while many companies still like seeing that piece of paper on your resume, it’s not as important to the actual job, and it is becoming less important to companies. See if there are internship programs available in your chosen field. These days, unless you’re a doctor or some other field with that requires an extensive amount of highly specialized knowledge, you may be taking on a lot of debt unnecessarily.

  3. mofembot

    I mostly regret having chosen to graduate from BYU rather than the other university I attended (I bounced back and forth between Provo and LA and had enough in-residence credits to graduate from either school, depending on which one I chose to attend during my senior year). The education I received at both schools was very good. But over the years people have made an awful lot of increasingly erroneous assumptions about who I am and what I believe about certain political and social issues when they learn that I graduated from the Y. They would make no such assumptions had I a diploma from the other school. If you’d like be able to judiciously choose when to let people know about your religious background rather than have your diploma trumpet it… well.

    PS: Even though BYU is incredibly economical, think very hard before you turn down a full-ride to… good heavens, did you say USC? I would have given my eye teeth to have been able to afford to go there.

  4. Victoria

    As a BYU feminist and unorthodox Moromon about to graduate, I’d like to offer my perspective to JL.

    Joanna is very correct that it is impossible to know all of the things that will result from this one decision. But I will tell you about my experience here, from 2009-2013. I also entered BYU an orthodox, believing Mormon,sure I’d be married by the time I graduated. I am leaving it unsure about what my relationship to Mormonism is or will be in the future. That transition has absolutely been the hardest thing that has ever happened to me. It has involved depression, anxiety, losing friends, and a lot of really hard nights. However, Provo was also the best place in the world for me to find others who understood how I was feeling. My overall experience at BYU has involved learning a lot about myself and making the best friends and memories of my life. I have no regrets. I am so, so happy here.

    Don’t make too many assumptions about conformity. You can find whoever you want to find here. In recent years, the off-campus publication The Student Review has been making a comeback, as has Feminism/ the Women’s Studies Department at BYU and that is so, so exciting to see. We have a brand new Mormon Women’s History class that is incredibly empowering and exciting, as well as a new Feminist theory class and Women’s Studies Honor Society.The Honor’s Program offers a number of interesting, non-traditional classes. Provo is full of talented, creative, ambitious people. The valley has recently been listed as one of the nation’s top locations for business start-ups. Our music scene is producing a number of up and coming bands. Utah has more national parks than any other state, and almost all of them are 3 hours or less away. Southern Utah is unlike any other part of the world, and people from all around the world come to see it.

    I will be honest, the lack of drinking culture here has made BYU a much more comfortable place for me to be. Most of my high school friends are non-Mormons and have gone to a variety of colleges. I love my friends and still keep in contact with them, but I am often somewhat disturbed at the extent to which their social lives depend on alcohol. I am happy to live in a place where the social scene does not revolve around drinking, because I feel it is a better fit for my personality.

    Is there a lack of diversity here? Yup. Is it the most annoying place in the world sometimes? Totally. But I have found that all of my friends get frustrated with the place where they go to school sometimes, from NYC to Dayton, Ohio. It’s just the nature of life.

    You have really wonderful opportunities open to you. Every choice will bring a different result, and there will be advantages and disadvantages to all of them. Make the choice that you think is the best fit for you, and once you have, don’t look back. But if you do come here, call me up! I am more than happy to teach you what I know.

  5. anon tonight

    You only get one college experience. Maybe you would settle in to BYU and enjoy it. Maybe you would settle in to another prestigious university and feel totally fulfilled. No matter where you land, if you go somewhere and it’s not a good fit, don’t be afraid to transfer. My husband went to BYU-I and hated it, but stayed because it was cheap. His grad experience was great, but dearly expensive. My Sister In Law went to BYU-I and completely hated it. But stuck it out because it was cheap. I went to BYU-Provo and fared OK. But I think I would have done well at other places, too. I might have felt more comfortable to take academic risks. I might not have felt the extreme pressure to get married by graduation. BYU is a meritocracy and is highly competitive academically and socially. Most colleges are, but not all are. My cousin is currently at USC, is a member, and loves it, even though it’s expensive. It has the program with the rigor and prestige that she wanted. She’s meeting great people who respect her standards.

    You can’t hold on to a college that isn’t right for you because the low price is so enticing. It’s like sticking around an abusive boyfriend because he always pays for nice dinners and movies. College is meant to expand your mind, prepare you for a career or further study, and expand your circle of friends. You’re supposed to feel like it’s a good time in your life. If it’s not, don’t be afraid to transfer!

    • slsdm

      While I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, the flip side of that argument is that going into massive debt for your college “experience” can be just as unwise, and have long lasting negative effects as well. Let’s face it, college isn’t the end-all experience. It’s a period of time that transitions you from childhood to full-on adulthood (with all the responsibilities that adulthood bring) while teaching you how to learn and to always seek after learning in the process.

      I can tell you that my college experience, and all the lessons and growth I had there, don’t come close to matching the lessons and growth I’ve had from life itself and all that it’s thrown the 16 years I’ve had since graduating. Life is a bigger campus than any college, and its lessons are far more educating than any of my college courses ever were. That being said, I am thankful for those years in college, not because of the classes or memories, but because of the way it taught me how to learn – how to be objective in my thinking while I learn, and how to make learning a lifelong pursuit. That’s what makes life constantly interesting and enriching.

      All of that shouldn’t require tens of thousands of dollars of racked up college debt that you’ll be paying off for years and years to come. My humble advice. instead. would be to pick the school that fits you best that is still reasonably affordable in the end. Because, in the end, it’s only a classroom that will prepare you for the bigger classroom that is to come – life itself.

  6. Paula

    BYU was a soul crushing experience for me as a smart independent woman. It is there that I decided I did not want to get married in the temple though I had been dreaming of a temple wedding my entire life before that. To this day I they going there and having it on my resume continues to cause me problems. Go where you can get a better education and have no one throw the Proclamation in your face to shame you should they find out you really want an education and not just an MRS degree. Not all will but enough will to make you question your sanity along with theirs. Go somewhere not looked down on for carrying more about conformity than academic freedom. A place where feminists and gay right advocates can’t even wow letters to the editors of off campus papers without risking their jobs, and students don’t get their transcripts and diplomas for making calendars.

  7. i am absolutely horrified that a smart woman would even consider giving up Harvard or Columbia for BYU.

  8. schleppenheimer

    All I can say is that I have a son who currently has the very same questions about attending BYU, and for the same reasons. He adamantly doesn’t want to attend BYU. I mostly don’t think it would be a good idea for him to attend BYU either, because of lack of diversity [after his being raised in a relatively diverse city] — BUT, there’s that pull of similar moral values AND inexpensive tuition. Rough decision to have to make!

    I have two older children who attended BYU. One says he hated it, and consistently asked if he could transfer elsewhere (and we consistently said “no” for a multitude of reasons). He ended up going to grad school at an Ivy League, and totally enjoyed that. My other child is currently at school, and if she doesn’t get into an Ivy [I think her chances of getting in are high], she will be going to grad school on the east coast and NOT at BYU. She initially enjoyed the BYU experience, and even enjoyed some diversity of experience — but she’s ready to leave now.

    BYU is BIG, and therefore, you can find any kind of friends you want. There are definite plusses and minuses to attending there nowadays. I personally wouldn’t go to BYU if I had been accepted at a really good school elsewhere, and money wasn’t an issue. You will have access to a nice group of institute friends at other colleges, all interesting types who dared to go to school in an unusual location. But this is such a personal decision, involving moral, financial, and diversity factors — no matter where you go, you will enjoy your experience.

  9. Heather DeWitt

    I finished my time on BYU’s campus last April, and when I left it I too had mixed and even unhappy feelings about some of my experiences there. There were a lot of things that really bothered me, specifically what felt like a totally sexist blaming of the women and their clothing for the men’s inappropriate thoughts. I have a feeling that that problem will still be on campus for a while.
    I left feeling bitter and even less certain about my faith than when I first came in. But I will say this: I had prayed about it and I knew that I was meant to go there. I grew more in those four years than in any amount of time previous to it. I met some of the most wonderful people and fell in love with some of the most brilliant professors (btw, HS Senior, if you do go to BYU I highly recommend Dr. Gloria Cronin. She’s brilliant!). Despite the joke that it is the “Lord’s University,” it’s far and away from perfect. But it is full of wonderful things that are not hard to find. Sincerely pray about it, because Heavenly Father wants what is best for you. He knows where it is that you need to go.

  10. shawnholyoak

    First, go where The Lord wants you to go. But if he says it’s up to you, go anywhere but BYU. Why are you going to college? To get an education, or to get married? While BYU is a good school, it can’t compare academically with the others you listed, so if you’re going to get an education, get the best one you can get.

  11. JL,
    I can only speak from my own experiences, (I just graduated from BYU a couple years ago.) In so many ways, I loved it, and in so many ways I hated it.
    I’ll start with the negative first.
    It’s really hard some times being in that kind of hypercharged Utah culture. I experienced a lot of sexism on campus from peers when I told other students I planned to eventually get my PhD. Student wards are really hard, They’re typically full of young students who haven’t experienced the world yet and are strict for rules.
    It might sound silly, but another thing I feel sorry I missed out on was the whole social scene of other schools. I saw my high school friends go to other schools and delve into their school’s sorority and fraternity social life and make life-long friends. BYU doesn’t have anything similar, and I missed that.
    Here’s the positive: I left school-debt free, and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my bills, and probably would have had to live at home with my parents after graduation like so many of my friends did.
    Also, there’s now a BYU Feminists FHE, and a feminist club, that wasn’t around when I was at BYU. The people I know who are a part of it will go at any lengths to make you feel at home and give you a safe place that you’ll belong in.
    The feminists that I met at BYU, I share a special bond with. It would be hard to find other friends at other colleges who would understand the complexities of being a mormon and being a feminist.

    Don’t sweat the decision too much. 🙂 Wherever you choose to go, you’ll have an amazing time. Have fun!

  12. Connie

    Not BYU and, don’t look back with regrets. Every University has an Institute. Make your mark, spread your wings, make a difference!
    My vote would be USC,,, experience Southern CA it’s amazing!

  13. Mark

    As a BYU alum and now a PhD student at an Ivy League school, I can tell you that in my experience, academics at BYU are nearly on par with the courses I have taken and taught in the Ivy League. In fact, when I started graduate school I found that I was often better prepared than many in my cohort who had attended very prestigious (and very expensive) schools all over the country (Stanford, Swarthmore, NYU, …). So if you’re concern is for academic rigor, I wouldn’t worry. In fact, one advantage that BYU has over many of these other schools is a lack of a graduate program. Because there aren’t a lot of graduate students running around at BYU, faculty have to look to undergraduates for research assistants. I can tell you that the deepest learning I experienced at BYU was working as a research assistant and not in any particular classroom.

    Furthermore, if you plan to attend graduate school, employers are often most interested in where your most recent degree came from. So if you go to BYU and then attend graduate school at another, more prestigious school, you’re in no worse shape academically, but likely much better shape financially.

    Finally, I think you’ll find that since BYU is such a big place (30,000+ students) that you can find any sort of diversity/group of friends you’re looking for. Good luck with your decision!

    • Brian

      I’m in a very similar situation as Mark- BYU alum and PhD at a more ‘prestigious’ school. I completely agree with him and can vouch for everything in his first paragraph.

      While it may sound cliche, college life will be what YOU make of it. I loved most things about my BYU experience. There are tens of thousands of students, so finding people with the same interests or whatever is not a problem. I highly recommend going to BYU… as long as it is YOUR decision. I had a friend who attended BYU at the pushing of others, and hated it. She left and attended another school for a while. She then came back to BYU and enjoyed it.

    • A Prof

      I am on BYU’s faculty in the social sciences. Yes, there are other places with world-class faculty–I went to one for graduate school. There are many advantages to going to one of those schools. Going to one would be a great choice. If that’s what you decide to do, power to you!

      Let me offer some insight into why BYU may still be worth thinking about–its recent emphasis on “mentored learning.” If you go to a more prestigious university, your lectures may be taught by world class faculty (or may be taught by poorly paid adjuncts), but almost all of your interaction will be with the graduate student teaching assistants. You really have to go out of your way and be lucky to have meaningful interaction with top faculty at many of those schools.

      BYU has wisely begun investing enormous resources into funding student-faculty research. I’m taking four undergrads to a national conference to present our joint research next week. Faculty regularly coauthor well-respected research with students in my department. No one else out there does this as much as we do–many (most?) universities view the undergrads as the cash cows to fund their graduate/research programs. This is part of the reason that BYU regularly ranks in the top 5 in the nation for sending students to PhD programs.

      I’m not saying that BYU is definitely the right choice for you. I’m just saying that things have changed a lot from when I was a student. The younger faculty getting hired are truly top-notch. There is an intellectual energy in many departments that, frankly, the undergrads at my prestigious graduate institution never got to bask in.

      There are still aspects of BYU’s culture that make me wince, but I can report that it is better than it was. And there were parts of my graduate institution’s culture that made me wince significantly more. Further, there is a greater intellectual diversity (still working on other kinds–but doing better on this front too) on campus than anyone seems to acknowledge. I see plenty of Obama stickers on laptops as I lecture. The Women’s Studies program is expanding. The faculty are generally fair and open-minded (at least in my part of campus). And if you’re looking for role models who are deeply committed to both faith and intellect, it’s tough to beat my colleagues.

      If you think and pray about it and decide to come to BYU, my only advice is to come whole-heartedly. Coming as a cynic will poison your experience from the get-go. You don’t have to love everything (when do you ever?), but appreciate BYU for what it is and take advantage of all it has to offer. And if you decide BYU isn’t right for you, then go somewhere else whole-heartedly. Make whatever decision you make the right decision by jumping in and embracing it.

      Best wishes!

  14. I attended BYU starting in 1996, so a few year after the feminist wave began, and the resulting the throw back of it. It was an interesting time to be a progressive, feminist Mormon at BYU…. and especially interesting to me, because I hadn’t realized that I was a progressive, feminist Mormon until I GOT to BYU. My views didn’t change all that much, but the recognition that my views were so different than all these other Mormons played a big role in my development there. And sometimes that was hard, but truth be told, I loved it. I loved going to BYU. I found professors that I identified with and really loved. There classmates and roommates that were on the same page as me, and even if there were few and far between, they were so WORTH IT.

    I often wonder about the “what ifs” if I had gone to another school. But in the end, I’m really grateful that in that time of my life when I discovered that I lived in the outskirts of Mormondom, I was also in the right place to find others and learn I wasn’t alone out there.

    And seriously? Education wise, BYU is a GREAT school. There are few schools that can give you an education that great, with a tuition that low. That is something else that is very worth considering.

  15. Follow your heart. There is so much good at BYU. There is so much good at other Universities. There really is so much good. Ask lots of questions. Ponder the answers. Pray. Be curious about your choices. The spirit is the perfect guide.

  16. Michelle

    I had a teacher in high school once tell me that BYU is the Harvard of the west. And she wasn’t a Mormon.

    • Carole

      I love BYU, but I’d have a hard time arguing that it beats out Stanford for the title of the Harvard of the west… I think you could make a case for it being the Notre Dame of the West.

  17. Christiane Cannon

    JL, what an exciting set of options! And what a tough decision – in the 10+ years since I chose to go to UCLA (a big move from Michigan), that decision remains one of the most difficult I have ever made. So don’t sweat it if you feel squirmy during the process, second-guess yourself after, or even change your mind once you’re in school. This process can help you gain confidence in your decision-making skills and learn that even the most independent of folks need to lean on the Lord. To Joanna’s sound advice, I would add: (1) there is pressure to conform at most universities so consider whether you are more/less comfortable with that pressure being closely linked to your faith; (2) the Lord’s answer may come as a strong ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but it may also be ‘wherever you want.’ Mine was the latter. I feel confident that I would have had a wonderful – albeit different – experience at any of the colleges I considered. The good news is you have a wonderful palette to choose from so it will be difficult to go wrong. Bon voyage!

  18. Diane

    Making a decision where to go to college should be one of the most joyous of all occasions. For me it was not. I grew up and aged out of the foster care system. I had no one to help guide me into making the appropriate decisions as to where I should attend college. In fact, five minutes after graduating high school I was shipped off to my college dorm because I was no longer allowed to stay in the group home where I was living, So, because of this I’m going to say that while Joanna is right on some aspects, she is not right on all aspects, When considering your choices of where to go consider your learning style. Consider whether or not you want to go to a major academic research facility type university versus a smaller teaching college. Smaller teaching colleges can offer more one on one attention with your professors, rather than large over crowded auditoriums classes which are taught by a teaching assistant.

    Also, consider the financial aspects, can you afford the big ticket item. I wished that I had had the family support that many students had, If I had the opportunity to live at home to help alleviate the cost I would have done so

  19. I am a recent BYU grad and I had a similar experience at BYU. I went in as a naive Freshman and came out as a budding feminist with my eyes set pretty high to get more education. I dealt with the self righteous roommates, the messy ones, the extreme ones and the whole mix. BYU is becoming more diverse, not much and it’s all still in the white Mormon group. But people are more open to the idea of feminism and are opening up to lots.

    However, you find what you are looking for. If you want to see the self righteous then you’ll see them. If you want to find the awesome open minded liberal feminists you will find them.

    Good luck in your choice.

  20. Having attended and worked at 5 universities over the past 4 years I can attest to your advice to attend the BEST university you possibly can. It will serve you well in your post-graduate years whether you are working, furthering your education, or “staying” (aka working) at home. Ivy League schools have arguably the best endowment programs in the country making them as affordable (or better than) our tithe-payer funded BYU. I agree with Joanna that you should meditate and pray over the decision. I would also suggest that you be entirely honest with yourself in what you truly want in attending college. Is it the best possible education or program in the country? Is it prospective marriage? Is it living on your own? Is it four years of fun? Once you know what your expectations are, I think you will be able to make the best possible decision for YOU.

  21. I also left BYU with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth–I got there the year after Farrar and Knowlton were dismissed, but caught the Brian Evanson brouhaha…it seems to me there was also a woman in the psychology department who was dismissed for proposing a study having to do with homosexuality that didn’t sit well with the Oberkommandanten…and my wife sold movie tickets to Rex Lee and found him to be rather cold and rude. Having said that, though, my experiences with Drs. Brandie Siegfried, Eugene England, Dan Muhlestein, Lance Larsen, Susan Howe and Leslie Norris, as well as Linda Hunter Adams in the English Department, working with as Dierdre Paulsen in the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and taking religion classes with Paul Hoskison and David Seely and cosmology with Dr. J. Ward Moody have turned out to be really positive in the long run. College is awesome (and it’s just as cool as a middle-aged man with kids to return to grad school after the Hell of my first bungled career path) and like everything else, you have to dig through a certain amount of crap to get to the emeralds…but, it’s all well worth it. You can learn and grow at BYU…just as you can at other schools. To wax a bit schmaltzy, if you’re enthusiastic and committed to your work and live so that the Spirit can communicate with you, most any circumstance can work out well. Oh, and as a Southern Californian, the USC gig should be well worth the look! (The libero on their women’s volleyball team is jaw-droppingly good. Forty digs this last season against Stanford!!!)

  22. CC

    If you decide to attend BYU, where I think you would have a wonderful experience for the most part, I’d just suggest doing your homework on which religion professors you take classes from. I had some amazing experiences in BYU religion, and sometimes I had teachers that weren’t exactly suited to my own idiosyncratic needs both intellectually and spiritually. I imagine the same thing would apply to you.

  23. Ru

    Here’s my (potentially terrible advice): Remember that it’s ok to quit. Not college, but the one you attend.

    Picking a school is really hard, especially when (as Joanna points out) there are so many factors you won’t even discover until you’re there. If you go to BYU or USC or wherever, take some pressure off yourself and remember: if it isn’t a good fit, you can always just TRANSFER. It’s no big deal, and while there will be some hiccups, you won’t be the first freshman to do it. And in the meantime, just enjoy where you are when you’re there.

    FYI, no matter where you go, if you go with an open mind and are willing to get involved in a wide range of things to try to find your niche, you’ll probably end up happy at the first place you chose. But that “transfer” option is a nice pressure release valve. If you do by chance end up hating your choice, it won’t be your choice for long. 🙂 Good luck!

  24. Jesse Houchens


    I agree with Joanna’s remarks above, but also have some of my own to add.

    When you say you secretly feel like you won’t be happy unless you go to BYU, might I ask what you mean by this? Decisions about what college you should attend are often colored by a variety of values, goals, and social pressures. It sounds to me like you need a way to organize these inputs so that you can make a decision that you will feel both justified and satisfied with. Thus, I recommend the following two activities:

    1) Get your colored pencils out and get ready to let everything out in colors, pictures, etc. on a piece of paper (or multiple pieces of paper or even a poster!) Write college in the center, draw a picture (I am a the world’s worst artist, but I still draw a picture), and try to use at least three colors. Then begin branches from this center object with ideas such as “social life”, “extracurriculars”, “classes”, “majors”, “careers,” “environment”, etc. From there just keep coloring, branching, and writing. This will help you figure out what you truly value in a college, i.e. why you want to attend college. (This task is called mind-mapping,

    2) Write a series of journal entries on the computer or in your journal. Dedicate each entry to the school you are considering (you may need multiple entries for the same school). Describe how you picture your life at those schools; your freshman year, your senior year, post-graduation, etc.

    While (1) and (2) may not make your decision, they will cause you to really think about your choice and in the end feel satisfied. Also, I highly recommend talking to people you know who have attended these colleges, both LDS and non-LDS (if you can).

    As a side note, I turned down BYU for Southern Virginia University because I wanted a unique college experience where I would get to continue to play the cello, compete in athletics, actually get to know my professors, and gain a unique experience that very few others have. I am now a graduate student in philosophy and am very grateful for the path I chose. Best of luck!


    • Kathy Datsko

      Drawing your life – picture is fabulous advice. We still use this technique when looking for a new home, etc.

    • J

      JL–You can always do a summer semester at BYU as a visiting student. I’ve had friends attend Ivy League schools and then participate with BYU’s Jerusalem Center or just attend a spring/summer term. Maybe it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. I’m sure you could find a way to get a taste of the BYU experience and still go to your first choice school. Good luck!

  25. Lauren Ard

    BYU was tough for me, but I don’t regret going; in fact, it’s helped me realize my personal mission as a church member. As a Mormon from Delaware, I had no idea until I got to BYU that I was an unorthodox Mormon. Delaware Mormons are much more liberal, accepting, and lax about the “rules” than many of the Mormons I met at BYU. At first I was disillusioned and disheartened, but then I found friends like me and it strengthened my resolve to show other BYU students that I could be a Mormon without being mainstream. Interestingly, many of these friends were tuba players in the BYU Marching Band (there is something about playing the tube that makes you a little bit weird!).

    Now, I’m 29, married with an education degree, living in Tucson with three little kids (and I’m a SAHM). From that description I seem like a typical Mormon woman who graduated from BYU. But I also have a love for challenging the status quo and (hopefully) helping other Mormons realize that you don’t have to be a “normal Mormon” to be a believing Mormon. I’m also a liberal, pants-wearing, sometimes blue-haired Mormon, with a cartilage piercing. I even occasionally have a frappuchino and I think it’s hilarious when my children sing along to “I’m sexy and I know it” in the car on the way to church. This is who I am, and I’m the best Mormon I’ve ever been, because now I focus on what’s in my heart!

    For better or worse, BYU will define your spirituality. You will delve so deep into Mormonism and yourself that you will come out with a deeper understanding of your religious roots and what they mean to you. I am extremely grateful that BYU gave me this opportunity to navel gaze. Yes, other universities have Institute, but it’s not the same as the lengthy and comprehensive spiritual study that is thrust upon you at the Y. If you are ready to discover what it means to you to be a Mormon, then you might consider BYU to be your school of choice.

  26. Laurie

    I would offer this suggestion: Make your decision with gusto, and go have fun in the wide world of academia. Monitor and adjust, and remember – you can always change your mind.

  27. Q

    Your experience at BYU can depend a lot on your major. As others have pointed out, there are advantages to getting a bachelor’s degree at an institution focused primarily on undergraduate education. If you’re inclined toward the sciences, there are opportunities to participate in research as an undergraduate that you may not find elsewhere. On the other hand, a liberal arts degree from BYU might (depending on whether things have changed since the 1990s) offer a somewhat limited perspective compared to what you would get elsewhere. I’m told by my wife, who came through BYU’s English department a couple of years after Joanna, that some undergraduate classes deliberately omitted some of the more “difficult” areas of critical theory she was interested in–something she didn’t realize until going to graduate school elsewhere.

    Some feminists may never be happy at BYU, but for those who know what they are getting into and really want to go there, BYU definitely needs you.

  28. The best decision I ever made was to go to Cornell University. It was far from my Utah home and I went completely alone. I made a lot of friends, some Mormon and other not. Everyone there was very respectful of my beliefs and had their own. The student branch there was small and most of the attendees were married graduate students. The small group of singles was very close and they are still some of the best friends I have ever had. Our Sunday School class (married students and singles) had the most interesting discussions because everyone really thought about their beliefs and were interested in growing and learning from each other.

    You don’t have to go to BYU to get an amazing college experience with other Mormons. Go where you want to go and be excited because college is awesome.

  29. Moss

    I chose to attend a UC. I knew I was a feminist and things like the Honor Code just bring out the absolute, rebellious worst in me, so I wanted no part of BYU. I attended institute, met my husband, and I am still a faithful member of the church (despite having attended the #2 party school in the country). I got a great education, too.

    You can attend a non-church school and still stay close to the church. It is up to you. There is a HUGE & vibrant YSA scene in the USC/UCLA area.

  30. Adrienne

    I really like what Victoria said. 🙂

    I’ll preface my comments with the disclosure that I just started going back to church about a year ago. Prior to that, I was inactive for six years. My current religious beliefs are agnostic.

    I graduated from BYU in 2004 and I had a mostly great experience there. In fact, I was such a zealot as a teenager that I can say BYU actually moderated me. Go figure.

    Don’t assume too much about conformity or lack of diversity at BYU. It’s really hard to generalize 30,000+ kids from all over the world. How exactly are you defining diversity? Religion is the only thing those kids have in common. I was a member of BYU Democrats. You can find any group of students you want at BYU.

    As an unorthodox Mormon, did it drive me nuts sometimes? Oh, yes. And by the time I graduated, I was definitely ready to leave Provo. But it was a blast. And BYU is a great school, well respected (though obviously it’s no Columbia). I don’t understand why people consider it a handicap on their résumé. I live in the DC area now, and I can tell you with some surety that it is NOT a handicap. Even in an area as competitive and prestigious as this, BYU is held in good regard academically and otherwise. Even in my inactivity, I was proud of my diploma (though it could be a little complicated to explain my current religious status).

    As a parent, and as I learn more and more about what goes on at other universities, I can tell you that I hope with everything in my soul that my children attend BYU. My husband (still inactive, with no desire to ever be active again) agrees. I hope they go to BYU for their undergrad, and then they can go somewhere more prestigious for grad school (and BYU is more than adequate as a springboard for that, by the way).

  31. Andrew

    I graduated from BYU and I’m proud of that. My son recently graduated from the “U” and had a great experience there that we somewhat shared. Comparing the two, if your looking for a more diverse experince I would recommend the “U”. What happens in college depends on you and how willing you are to engage in the experience socially and academically. I had to find a way to do that. In my case and in the case of my Son, we joined fraternal organizations that provided a smaller support group as a foundation for the college experience. Go for the best offer and by all means jump in make friends and reach out. don’t wait for the experience to come to you.

  32. mm

    I had 2 goals when I graduated from high school: (1) don’t go to a Church school (I’m a nonconformist); and (2) don’t go to an Idaho school (I was from Idaho and the schools aren’t anything noteworthy). I had my heart set on a small liberal arts college in Oregon with 4 students in the Institute. I got a half tuition scholarship, registered for classes, but could not deny the Holy Ghost telling me not to go. I don’t know why. I was reluctant to heed the prompting, so by the time I did, there were very few backup plans that I still had access to. I begrudgingly moved to Pocatello my freshman year, vowing to transfer from Idaho State University to another university as soon as possible. To my great surprise, I had a really good time at ISU. Such a good time that I thought about continuing there.

    But I didn’t. I went overseas to volunteer for a year, knowing that it would change my life and I could take some time to figure out where I was going.

    At my Dad’s advice I had begun the BYU application during high school. I decided I might as well just finish it, switch it to a transfer application, and see what happens, KNOWING I would choose a different school. But when BYU sent me an acceptance letter, I prayed about it. The Holy Ghost was clearly telling me not to go anywhere but BYU. I was surprised. I was disappointed. But I was obedient.

    And I loved BYU. I loved it more than ISU. I loved it more than a lot of things. Since then I have attended 6 other colleges (that’s a longer story), but I got my diploma from BYU and I know that was where I needed to be–even though I also left husbandless (though not boyfriendless) and a feminist, and also debt-free (It’s pretty hard to do that at Harvard).

    Joanna made valuable points about the education. Some programs are better than others, and you won’t find the diversity that you would at secular schools. But here are my 3 points of advice.
    1. Follow the Holy Ghost’s promptings
    2. It’s ok to transfer if you change your mind (though you might find it better to transfer from Harvard/Columbia to BYU than vice versa)
    3. Do it with as little debt as possible

    • Meidi

      I too went to ISU and loved it! Pocatello is a dinky little town but there are some amazing people there and some really wonderful teachers at ISU. I ended up living in Pocatello for 10 years and made some wonderful friends. I agree that the very best way to make important decisions like where to go to school, what job to accept, etc. is to earnestly pray and listen to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Follow where the Spirit leads you and you will always find your way.

  33. Anon

    The only thing I’d say is that even though BYU may not be considered a “world class institution” or may not actually be the “Harvard of the West,” I would say that it prepares you just as well for future academic pursuits as other universities (I think the econ department is rated as the best place to prepare for a Masters or PhD in economics). When I entered BYU, I always knew I’d go on to do graduate school. When I was in grad school on the east coast, I never felt for a second that I had been less prepared than all of my classmates, many of whom had attended some of the most prestigious universities in the country for their undergrad. In fact, I was sometimes more bored (intellectually) with my graduate classes there than at undergrad classes BYU!

    So if you are dead-set on going to graduate school, I really don’t think it matters much (at least from an intellectual point of view) where you choose to go to undergrad. Most people will end up looking at your most advanced degree anyway.

    2 more points: 1) Some of the most famous university professors are also the worst teachers. So while it’s neat to be around them, don’t always expect that you will be able to absorb all of their knowledge. A very smart and distinguished professor in my grad program was also the dullest teacher and I learned practically nothing from him. And 2) I think it would be really helpful to check out the wards at the universities that you’re considering. For example, I spent a year or two attending the Stanford University singles’ ward, and it is truly a wonderful ward full of smart, passionate students and non-students alike who love each other and stick together in faith and compassion. But I’ve heard that the love and unity in the Stanford Ward pales in comparison to some other prestigious university wards. When my brother-in-law was checking out schools a couple of years ago he made it a point to attend both the Harvard and Stanford singles’ wards, and he felt a lot more comfortable at Stanford.

    So check it out. It’s important to know who you’ll be hanging out with every Sunday for 4 years!

  34. Stephanie

    I would like to add my two cents to some very accurate comments that are already here. I attended BYU-Idaho, no not as “big” as BYU itself, but I think many things can translate to it as well. I mainly went them for two reasons: 1, it was very affordable, and 2 my couple of friends from church were also going so it was convenient to just have all of us go together to ease into the college life. And of course college is going to be awesome in many ways wherever you go, but the things I liked most about it had nothing to do with the church. In fact, many of the things I liked most about it were contrary to many cultural Mormon things. I loved my theatre professors who liked to learn about real world ideals and who taught me much about the real world away from church ideas. My heart ached at times though because their hands would often become tied from demands and restrictions that the administration would put on them as to what they can and can’t teach in classes. Things that really weren’t bad, but in terms of the “wholesome” BYUI standards shouldn’t be looked at or thought of at all. I had many squeaky clean roomates from around the country that would condemn me for watching Lord of the rings (ex: “Oh, I wonder if the prophet would watch that”) or for drinking a caffeinated soda. Things that are permissible but yes you will be judged daily for every act you do there. BYU has a sense sometimes of, who can be the more holy Mormon and it gets down right obnoxious! I got my degree in theatre and art education, and I have to say that my theatre teachers gave me the best education possible, however, most of my education classes as well as my basic classes were far from it. Everything at BYU is centered around gospel principles, and while that is all fine and good it does not prepare you for the real world. I feel like it is a huge detriment to the students by surrounding them in this “happy-go-lucky, the world is so lovely and we need to teach the gospel to them all” bubble they surround you in. I know many students that went into education and after only a year or two of teaching in a state other than Utah or Idaho, they quit and went to something completely different because they had no idea that high school students are foul, disrespectful, and don’t want to be taught. And since that wasn’t an “uplifting” environment, rather than push through those trials and teach these kids anyway, they gave up and quit. I’m one of the lucky ones that can get past that, partly because I grew up in Florida in a similar environment and partly because despite the professors and university hammering ideals into you that will not be useful to you in your professional life, I found those few professors and students like me who were progressive Mormons that sought out answers for themselves rather than believe every tiny thing anyone ever tells you from the pulpit. So I would say do just that, seek out answers for yourself. BYU is highly overrated and academically it indeed falls short. Compare the programs of Universities that have your desired major and see which come out on top. Go with that as your guide rather than just being Mormon and going to BYU because of that, because it’s not the right reason to go there.

  35. Rachel Esplin Odell

    Dear JL,

    A friend sent me this post, and I read it this morning right before heading off to work. I remember experiencing the same anguish and indecision as you seven years ago when I was trying to decide where to go to school. I remember it ain’t easy, so I included you in my morning prayers.

    For me, it came down to Harvard vs. Yale, and then once I made that decision, Harvard vs. BYU (with a full ride Hinckley scholarship). I ultimately chose Harvard, after a summer term at BYU immediately following high school graduation (I started that summer at BYU because of financial concerns, intending to finish my BA there as quickly as possible and go on to grad school at a place like Harvard, but then I eventually figured out how to make Harvard work). For me personally, choosing Harvard was the best decision I ever made, other than marrying my husband.

    Generally, I think you are probably asking the right question: where will I be happiest? There are many other important considerations, several of which Joanna outlines above – including financial considerations. But ultimately, choosing based on where you think you will be happy is probably a good approach.

    My only caution is that it can be very difficult to predict where you might be happiest, and as cliché as it sounds, much of happiness honestly lies in choosing to be happy. Thus, as Joanna also advises, and as you undoubtedly also recognize, the most important thing really is to counsel with the Lord. There is no one right choice for everyone (and there may not even be one right choice for you!), but only God knows your heart perfectly and knows what path will be best for you. And if you counsel with Him, He will guide you, whether you realize it or not at the time. And then you will look back some day and find new meaning in the words, “thy God doth undertake / To guide the future, as He has the past.”

    So with that in mind, I have a few thoughts based on my own experience. Please take them with a grain of salt, understanding that my perspectives are biased by my experience, and I may be a very different person from you. (I’m also sorry this comment is so dang long. I am nerdy like that. Feel free to be like, tl;dr.)

    First and foremost, please do not let yourself or anyone else turn this into a choice between, on one hand, going to BYU and remaining active in the church and/or having better prospects for a temple marriage, and, on the other hand, going to some other school and drifting from the gospel and its standards. I am not denying that it can be difficult to live the standards at a place where those standards are generally disregarded and where you do not have a strong support system. In that respect, Kathryn’s experience is instructive.

    BUT, it does not have to be that way, particularly not if you go to a place with a strong LDS support community. I graduated from Harvard, stayed active in the Church, and got married in the temple to the coolest guy ever. I got a great job, I’m about to start a top PhD program in political science, and my husband and I are having a baby (!). And I have many dear friends who went to Harvard (and other non-church schools), men and women alike, who are in similar situations. Yes, my testimony is in a very different (and more unorthodox) place than it was seven years ago. But I feel it is stronger and more resilient for it, and that is one of the aspects of my experience for which I am most grateful.

    But if I had not had a strong supportive faith community, I may very well have followed a much more difficult path. That is why I do not at all mean to imply that prospects for church activity and temple marriage should not be a part of your decision; they very much should be. But it sounds like you are in the very fortunate position of being able to choose a place such as Harvard that provides all the advantages of a top-tier, diverse institution (more on that below), while also having a very strong LDS community, with a thriving LDSSA, Institute, and singles ward. In that regard, there really is no place in the country like Harvard, except for maybe Stanford.

    (And I write that knowing that many of my dear friends at places like Columbia, Yale, UPenn, Princeton, and Georgetown [where my husband went to school] would most likely vehemently disagree and tell you why having an even smaller, more intimate LDS community is even better. On that note, if you want to talk to Columbia, UVa or USC alum, please let me know and I will put you in touch with people who can give you the scoop on being LDS at those schools. I’m clearly biased in the direction of Harvard given my life-changing and invaluable experience there, so you should also hear the perspective of folks at those schools. 😉

    Furthermore, as several of the comments here (and Joanna’s own example) reveal, it seems to me just from anecdotal evidence that attending BYU can be a rather polarizing experience, particularly if you are already even slightly inclined in a liberal or unorthodox direction (which I suspect you are given your comment and the fact that you are contacting Ask Mormon Girl). It seems that BYU can sometimes lead people so inclined to feel, perhaps subtly, offended and embittered about the Church (particularly its leadership and its history), self-conscious about their intellectual difference and spiritual uniqueness, and perhaps even superior because of it. Frankly, I would not be surprised if that would have happened to me at BYU. And I am very grateful that it, more or less, did not happen to me (though pride is the universal sin, and I have plenty of it—as even making this comment probably reveals… showing that I have my own damnable pride at not being one of those unorthodox BYU feminist types ;).

    But fortunately, I went to college at a place where my fellow ward members didn’t give a hoot if you wore pants to church (it was a non-issue), where we read the journals of polygamist women with the great Mormon scholar/feminist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (our LDSSA advisor) at Institute, where we had open discussion in Sunday School and Institute about such things as the priesthood ban and Mountain Meadows Massacre, where we were able to ask doctrinal questions from unorthodox positions and get faithful, earnest responses from mentors and peers.

    Lest that sounds a bit, well, intense, I also need to caveat this by saying it’s not like we were talking about those things all the time. Usually, our gospel discussions were about faith, hope, and charity, how the gospel can get you through the stresses of college, how the grace of Christ and the body of the Church can sustain and uplift—in other words, the kind of stuff that really matters. I sincerely believe that it was a spiritual feast beyond anything I could have hoped for or expected at BYU.

    Secondly, I know another piece of advice you are likely getting is to go to BYU for college and then go to an Ivy League or whatever for graduate school, particularly because it is cheaper and BYU is just as good as any other school, etc. etc. I have friends who have done that; it is true, it happens, it can make a lot of sense. But IMO, people who say that sort of miss the point of college. College is probably going to be the most formative period of your life, and you should choose a place that you feel will form you in a way you want to be formed.

    And beyond that, I also feel that people who say that are stretching things a bit. Yes, it can be possible to go to a great grad school out of BYU (especially law school or med school, i.e. places where admission is mostly dependent on good grades and test scores), and it is certainly possible to succeed when you do so. (There were tons of BYU graduates at grad schools at Harvard, mostly at Harvard Law.) And given my experience at both Harvard and BYU, I do not generally dispute the point made above that academics at BYU are strictly speaking probably on par with those at top schools…

    But I also think the scales become a bit more imbalanced when you account for academic and career opportunities writ large. Given the admittedly sort of gag-inducing incestuous elitism of our country’s top governmental, financial, nonprofit, and academic institutions, I guarantee you that there are opportunities that will be open to you if you go to Harvard that will not be open to you if you go to BYU (largely because of the connections you will make at Harvard and the recommendations you will get from professors there). It may not be fair, and BYU will cite you plenty of anecdotes to the contrary (all those BYU grads who get recruited into the FBI!), but at a basic level, it’s true.

    Finally – and this point is a bit more mushy, but still, I think, very significant, perhaps most of all – for me, there was a sort of peacefulness and stability of identity that come from going to Harvard rather than BYU. At BYU, I would have been pretty much just like everyone else there. So I could have distinguished myself in two main ways: (1) by being unorthodox, or (2) by being competitive. So I could have become sort of liberal and edgy and a bit scornful of all the other mindless sheeple at BYU. Or I could have banged my brains out and stressed myself to infinity to compete with all the other kids who were just like me to get the best grades and the top research assistantships and blah blah blah, so I could be one of those few kids who gets out of BYU and gets into a top grad school.

    At Harvard, I didn’t have to do either of those things to be unique. I was a Mormon. And I was who I was, earnestly seeking for truth and light. That was enough. I didn’t ever feel like I had to compete with anyone else to distinguish myself. Certainly, I competed with myself and held myself to a very high academic standard – and I am a bit overly obsessive in that regard – so there was plenty of stress. But that would have been true regardless of where I went to school.

    But all of us in the LDSSA – about 40 or 50 at any given time – we were all different people, from different backgrounds, studying different things. And yet we were tight-knit and comfortable in our own skins, and it never mattered what grades we were getting or what academic success we were accomplishing. We just were in it together; we studied together in the library and provided support to each other when the ridiculous deadlines were piling up and took comfort in our diversity and shared identity.

    And beyond that, the broader Harvard community was so diverse that everyone had their own niche – in the arts, or the sciences, or outdoors club, or athletics, or different faith communities. In particular, I found it so enriching to engage with people of other faiths, from the perspective of my Mormon identity. To have deeply meaningful conversations with Jewish and Baha’i and Catholic friends at Interfaith Council meetings. It was just, ah, I can’t put it into words – it touched my soul, in a way that my soul had never been touched before growing up in a majority-LDS community in southeast Idaho, and in a way that will shape me into the eternities.

    So when it comes to where you will be most happy, I strongly encourage you to consider this identity factor. It’s perhaps a bit hard to explain until you experience it. But it meant everything to me.

    As a sort of postscript, chances are very good that my husband and I will be graduate student resident tutors at Harvard next year and thus will once again be a part of the Harvard LDS community. And since you sound like a sincere and earnest person, I would love it if you joined us in that community! I have many dear LDS friends still at Harvard who would also love to give you a campus tour or answer any questions you may have. So if you have any questions at all or if I can help in any way, please contact me by sending me a Facebook message.

    Best wishes with making your decision! I will keep you in my prayers. 🙂

    • Rachel Esplin Odell

      Upon re-reading this, I realize I was perhaps too unambiguously rosy in my depiction of my experience. It was sometimes very spiritually difficult. There were also occasionally times when I halfway wished I had gone to BYU. And like anyplace, the LDS community in Boston and at Harvard isn’t perfect (God forbid). It is quite politically and ideologically diverse, with all of the advantages but also the unpleasantries that can entail. For example, I still occasionally met (and dated) LDS guys with uncomfortably chauvinist perspectives on women. And there were still the occasional insensitive comments from ward members about, e.g., how members’ attitudes toward supporting the Church on Prop 8 would “separate the chaff from the wheat.” On the flip side, there was sometimes too much of a look-down-on-BYU-and-the-unthinking-Mormon-masses-because-we-are-so-much-better-than-that culture for my tastes. In other words, sometimes there was too much of that deliberate, self-conscious, arrogant edginess that can be found in more liberal members of the Church.

      But generally speaking, I thought the overall tone of the church community at Harvard and in the Cambridge University Ward (which, I should add, is not just composed of Harvard undergrads but also students from dozens of colleges in Boston, including Wellesley, BU, MIT, Tufts, various music conservatories, etc., plus 18-25-year-old LDS young adults working and living in the Boston area, making it even more diverse) was open and honest and supportive of faith–whether orthodox or unorthodox. It was supportive and nonjudgmental of people who dressed and thought and acted differently from the LDS mainstream (“the vibrant orchestra of personalities,” to cite Elder Wirthlin’s phrase from his beautiful 2008 General Conference talk), but without being overly combative against the mainstream and without aggressively and constantly challenging people on every point of their faith.

      It’s possible that some people in that ward over the years have had different or less positive experiences; I don’t know. But I think most people I know from the ward would probably echo these sentiments. It’s a lovely, and I think truly unique, place to be a young LDS person.

      • JL

        I cannot thank you enough for your kind words! They are invaluable to me and much of what you said regarding identity rang very true to me. I, like you, deeply enjoy conversations with members of other faiths. I will geek out for a minute and say that in my college research I ran across your Harvard Day of Faith symposium and I was very much in awe of your poise. I felt as though I could see myself in you in many regards and I just want you to know you were an inspiration to me as I sought out more information on how members acted at the (non BYU) colleges I was applying to. Thank you for your prayers and your understanding. I cannot say for certain where I will end up now, but I can promise you I will hold this comment especially close to me wherever I go, whether I become the ambitious BYU Mormon girl attending feminist FHE and attempting to scale to the heights of research apprenticeship or a (potentially, depending on acceptances) Stanford/Harvard/Columbia/USC/UVa/Georgetown/NYU unorthodox Mormon just like you trying to find my niche in the world and becoming enriched by the endless possibilities surrounding me, I can say I will throw myself into it wholeheartedly. I will find happiness in whatever I decide because of the peace you have given me from a completely fair portrayal of both avenues. I want you to know that what you have said to me has given me the courage to pick either with serenity, and although I resonate deeply with and desire a similar experience to your own, my decision will stem from an amalgam of factors. I thank you again for your example and your concern. I know your life is rich and I congratulate you on your baby! All the best in the world,

  36. You’ll find conformity everywhere in the world; BYU is not unique in that sense. No matter what school you go to there are people who are close-minded or bigoted, on all sides of every issue.

    It took me a 4 years that I loved BYU. Too long. I spent a long time thinking I was too good for it—that I was more open-minded and progressive than most of my classmates. And then one day I realized that was a load of crap. You can find people just like you if you look. I’ve made my best friends at BYU. There are a lot of great communities, for everything. The BYU democrats club is very strong. There are groups for supporting LGBT. There are a lot of people at BYU. Over 30,000. If you can’t find diversity in that many people, you need to open your eyes a little more.

    There are reasons you might not want to go to BYU—it’s not the perfect school. But don’t let rumors about “lack of diversity” fool you.

  37. Meidi

    Just to be nit-picky, Joanna’s question “Are faculty members world leaders in their fields?” may not be as influential as you think, a better question would be whether those “leaders” actually teach any classes (and are any of those classes offered to undergraduates?) Because more than likely they will be too busy with research and publishing to actually teach, instead you will be left with overburdened and underappreciated adjunct faculty instructing you. Universities don’t like to admit just how much they rely on adjuncts or TA’s to do the unglamorous work of teaching, it’s much sexier to advertise how state-of-the-art their facilities are or how well-published their world class faculty (who do not teach much) are.

  38. Rachel Esplin Odell

    I think my ridiculously long comment is still in moderation, but while it’s pending — I thought I’d give a shout out to commenter Nicole Mercer above who went to Cornell — one of the many great people I got to meet through various East Coast YSA conferences and the like while I was at Harvard. Yet another reason why you should go to Harvard or Columbia — if you really engage in the LDS community there, you get to meet so many great LDS people from places throughout the country who are having similar experiences to your own, and in the process you will form lasting friendships that will be a blessing all your life. (Not sayin’ that doesn’t happen at BYU, obviously, but yeah. 🙂 )

    Also, amen to her comment.

  39. Melinda

    My response is to JL in Arkansas. I was thinking on what your reasoning was: not enough diversity and conforming. My response is don’t go. You have already decided, having not had the experience, what is waiting for you.

    The silliness of “returning a diploma” is just that, silly. Because when one returns an earned diploma/degree then will she go around saying, no I don’t have a degree? Of course not. That’s a silly reaction.

  40. Ariel

    I am always get looks of shock when I say this, but my experience at BYU fostered and created my liberalism and my feminism. I lived in a small rural town in New England where the church was extremely small and unheard of. I spent my high school years “standing as a witness” and feeling strongly defined by my Mormonism. When I got to BYU, I felt extremely free – not in terms of the honor code or social pressures, but intellectually. I found out that I could be a Mormon AND a feminist, a Mormon AND a socialist, a Mormon AND a social activist. I didn’t have to take the strong religious and conservative stance in my classes and stand up for what the Church stands for. I could explore ideas on my own. Had I stayed in New England and been the minority, I couldn’t ever have found myself intellectually. I know this is not a common story, but it’s my story.

  41. Ted Olsen

    Let me make an assumption: You are independently wealthy and can go to any school you want and after graduating you will have children and dedicate your life to caring for them, OR you are a poor but brilliant young woman who can get a full scholarship at any of the schools you mention.
    If you are independently wealthy, go to BYU. There I spend the most enjoyable years of my life. There you are in an echo chamber so it is relatively free of any serious conflict regarding social or political matters, and the campus is “to die for” gorgeous. True, you may lose a favorite professor or two who has stepped beyond the clearly delineated line–for me it was a history professor Dr. Richard Poll–but the library is wonderful and the people are smiling and beautiful.
    If, on the other hand, you need an education to take care of yourself in the future; and you are bright enough to get the full scholarship at Harvard, for heaven’s sake choose the one that will let you enter a graduate school of equal caliber.
    Finally, should my hypothesis be totally inappropriate to your situation, I would suggest the local junior college for the first two years and then the university you can best afford. Student debt is a burden one should utterly avoid if possible–and I think the Authorities would agree with me on this one.
    Good luck,
    Ted Olsen

  42. I don’t know that I’ll say anything that hasn’t already been said, but this interested me and I thought I’d add my own experience (which was from 2005-2009):

    I grew up in a home, like many Mormons, where BYU was THE school. My parents and grandparents had graduated from the Y. I grew up outside of Utah and the idea of being around Mormons for once appealed to me as I started applying for schools. I was tired of being one of the few. And BYU had been on my horizon for so long that it was the only option I seriously considered. (In retrospect, this is something that I regret to a degree. I wish that I had been open enough at the time to consider researching schools with Humanities programs that may have been more diverse or better rated.)

    One thing that I find makes BYU stand out is, aside from the large Mormon population, it really is a school of choice for many students, which changes the attitude of the student body compared to other campuses. I found that there were many of my classmates who had been accepted to Ivy League/other well reputed schools had chosen to come to BYU instead. This attitude meant that I didn’t ever find it hard to find people in my classes that came from diverse backgrounds and diverse opinions. (Well, perhaps not when I was in my religion classes, but I digress.)

    Some has been said already about the Humanities program being not as strong at BYU as other schools. I can’t debate this since I haven’t applied for my masters anywhere and don’t have references, but I never had trouble finding teachers at BYU who pushed my way of thinking. I was particularly impressed by several teachers in the English Department (the amazing John Bennion, Kristen Matthews and Brandi Siegfried stand out) that I found to be incredibly able, intelligent individuals. John Bennion in particular taught me (on an awesome study abroad) to question my beliefs and not take things for granted. I appreciated the opportunity to question and develop myself in an environment where I was around others who shared (more or less) my beliefs.

    BYU isn’t a perfect school. I found student wards to be incredibly frustrating and difficult. I didn’t really like my religion classes. Lots of Mormons in one place can be a little stifling when people start assuming that everyone thinks the way they do, but I can also say that I never found it hard to find people who asked questions like I did. If you look past the dogma, you can still be happy. I too graduated single (and still am single) which can also be hard, but there’s also been more of a push lately to encourage women in ways that haven’t been openly encouraged before. I feel like BYU is in a place right now with women that feels very much like a Jewish Literature book like The Chosen: people are on their way toward becoming more comfortable with asking questions and living in the liminal space between answers.

    Ultimately: No college you choose will be perfect. No matter where you go there will be some serious drawbacks. A culture of drinking, lots of debt, too many conservatives in one place. . . no where will be completely free of frustration. BYU was the right school for me. It was not a perfect experience, but I did make some excellent friends there and received, I believe, a good education. I do regret, to a degree, not looking for more options, but I am happy with my decision to go to the Y.

  43. hannahreb

    out of sheer laziness i applied to just one college (BYU) and was super relieved to get in. my oldest sister went to a UC school and two other sisters and a brother went to BYU (with graduate work sprinkled in there across the US), so i never felt compelled to have to choose based on a family tradition. i really hadn’t spent a lot of time at any other colleges but i visited my sisters at BYU and really felt comfortable there and it just seemed like a fun place to be. plus, i grew up in the LA suburbs and most of the UCs in the immediate area seemed like 13th grade where it could be a continuation of my HS experience (which i kind of hated). also—at the time (maybe it’s changed in the past 10 years) the BYU application was a lot easier to submit than the UC application (and required the ACT instead of the SAT, and i did WAY better on the ACT). anyway, it all boils down to laziness, and sometimes i wonder how i would have chosen if i’d applied to more than one school.

    that said, i don’t regret going to BYU. i met my husband there (married after i graduated), i studied abroad, i lived in DC for washington seminar, and i didn’t hang out with people that i didn’t fit in with. just like i would at any other university. i got involved with different student groups on campus, i became close with my professors in my programs (american studies and film), i asked questions, i struggled with finding my place in life—just as i probably would have at any other university.

    i’ve also never felt like i have been short-changed by having a “less prestigious” university on my resume (my husband begs to differ, as he works in a different field with plenty of georgetown/harvard/etc. grads—but their lives are completely different because they went to prep schools, etc. so he was screwed to begin with in that arena. topic for another comment, i guess). i do feel a little frustrated that i chose a liberal arts field that doesn’t have a ton of jobs available right out of college, so if anything, i am held back by not having chosen something to specialize in and not by the university i went to. i thought i wanted to go to law school when i started college, then that changed to working in film, and now… i work in the museum field. i didn’t feel overwhelming pressure at BYU to conform to a certain academic standard and i experimented and i legitimately enjoyed most of the college courses that i took. maybe some of them didn’t push me as hard academically as an ivy league course would have, but they pushed me in different ways—to question what i wanted to do with my life, if i wanted to go to grad school, where my passions really were, etc.

    most of my networking happened well after college (perhaps for the reasons outlined in the comments above—BYU has a very specific network)—i went to grad school in DC, where the museum field is much larger. but the place i currently work (a unit within the smithsonian) is actually where i interned while i did washington seminar, so i guess i have BYU to thank for that!

    basically, it’s great that you have options. you probably don’t know what you want to do right now, but i often wish i had studied something more concrete so that i would be a good candidate for a good job right out of college instead of floundering a bit before i got my master’s degree.

    pray about it, but also be logical. i wouldn’t have been able to afford grad school if i hadn’t had zero debt from undergrad (thank you, tithing). if the scholarships are conditional for a specific field, think if that’s what you want to do for four years of college. my husband got full-ride scholarships to stanford and USC—for jazz trumpet performance. he realized early on that he didn’t think he really wanted to be a jazz performer, and if he dropped that program he’d have to pay the full tuition, which is a TON of money!

    ask questions. network. find out how to get in touch with members of the church who went to the other schools you applied for and see how they fared in an environment that didn’t have as big of a mormon community (though the reality is that the schools you got into have a huge mormon singles scene and the church is very strong). i’m really excited for you!

  44. Jess

    My experience has been that your college is, to a large degree, what you make it. If you want diversity, you can find it, though some places might require you to look a little harder for it than others. If you want a rigorous academic experience, you can create it for yourself…you might have to bug professors a little (or a lot) more in some places than others, and fight a little harder to create your own opportunities. I went to a large state university and had to work really hard to establish my niche, but it was worth it. I came out with a much clearer idea of what I wanted in life because of that struggle.

    That being said, tour the campus if at all possible and talk to students at the school *other* than the orientation leaders; try to get as realistic a picture as possible of what student life is really like, the good and the bad. On the more concrete, practical side, I am a big fan of pro/con lists! 🙂

    Best of luck in your decision!

  45. seya

    I mostly regret having gone to BYU. I did meet some great people, and being part of the natural sciences they were mostly crazy budding-liberal types like me. But it’s a hell of a place to be disinterested in church and figuring out yourself, especially if Yourself isn’t the Molly Mormon type and you don’t have a good support group. (I didn’t, despite the friends in my department. There are still some issues that just don’t go over well.)

    I also had a scholarship offer to USC, and to this day I wish I’d gone. (The campus is much more attractive, for one!) But it really comes down to what you want out of your schooling. You’ll find good LDS people anywhere. You’ve gotten what sounds like excellent offers from much better schools, and if your academic interests include grad school or a career, I won’t say that people at BYU will discourage you (depending on your field of course), but I really feel like you’ll have better connections and more broadening experiences somewhere else. I felt ‘obligated’ to go to BYU too. In the end I did it because it was cheaper and easier, and I was wrong. But maybe it’s right for you? You might find exactly what you need at BYU, and you might not. Lay out your goals for graduation and what follows it, and counsel with everybody who knows about things – admissions departments, God, teachers you trust, yourself. Go to the school that takes you where you want to be.

    (And if you’re afraid that going to another school will make you go inactive, you know what? I was less active at BYU and in subsequent years in Utah than I was at any other school. It isn’t a guarantee.)

    Also I will now be going around the office mumbling about 8×10 color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back. Day = made.

  46. Katy Bettner

    I attended BYU as a brand spanking new convert, a die hard liberal with a desire to go into the poli sci department.
    I loved it. I loved that the social system was creative because it was not based around alcohol. My teachers for the most part encouraged and appreciated my very outspoken views. My roommates thought I was interesting and for the most part actually listened to what I had to say.
    Maybe it was the new convert thing but I never really felt judged. In fact, I my first day in sociology I literally blurted out that something was bullshit and culturally biased and afterward had several people thank me.
    You have to go what is right for you, but frankly I would love it if you went to BYU. The zoobies need women like you. The church needs them too. The times they are a changing and I pray that BYU gets the net positive of those changes instead becoming irrelevant.

  47. C.

    I always swore blind that I’d never go to BYU – which is where I ended up. And it completely surprised me how much I loved it. I adored my major, made good friends, had lots of fun, obtained a degree debt free and moved on. Before coming I really worried about living in such an orthodox place (I grew up a member but entirely in non-US countries where my family’s faith was always in the vast minority), and I do think you’re wise to ponder on the culture shock, but my advice is to remember that you are in charge of your own church/cultural/personal experience.

    Ours is a broad faith with its fingers in a lot of our personal pies, but don’t forget that you choose what you want to experience. I for one had bad and aggravating Relief Society experiences, so I chose not to go to the activities – I went to the international cinema film showings instead. I said no to dates I didn’t want to go on and refused to let myself be pressured by the marriage culture. I sought out and found others of my personal, political, and social persuasions – who absolutely existed even though they weren’t immediately apparent. I participated in forum and events that interested me and found professors and mentors of whom I could ask hard questions and get nuanced answers. BYU has a reputation, that it sometimes deserves, of producing sheep, but I’m of the opinion that sheep produce themselves. It’s easy for people to slide into proscribed molds and models of behavior and life choices, that’s why they do it, but nothing says you have to walk the same path that all your roommates do, or even agree with them. It’s possible to have deep friendships and relationships with people with whom you disagree, remember.

    It’s convenient to lump all BYU students/staff/faculty together in your head, but don’t forget that every single one is just as individual as you are – you might be surprised at what you find at there. My mentor was a nonmember as was one of my best friends. One of my favorite classes was Arts and Humanities of Islam, which had some of the deepest, most open hearted lectures and discussions (and the instructor greeted us everyday with “a salaam alaikum”). I met an amazing guy who on the surface looked as TMB as they come, who turned out just as cafeteria mormon as me, completely supportive of my feminism, and the love of my life. Appearances can be deceiving. That would be true at any university, however, not just BYU.

    I sometimes feel like the Mormonism found in Utah Valley (and make no mistake, it is a subculture and it is powerful and influential) is all pervasive, but then I remember that I am in charge of what I allow in my home and in my head. BYU isn’t for everyone, but in that it’s no different than any other school. And it’s culture, cultural mores, etc. are only as influential over you as you decide they are. Good luck applying and making your decision! I have no doubt that you will choose a path good for you and for your reasons alone!

  48. Carrie

    My advice: You will be perfectly happy at a non-BYU university. But don’t take out $200,000 in debt to go to one, elite education tuition is a scam. Pick the best university that offers you a huge scholarship. And in your case, USC and UVA are both amazing schools with great Mormon communities.

    When I was choosing between universities, I had no desire to go to BYU. I considered it, of course. But my parents absolutely did not put any pressure on me to go there (they found Utah Mormon culture to be a little weird, even though — or perhaps especially because — they had both grown up in Utah.). My Bishop looked VERY concerned when I told him I was not going to BYU, saying it was the “Lord’s University”, and I literally rolled my eyes at him.

    Ultimately my decision went like this:
    1) I REALLY did not want to be another ‘smart, blonde, piano-playing Mormon girl’ at BYU, who would never actually break into the dating scene because I’m not gorgeous enough.
    2) My preferred school, with significantly stronger professors/programs in my field of interest, offered me an enormous scholarship, including a year of study abroad for free.
    3) Even BYU’s #1 scholarship doesn’t actually give you a lot of money.
    4) I prayed about it, freaking out about the long-term ramifications of any decision, and got the clear answer that God didn’t care. Or more specifically “Go where you like; I know you’ll stay active; and I can use you any place.”

    So I went to a school with a Mormon singles branch of 60 people. (And several family wards). It was amazing. At church, I got to know and love a widely diverse group of people — not the sort of people I would have been naturally prone to hang out with at BYU. Church is actually where I got to know a couple of Ph.D. women who were the first Mormon feminists I encountered. In school itself, my beliefs and perspectives were constantly challenged and I reveled in the opportunity to grow and learn more. I loved being “the Mormon girl” to my classmates and professors, because it meant I was different, and that I could try to set a good example. And I built a great network of very diverse people.

    I recently had a non-Mormon friend from college tell me that he was baffled when some of his friends started bashing Mormons for being insular, judgmental, and non-diverse. My friend responded “but all the Mormons I know are smart, analytical, pragmatic, and completely open about their faith while respectful of others’ opinions.” His friends chimed in: “yes, but that’s because you’re friends with Carrie and her friends. Most Mormons aren’t like that.”

    I laughed. But I’m fairly confident that was my friend’s perception of me precisely because I didn’t go to BYU, and because in college I learned to really, truly listen to the stories and opinions of people very different from myself.

  49. Sara

    All I have to add is — your decision for college does not have to be a final one. Choose based on the future you see for yourself, not what others are expecting of you — but know that transfers are available 🙂 You can also defer decisions if need be and attend a community/junior college while you figure things out. Don’t feel pressured. Life is what you make of it and life is unexpected. The best thing to come out of my college experience is my education, not my career path. (and, okay, I did meet my husband in college but considering I went to an all-female university that was happenstance — I was not after my M.R.S.)

  50. E.D.

    As an MIT alumna it pains me to say this, but please consider Harvard. As others have said, the Cambridge University ward is great and probably still quite large (I was there when it split from 18-25 singles into 18-22 single and 23-25 single).

    I grew up in NYS; although I applied to BYU and got a tuition scholarship, I never really considered it. My father went and hated it and I had real concerns about the culture shock as I had only been to Utah once in my early teens and only for a few days.

    My only concern would be the amount of student loan debt. It can be a millstone and it’s one of the only debts that can not be discharged in bankruptcy. I was lucky to escape with debt in the mid-five figures. After deferring that through graduate school and getting a good engineering job, I was able to refinance down to a 3% loan. This was 10 years ago, and refinancing has gotten much more difficult in the intervening years.

  51. Paul B

    JL in Arkansas,

    Congratulations on your options. This is very hard but you likely cannot go wrong, as outlined. However, nothing can change the absolute reality that this decision is incredibly huge with far reaching ripples into the decades to come.

    I will only add that these years are fulcrum years for a lot more than education. They are a spring that launches you into a world of choices that lead to another set of choices and another and another. Of course, we all implode when considering such circumstances so your honest, self aware, inspired choice is all you can do. This choice is a manifestation of what you want in your life as much as anything else. I think the heavy lifting you should do is more around what do you want and what is most important to you. Your choice then should be an honest reflection of what you desire most and those desires must be broader than education because this is the way life works–we make massive, far reaching decisions in these years. It is unfair but completely the truth.

    What do you want most dear JL? Enemy of the best is the good, shaving the hairs off the good to find the best is incredibly tough. You are smart, just be wise as well as a lot hangs in the balance. Your education is huge, sadly there are about ten other things that are even bigger. None of this means BYU is the answer, just some more stuff to put into the calculus of your decision.

    Final thought, I did American Studies at BYU then on to MBA school during the camelot Holland years. For decades, the nutty orthodoxy has made me crazy even though I am incredibly committed after some really tough chapters. That said, our faith is transformative and part of what has made me into a person that I love (sounds weird….sorry) and has exponentially increased my influence is learning to love, appreciate and embrace those naive, narrow brothers and sisters that are doing the best they know.

    I do love the model of ungrad BYU and grad school elsewhere as a nice combo to get it all.

    Very Best to you dear JL with learning, loving and “lighting.” Just stay with us and make this faith what it can and should even though it is darn tough a lot of the time.

  52. Come to Southern Virginia University. You might get lucky like me and be able to take a Mormon history class from Matt Bowman. You can’t get that at BYU, and that’s a fact.

  53. xenawarriorscientist

    You know, speaking as a thoroughly unorthodox Mormon today, I went to BYU and it was definitely the right decision for that part of my life. I think in a lot of ways I lucked out in that it worked for me. Might as well explain.

    BYU wasn’t a leading college in my field– in fact, I’m pretty sure that department’s been shut down now– but it was *soil science.* I don’t know if there IS such a thing as a school where they do highfalutin soil science. And, looking back I now realize that I was shut out of the field research opportunities in my department because I was a girl. The faculty took care to send all their male graduate and undergraduate students out during the summers for field research, while the female students had to arrange their own projects if they wanted to do anything at all. (They were concerned for our safety, of course. Other universities sent female students to those sites, but whateeeever!) Garbage? Absolutely. That being said, the faculty in my department were also the first people who ever encouraged me to take my studies beyond undergrad– I’d never seen myself doing anything but getting married and staying home with the kids until they got their darn nerd hooks into me. The faculty were actually a lot less sexist than the male students. (I know, I’m really selling you on this place, huh?)

    Note: the Y actually has pretty good evolutionary biology and ecology programs. They don’t have the funding for big fancy labs, so they concentrate on things you can do with supercomputers. Aka modeling. Aka ecology and evolution. It drove the CES guys in the religion department NUTS. : D The bio college over there was really great both in terms of academics, and also in terms of support and guidance for how to be Mormon and keep publishing groundbreaking papers on evolution while the pointy hats over in CESland were absolutely sure we were all going to hell and happy to tell everyone all about it. It was really great mentoring for the rest of my life in that way.

    And, the thing I needed at that point in my life was not to just drift along on a field trip organized by somebody else. I needed to figure out how to get my own act together and originate my own ideas and inquiry. That’s the sort of thing that’s accomplished by good mentoring at world class universities– and, at BYU, by a professor that I started working with *outside* of my department. Nowadays I’m starting a farm business in a very new field and people keep telling me can’t be done. I owe my ability to do this at all to the honey badger attitude developed at BYU– and later as a graduate student with a young child– doing things people said couldn’t or shouldn’t be done every. freakin. day. My competitors include a lot of southern good ol’ boys who’ve never had to deal with opposition and with everybody else in their community thinking it was somehow taboo for them to succeed. I look forward to eating them for lunch.

    Speaking of CES, if you go to BYU, make sure you take the *honors* religion classes. Those get into a lot more of the controversial material. They were really helpful in navigating later faith crises. Alan Parrish was actually the one who introduced me to the fact that LDS women used to have priesthood (or something so close as to be indistinguishable on anything other than semantic grounds). They didn’t cover everything by any means, but they introduced me to the idea that not everything we learned in Sunday School was actually true. It prevented a lot of betrayed feelings later on. If you already know a lot about the history then this won’t be that important for your overall education, but it was definitely important for me.

    Of course, I also met a nice Mormon Democrat boy at BYU. We didn’t get married until after I graduated, but shortly after we first met, one of us broke out into Tom Lehrer’s “Ready, Aim, Sing!” from the Folk Song Army, and thus we knew we’d better keep tabs on each other. You don’t find many Tom Lehrer fans at the Y. Turns out he’s from a rather liberal LDS family who customarily go to Stanford and attending conservative BYU was his way of rebelling. He soon repented of his wandering ways. : )

  54. Ryan

    Go to BYU and then an Ivy League Grad school. get the best of both worlds. I loved both experiences.

  55. A BYU Alumni

    Take the scholarships. College is way too expensive to pay for it outright. Get involved in institute and student wards and you can have an amazing experience. One that is even better than at a church school. A testimony is not given or maintained by going to Utah. You can build a spiritual life for yourself anywhere in the world if you desire it.

  56. Lauren B.


    I graduated from Harvard 5 years ago and if given an infinite number of do-overs I would choose Harvard again every time. I am a happy person and I, like you, think I would have been very happy at BYU. Because I went to Harvard, however, I got to room with the same seven girls every semester for four years, including an atheist, a Catholic, the unreligious daughter of two Hindi parents, and the very religious daughter of a Lutheran minister, and these girls are still my best friends. I got to bear, examine, refine, understand, and explain my testimony constantly as I encountered genuinely curious, respectful people that really wanted to understand what I believe. I got to live on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country (do not undersestimate the ameliorating effect campus beauty can have on a cold, snowy winter) and be surrounded by history at literally every turn. I got to sing in a gospel choir that celebrates Black history and culture, and pray some of my most heartfelt prayers with them and for them at the end of every rehearsal. I got to have my mind expanded every Sunday as I worshipped with young, energetic LDS people that were going to all different colleges or not going to college at all. I got to have my spirit strengthened daily by brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, inspiring classmates like Rachel Esplin. (Seriously, JL, send her that Facebook message. You want Rachel in your life.)

    These are only the mushiest, touchy-feeliest benefits of going to somewhere like Harvard, but in short, college expanded my horizons in every dimension and if diversity is something you crave then please visit Harvard and give it a chance before deciding you won’t be happy there.

    Fun fact, I work for the Harvard LDS alumni network, which means it is literally my job to talk to students like you about how you might be happy as a Mormon at Harvard. I’d love to discuss Harvard (or college in general) with you, even before you find out where you’re admitted. I can also put you in touch with current students if you’d like to stay with them on a visit, hear about why they chose Harvard over BYU (and whether they’re happy about it), or just chat about life. Send me an email at lauren AT 🙂 for reals!


    p.s. I get kind of carried away when I’m trying to convince someone that Harvard is a great place to be LDS (it’s a cause a really believe in), but the truth is you are going to be just stellar wherever you go. Follow your heart!

  57. Jamminman

    I think there has been some very good advice here, and some not so good borne of bitterness and gall. I run into folks all the time who are miserable at some place or other for various reasons. The kind of experience you have will largely be based on how you choose to live it. You will get a good education either place you decide. World=class tends to be a matter of perception. I’ve had classes with some pretty “world class” professors that I was pretty underwhelmed, and had great learning from a podunk Community College. The best professor in the world can’t really teach you anyway – all they can do is show up and try to present material. It’s up to you to take it in. I remember sitting in an IT systems analysis class with an instructor who was a programmer now but was formerly a physicist. I remember realizing that he was presenting some pretty valuable information, and then looking around the room noticing that the majority of my classmates were completely disconnected. I thought to myself how hey were really missing out.
    Likewise, other than the climate (personally, I’m quite unhappy with extreme coldness – I like to go to snow, not live in it), the experience you have is one you make. If you expect everyone to think like you (whether in or out of conformance) you will find yourself unhappy with the people around you (I often chuckle when people complain about the lack of open-mindedness of saints – while there are dogmatic folks around, people may be aware of but choose to follow faithfully – that doesn’t make them small minded as many “intellectually expanded” people insist). But if you go somewhere with an open mind, you can have a great experience.
    Ultimately, in the end, it’s about what you want to accomplish and get from the school and the experience. The Y isn’t the be all and end all of the LDS world – that idea went out long ago (at least outside of Utah). Anywhere you go can be spiritual uplifting and provde you opportunities to serve. Not going to the Y isn’t a sign of faithlessness. If it was, we’d be doomed, because it doesn’t have the capacity. So where ever you decide to go, keep the Spirit with you and, as President Uchtdorf said “lift where you stand.”

  58. Adding my piece of opinion to the rest: I went to BYU very, very reluctantly. It was the only college I applied to in the U.S. (I’m from Mexico), and I DID NOT want to leave my country. I only went because I got a full-ride scholarship to an already very well-priced school, which meant that I could do study abroad (Paris 2007, baby!).

    While I never outright hated it, I will say that I surprised myself at how much I loved it by the end of my senior year. Granted, I hung out almost exclusively with other Latin Americans, which probably makes a difference in terms of how I perceived the diversity there. But I also found a welcoming home in the feminist, international development, and dance performance clubs. And I wouldn’t trade my study abroad experience for anything. I’m sure that any school you choose will be great for you, but in defense of BYU, I think there are more spaces there for unorthodox people/people with every interest under the sun (Medieval Club, anyone?) than people give the school credit for.

  59. SP

    If you have full ride scholarships to USC and UVa, go to one of them! They have much better reputations than BYU.

    I went to BYU between 2003 and 2005 to complete my undergrad after my mission. My feelings are nuanced.

    BYU was much more academically rigorous than Penn State, which is where I went to before my mission. The University of Maryland wasn’t as rigorous as BYU when I was a Terp for graduate school. BYU — academically speaking — kicks your butt. Further, the outdoor activities of Northern Utah throughout the year are hard to beat. Let’s not forget how cheap it is to live in Happy Valley. Finally, I immensely enjoyed working as an American Heritage TA, and that will likely be my favorite job.

    I would also like to add that gaining admission to BYU is certainly a scholarship in itself as the church highly subsidizes it.

    Having said that, I can list many cons about BYU. I won’t include the Honor Code since you have to agree to abide that to gain admittance. Anyone who complains about it shouldn’t go to BYU.

    Here are some of my cons:

    -The religion courses.
    My experience with them was very inconsistent. One lecturer had no idea how to write tests and ended up basically giving the final exam away in the study guide for it. Further, I didn’t experience anything more than institute instruction. I don’t know why the instructors didn’t decide to dive into really interesting topics that volunteer institute teachers could do,

    -The dating scene.
    As a dude, I went on an average of 3-4 dates a month most of my time at BYU. I asked girls out and was amazed when gals that I considered out of my league would agree to go on a date with me. However, I know of plenty of gals who are cute, smart, committed to the Gospel, out going, bubbly, etc. who could count the number of dates that they went on on one hand while they were at BYU. That’s if they went on dates. Do women get married at BYU? Yeah. However, many go on few — if any — dates. Don’t go to BYU to get your MRS degree.

    -Priesthood leaders and dating.
    One of my BYU stake presidents once threw a tantrum over the pulpit at a stake priesthood meeting that he couldn’t revoke a dude’s temple recommend if he didn’t go out on at least one date a week. Then there was ward prayer or sacrament meeting when I was going to ask a girl out afterward, but someone in the bishopric harped on how we should date more. So, I didn’t ask that girl out since the last thing I wanted her to think is that I was asking her out of fear of the bishopric. That happened a lot. Further, the leaders would always rattle off a long list of conditions of the suitable date (he had to plan a date, he had to ask her several days in advance, he had to pay, he had to do x, y, z, etc.). I don’t have any qualms with those conditions, but they were repeated so frequently and harshly that it made dating tough. I have just come to realize (which is rather poignant as I am still single several years after graduating from BYU and it is just before Valentines Day) that my experience at BYU turned dating into a chore — something to check off on a to-do list. The rigidness and forcefulness of how BYU priesthood leaders pushed dating replaced the potential spontaneity and romance of dating with an empty since of duty. Maybe I’m the only one to suffer from this… Besides people still get married while at BYU.

    -Racial diversity.
    (White) People from all over the Jello Belt attend BYU!!!

    -Political diversity.
    The BYU faculty were more politically diverse than I expected. However, when I was at BYU the vast majority of students were Republican. There was even a debate titled “Can a Democrat be a Good Mormon?” when I was there. You’re not going to get a wide variety of ideas from your fellow students while there.

    -No caffeine on campus.
    Caffeine in itself is not against my religion. The BYU Administration claims that they do not provide caffeinated soda on campus due to lack of demand. Whatever…

    I’ll stop there as I am getting depressed.

  60. Carole

    I’m currently working on my fourth degree from my third university. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from BYU (both in engineering), an MBA from Notre Dame (Go Irish!), and I’m in my first year of a PhD program at UCLA.

    I have no regrets about attending BYU for my undergraduate degree. I had a great time, and I made some great friends. While you will find much less diversity within the student body than you would at another school, you will probably find much more diversity within the Mormon part of the student body than you would within the Mormon part of any other student body. You’re more likely to find black Mormons, feminist Mormons, gay Mormons, Mormon Democrats, Mormons from Malaysia, super-conservative, tea-party Mormons, professional jump-roping Mormons, and Mormon cowboys at BYU than at other schools. BYU has pretty much all the kinds of Mormons there are, including but not limited to those straight-laced, Peter-priesthood/Molly-Mormon types that BYU is so famous for. There is something for everyone.

    Things I most appreciated about BYU:
    1. The religion classes (you have more options than at Institute, and many of them are of a much better quality than you would find at Institute).
    1a. Professors incorporating spiritual insight into secular subjects.
    2. The type of research opportunities for undergraduate students that are typically only available to graduate students at other large, private universities.

  61. Steve in Millcreek

    JL, This is an easy one. Accept one of those full scholarships, either USC or UVa, that you are holding in your hand. Let that run its course through your BA/BS degree and possibly Masters, then consider a PhD (or similar) in or around the Mormon Corridor, Weber to Provo. If you opt to attend BYU now, then chose Engineering or Accounting as Joanna mentioned; (or possibly, Business Management.) – My BYU years overlap with Joanna’s; yet, in candor, I was so entrenched in my engineering coursework that the skirmish among non-engineering faculty, students and campus enforcement barely hit my radar. In your letter, you said that you “have serious issues with conformity and the lack of diversity at BYU”. In general, bachelor-level engineering coursework requires conformity (as a natural science), journalism does not. If you are committed to study one of the social sciences, then BYU may agitate you.

    USC and UVa need you. Chose wisely.

  62. I respectfully disagree about BYU not being strong in the humanities. Most foreign language departments are strong (and big) and most professors do a good and difficult balancing act. That being said, there are some things you are not exposed to sufficiently being at BYU such as LGBT studies, women studies, etc., that will make you play catch-up when you get to the real academic world. Still, every department has its strengths and that applies to the the humanities as well.

    I feel I got a strong education. I might have been better served elsewhere, The social environment is insular, and I would recommend going somewhere else to learn what it’s like to not be around Mormons all the time. That being said, Utah has a really cool counterculture scene, beautiful mountains and outdoorsy stuff (rock climbing, hiking, you name it).

  63. Molly Mormon

    Oh, JL, your letter just pulls on my heartstrings! Like Joanna said, this is one of the decisions that will have huge ripple affects in your life (no pressure!). My life would not be anything like it is today if I would have chosen to go to a school other than the one I chose. but… if you really are struggling and can’t make up your mind, God is not going to leave you high and dry – He will help you. He cares so very deeply about your choice.

    I received a number of answers to prayer that I was supposed to attend the college that I did, and it was not BYU. I can honestly say that I am an active member of the LDS church today because I chose NOT to go to BYU. It is because I am prideful, and in my pride, I want to be different. I want to be unique. So, if I would have gone to BYU, being the same religion as everyone else would have made me want to be different, which would have meant distancing myself from the Church.

    College is a time when most people question everything, and as a result, I had some of the most amazing missionary experiences of my life at college. Some of my most sacred missionary experiences came, not from my 18-month mission, but from college. God needs LDS students on other campuses besides BYU. There are so many college students who know nothing about the LDS church and who are curious and willing to learn at ages 18-21. You can be an instrument in the hands of God. God needs you! But… I won’t deny that you can be an instrument in God’s hands at BYU too, and you can have missionary moments at BYU too…. so in the end it does come down to prayer and seeking to know God’s will for your life.

  64. Aaron

    I went to BYU for undergrad and an MA, both in the humanities. Then I went Ivy League, Columbia, for a third degree. I found the connections much better at Columbia but the academics were much more rigorous at BYU, by far. I think a lot of it depends on what classes you chose and with which professors. There are hard classes and great professors at BYU, you just have to find them. You have to try and push yourself, not just try and graduate.

    Thought I’d share.

  65. Cameron

    Well, you’ve asked Mormon Girl. Time to ask the Man Upstairs himself. Only he can tell you.

  66. John Harrison

    Why is BYU so great in accounting? Because BYU is the best school in the country to even offer an accounting program. Serious academic universities (I’ll add ‘other than BYU’ here) simply do not offer undergraduate degrees in accounting.

    Contrary to what Aaron said above, in my field classes at BYU were no where near as rigorous as what my university offered. This according to a Phd student who had gone to BYU as an undergrad.

    I had the opportunity to go to BYU and turned it down, which broke my mother’s heart at the time. She came around eventually.

    There are great people at any university. You can live LDS standards anywhere. There are vibrant LDS communities at many universities, especially elite universities.

    BYU is the right place for some people, and a terrible place for others. You need to honestly examine if BYU is the best fit for you for college.

    Another option, if you feel like you really need a “Mormon experience” being from Arkansas, is enroll in Harvard and then to do a summer quarter at BYU once or twice, or apply for BYU study abroad programs.

  67. jay watts

    my college student needed scholarships and low cost to attend college so they were limited in their choices. . We did consider BYU as it is very reasonable compared to out of state fees. However, a visit to the campus made it clear that an adjustment to the culture was going to be difficult for my military brats. It may have been a wonderful experience but it seemed overwhelming with all the newest of college life too. All seven started at a various local community college but transfered to a large variety of tech schools, well known universities or specialized colleges. It didn’t seem to make that much difference to either their careers or their personal lives where they attending secondard school a few years after graduation. From our experience please consider how difficult the adjustment to the BYU environment will be for you personally give your current background. It is only one of many questions you need to ponder .I also support the repeated statement that if it doesn’t work out feel free to transfer.

  68. N.

    I went to a prestige-less state school for my (humanities) undergrad. I went to the school because I was going into the humanities and I had a sizable scholarship and grant money to pay for my mostly-useless, and common-as-water degree. My faculty advisor (an author) told me “never go into debt for a field that won’t pay you enough to pay it back.” It was the best advice I ever got for college.

    While at the university, my schoolmate’s social life consisted of: drinking, dancing, pursuit of sex, job to pay for college, and sometimes some school work…occasionally. It really wasn’t my scene. If I hadn’t found lots of good friends at the college’s LDS Institute program, I don’t know what my college life would have eventually become. If you choose not to go to a church school, find the Institute program near you and/or look into the LDS frat and sorority house (Lambda Delta Sigma, I think?).

    Most of my high school friends (valedictorians, salutatorians, etc) went to Harvard, Vassar, MIT, Berkeley, etc. They went to the “finest” and “world-class” institutions they could. They thought I was dumb to pick the state school. Most are still nursing at least tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt 20 years later. They are now DJs, civil servants, substitute teachers, and software developers. Their great connections and world-leader instructors didn’t amount to anything for them in the end.
    A few have become business consultants and there’s a lawyer or 2 in the ranks as well. Those didn’t go top-tier, they went good-bang-for-the-buck value in fields that pay enough money to pay off their debts.

    When I thought I’d be a university professor, I tried to get in to a “world-class institution” so I could make the connections I’d need so that I could be “sponsored”/mentored/connected enough in academia to make a name for myself and therefore be hired. It didn’t work out that way.

    As I was filling out applications for graduate school, my spouse said, “You should apply at BYU.” Even though I’ve been a Mormon all my life, I’ve lived outside Utah/Idaho/Arizona and carried a chip on my shoulder about BYU and “Utah Mormons.” It had *literally* never occurred to me that BYU was a possible grad school for me. BUT when that sentence was finished, I felt a flood of the Spirit say to me “that’s where you need to go.” My first thought after that was “dammit! I don’t *want* to go to BYU” but I knew that God knew that I heard Him tell me where to go, so that’s where I went for grad school. Scholarships, a working spouse, and frugality covered the cost of my graduate degree. None of my professors (Humanities, naturally) had the contacts, publishing power, or standing to help me into academia as a career, but they were smart (often brilliant), caring, interesting people who I truly enjoyed learning from.

    I ended up leaving academia in favor of business (or as I call it “real work”) and haven’t regretted it. In the “real world” no one cares what schools I went to, or in what subject, or who my dissertation advisor was. I could have gone to a mail-order school in Estonia, and as long as I have a high level of excellence to my work, they are happy and I am remunerated handsomely.

    At BYU:
    I was genuinely weirded out by all the “churchiness” of the environment and found it foreign and a little off-putting (I’d get in trouble for forgetting to start class with a prayer when I was teaching), even though I’m a committed L-D Saint. I like my school and my church in separate spaces, thankyouverymuch.
    The sea of pasty-white doughy faces was again just odd and foreign, but I didn’t feel like I was disadvantaged for going there. I had classes with Brazilians, Spaniards, Finns, Italians, etc. You find what you’re looking for.

    In general, my rancor about BYU melted away during that time, and I saw it as a decent school of hard working and well-meaning people trying to do their best with what God’s given them. It’s not bad company to be in.

  69. Mom of a College Student Not at BYU

    You say you are from Arkansas. In that case, I’d go to BYU. It’s a good and useful experience to be in a community of saints when you have grown up outside of the Book of Mormon Belt. If you had grown up in Utah, I’d tell you to head out of state. But Arkansas? Go to BYU now and an Ivy for grad school.

    If you choose another school now, find out what it is like to be Mormon there before you go. There are many great schools (Harvard and Columbia among them) that are also extraordinarily Mormon-friendly. Columbia funds LDSSA as a student club, for example; this year, they paid for audio-visual equipment for the group to watch conference. Because there are large populations of students who keep kosher or observe a halal diet, the Word of Wisdom makes no one bat an eye. Those are cultural things you can find out with some questions to key people on any campus. Take time to research them.

    The upshot is, if I were you, I would want to choose a school where I had a fighting chance to stay Mormon if I decided to. Once you have a list of schools where that is possible, you’ll have an easier time making your choice.

    • Ruby

      I’m from AR and dislike this comment. I grew up in a strong stake (small but strong) and formed life-long friendships with people within it. The bible belt down here also helped me form special bonds with some of the best Christians sout of the Mason Dixon line. Please, don’t go somewhere just to be surrounded by Mormons. You’ll end up disliking them even more. If you love your faith, you will be able to go anywhere and still practice it. Don’t be afraid of going where the population of Mormons is small. You might find some incredible people you would have missed out on.

  70. Garrett

    Let me take a different angle. Does the carrying the name “Brigham Young” mean anything to you? Research him. Research blood atonement. Research everything he ever said, good and dubious. Research his polygamous wives and their lives and their stories. Research how he wanted to execute apostates. Research mountain meadows massacre. Research the timing of his decision to trek west, and the decision to use handcarts. Research how he treated Emma Smith. Research what he said about black people. After you’ve done all that research, ask yourself, “do I want this man’s name forever attached to one of my most cherished life achievements?”

  71. I know this young woman…she is in my husband’s seminary class. She is a rock star deserved of a rock star university. Selfishly, I hope she avoids the state of UT entirely. She has so many options…she will do well.

  72. Glenn Madsen

    So a hundred or so other people have told you their experiences. Great. Here’s what I think:

    I have a strong recollection of Brother Packard, now senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve, speaking out on the subject of where people should study. He was pretty clear that we have the responsibility to study where it makes sense for each individual. He encouraged people to consider and select fine institutions of learning throughout the world. He spoke clearly that BYU was not for everyone, wasn’t intended for everyone, and could not be for everyone. And that should not be taken as a hurdle to clear. There were, and will be, schools more prestigious than BYU, and that he was just fine with that. Now that’s a recollection, not a quote, and you may want to look that up, if it’s important to you.

    I went to BYU for two years, undergrad, and finished in California. I went back to BYU for a graduate degree in business, and did well. Six years of wife and family in between didn’t hurt. I still hated major portions of the culture at BYU. I bit my tongue, and we headed back 5 years after that for a couple of reasons, and my wife did more work there.

    I the SF Bay Area, I’m a centrist Republican. I Utah County, I was a flaming Liberal. Same beliefs. The context changed. My Quorum leader happened to be, as he described it, the only Registered Democrat with a temple recommend that he knew. I’m better off back in California.

    Choose wisely, prayerfully, but based on what you said here, I wouldn’t go to Provo…

  73. FC Levski

    “I have serious issues with conformity and the lack of diversity at BYU.”

    I attended two college before graduating 10 or so years ago–neither school was BYU or church affiliated. The issues of conformity and lack of diversity isn’t just a BYU problem but one that you can find at just about any school. At other schools you’ll find a different kind of conformity and a different lack of diversity. I think my experience being a conservative at a very liberal university is similar to what Mormon feminists experience at BYU. The truth is you’re going to have good and bad moments no matter what school you attend. What’s more important is your attitude and whether or not you can hold on to your values wherever you end up. My suggestion is do you research and see what school is going to have the best program you’re interested in then pray and follow the spirit.

  74. Z

    I’m a Mormon feminist and an undergrad at a school ranked in the top 5 in the latest US News & World Report rankings. About 2 years ago, I felt very torn between BYU and my university. This may sound silly but I was very afraid that if I didn’t attend BYU that I would have a very difficult time finding an LDS significant other. At that time, I thought that I absolutly needed to get married in the temple and have children, and that attending BYU was the best means for me to fulfill those dreams. But aside from that, people in my ward and stake at home, and even members of my family, made it very clear to me that they believed I should attend BYU; so there was some significant social pressure from people I cared about at church that made the decision sort of difficult. I prayed a lot about this and I ultimately felt that I should not attend BYU and I don’t regret my decision. I haven’t really dated in the Mormon world, mostly because our branch here is pretty small. But I feel like I’m getting an amazing education and that means the world to me. I love the diversity and left-leaning professors in my small discussion-based classes. 🙂 I’ve had some wonderful experiences in student organizations and had great internships through the alumni network- and I’m only a second year! For me, this was the “right” decision. Just remember that BYU is not necessarily the best choice for all of us high-achieving Mormon women. It may be for some of us, but not for all of us. I hope that you ultimately make your own decision. I felt a strong spiritual confirmation when I made my choice and I still feel it now.

  75. HC

    I was in the same situation as you a few years ago — I was considering applying to Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, USC, some UCs, as well as BYU. In the end, I ended up choosing Stanford, and I think I definitely made the right decision. Many of Rachel Odell’s comments above about Harvard also apply to Stanford, and probably any other top-tier institution with a decent sized institute program (you can see how many students are enrolled at each institute at, but I’m not sure how trustworthy these numbers are — I saw some schools with negative enrollment). One thing that’s awesome about attending a non-church school is that you really have to make an dedicated effort to live your religion, which, in my opinion, makes it more meaningful. Having my faith challenged has been difficult, for sure, but I’ve come out stronger in the end. Additionally, this means that everyone who attends church, institute, and similar programs is really making a conscious effort to be there. The institute program at Stanford is great. It’s held on campus with Stanford students, and there’s another institute at the church building for anyone else. Church is a mix of Stanford students, students at other nearby colleges, and young professionals working in the area. Like I mentioned, these comments are specifically about Stanford, but I’m guessing that many other similar schools would offer a comparable experience.

  76. janeannechovy

    I’m just a few years older than Joanna, but unlike her I didn’t want to go to BYU. I wanted to go somewhere with old brick buildings and ivy on the walls. I was accepted at Columbia and Wellesley and given fairly generous financial aid packages–total cost at Wellesley after aid would have been $5000/year. However, at the urging of my parents, I had applied for–and received–a full-ride scholarship to BYU that included tuition and a stipend that would cover virtually all other expenses for my entire time there. As the oldest of six children in a not-wealthy family, I really didn’t feel like I realistically *could* pick any other option, and off to BYU I went.

    My time at BYU was a mixed bag. I made wonderful friends and got involved in some fun extracurricular activities, including a performing group that toured internationally every other year, but there were serious drawbacks: I never met anyone who really was interested in dating me; I never learned good study habits because I didn’t have to; and I ended up having a faith crisis during my senior year that led to a bout of what was in retrospect clinical depression. The dating thing was not a big deal in the long run (college years are too young to get married anyway), and fortunately I made it out of my depression and, over time, got more practiced at navigating my faith and my feminism. But the lack of study habits finally caught up with me when I got to an Ivy League law school, and affected my success there.

    My life has turned out really great over all, but I’ve always wished I’d taken the leap and figured out a way to attend Wellesley. Although it’s impossible to say in exactly what ways things would have turned out differently, I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say they would have. $5000/year seems like such a paltry amount in retrospect!

  77. If you are worried about an LDS social life or being able to stay active if you go to some school other than BYU, don’t. Having never attended BYU for anything, I cannot say much about it (my wife received her BA there, and did part of an MA as well). I went to another private secular university (for both undergrad and law school), where the Mormon population was only about 10-15 undergrads and about the same number of graduate students. We were fortunate to be near to another large public university with more LDS students and had a vibrant singles ward. The best part was that we were such a tight-knit group. There were not a lot of cliques because we were small enough that you kind of had to be friends with everybody. The only students I know who went inactive even under these circumstances were those that decided the day they set foot on campus that they were not going to be active (or had not decided that being active was a priority for them). *Nearly* everybody else, even if they wandered a little in the middle, is active, married in the temple, missions, etc. If you want to be active (with all that entails), you can be active and worthy no matter what school you attend. It is not even as hard as all of people who will try to scare you into going somewhere safe like BYU will make it sound. I am not sure that my faith would have survived the social environment at BYU and it sounds like you may be in the same boat. My experience is that the group of LDS that you find at non-BYU or maybe non-Intermountain West universities tend to be more diverse in their outlooks, politics, career plans, etc. You’ll run into great female role models who are active, pursuing advanced graduate degrees, and planning to use those degrees AND get married and have kids. What factors you consider and how you weight them is entirely up to you, but I know that I could not have made a better choice for myself.

  78. I should also add to my comment that I did not grow up LDS, but found the Gospel and the Church at that private secular university that I mentioned. I was fellowshipped and taught by that great but small group of students and senior missionaries and had wonderful experiences in our Institute classes that were a real blessing to me as my faith was growing. And there has been at least one baptism on that campus every year since a couple of years before I arrived as a freshman (1999).

  79. Rachel Esplin Odell

    I wanted to add a comment on the financial issue. Many of the comments above have (rightly) focused on financial considerations associated with college, but I think there has been such an emphasis on go-for-the-cheapest-option that the following two principles have perhaps been underemphasized:

    First: ***Do not look only at the “sticker price” (i.e. tuition & fees, room & board) when evaluating the financial cost of a college.*** Financial aid can make a huge difference in the net price of a given school. BYU doesn’t give much need-based financial aid (because it’s so inexpensive to start with, subsidized as it is by the Church), so a lot of Mormons don’t adequately weigh this factor. But a lot of other schools, especially expensive top-tier places like Harvard, do give a lot of aid, including to middle-income and upper-middle-income families. (Many Mormons also entertain the false notion that a brilliant student can get a “full ride” merit scholarship to schools like Harvard or Columbia if they are brilliant enough. When in actuality, most if not all Ivy Leagues do not give *any* merit scholarships for smart kids or athletic kids or anyone; they *only* award need-based aid.)

    Harvard’s financial aid is particularly stellar, especially their middle-income initiative begun in 2007. Here is a basic summary of their aid policies: For students whose parents make less than $60,000 per year, parents are not expected to make any financial contribution at all to their child’s educational (tuition-room-board) expenses (!). For students whose parents make between $60,000 and $120,000, parents are only expected to pay between 0 and 10% of their income toward their students’ total educational expenses. And for students whose parents make between $120,000 and $180,000, parents are only expected to pay 10% of their income toward their students’ total educational expenses.

    The best part: Unlike most schools, Harvard’s financial aid packages do not include any loans (!). In other words, the vast majority of the aid package will be composed of straight-up grants, with some work study expected from the student (unless the student can cover that amount with outside scholarships). Also, home equity is not weighed in the decision, so they won’t reduce the aid package if your parents own a home.

    So for example, for a student whose parents make $70,000 a year, they would probably be expected to pay something in the range of $1000-$4000 per year, total, for tuition, room, board, etc., while the student may be expected to either work during the summer and/or school year or get outside scholarships to cover $4500 or so. Even for families who make $180,000 per year, the parents would only be expected to pay $18,000. (Not the full $50-$60k or whatever the “sticker price” is.) (If you crunch the numbers in this helpful Harvard College net price calculator — — you may get slightly higher figures, but that’s because their figure for the “cost of attendance” even includes things like travel home for the holidays and miscellaneous daily living expenses beyond tuition, room, and board.)

    And this is not just a gimmicky promise with an asterisk and lots of fine print. In my experience, Harvard’s financial aid office was very generous, flexible, and helpful. My family was middle-income, and between my outside scholarships and my financial aid from Harvard, I graduated with no student loans, and my parents’ contribution each year was quite modest (about the cost of tuition at BYU).

    So my second piece of advice: ***Before you turn down any offer of admission primarily for financial reasons, talk to the school’s financial aid office first!*** If you are persistent and tell them that finances are a potential deal breaker, they will likely be very willing to work with you to figure something out (that does not necessarily involve lots of loans).

    I will be among the first to agree that you should avoid excessive student loan debt, especially for undergraduate degrees. But if you do have to take on loans into the low five-figure range, that is not necessarily crippling. The key partly comes in how committed you are to paying them off after you graduate. My husband had student loans in that range after graduating from Georgetown undergrad, and we paid them off within 18 months after he graduated, even with low entry-level nonprofit salaries (admittedly, with both of us working) and the outrageously high cost of living in DC – because we lived frugally and made paying off the loans literally as quickly as possible a high priority.

    Of course, when you also have a full-ride scholarship at certain schools, that can be hard to turn down, even with really good financial aid at a place like Harvard. (Especially since you can actually sometimes make money on the deal if you also have outside scholarships, since places like BYU will often literally just cut you a check for the value of those outside scholarships if you’ve already gotten merit scholarships from BYU to cover your tuition.)

    But in any case, I do recommend first making a decision as to which school you would most like to attend, financial considerations aside, and then try to see if you can get the financial situation at that school to work out to where you will be able to afford it without undue financial hardship to you or your parents now or in the future (realizing that some minimal costs or sacrifices may be worth it!). If, after trying that, you still can’t make it work out at all, then of course consider going for the school with the scholarship.

    A couple more college cost assessment/comparison resources that might be useful: and

  80. A Highschool Senior

    Hi JL,

    A fellow highschool senior here! A few months ago, I pondered the exact same question. Growing up, attending BYU was probably my greatest aspiration. In the same way some little girls fantasize over a wedding to the man of their dreams, I looked forward to finally receiving that acceptance letter to the college of my dreams.

    But then life happened. Long story short, there were some abuses in my ward that ultimately resulted in me taking an extended “sabbatical” from church to recollect myself. And while it certainly hasn’t driven me from my faith, it has definitely made me reconsider my position on and in the church.

    Well, lo and behold, here I am now, a self-professed “unorthodox Mormon” knee-deep in college resumes!
    BYU was something I always wanted. So, as I found myself questioning whether I even wanted to attend there in the first place, a part of me was drowning in irony and downright shock. Probably the most troublesome emotion was that I knew this was something I had wanted for so long, but I no longer wanted anymore. What happened? What happened to that conformist, young Mormon girl with dreams of attending that good, old Mormon school? Since when was BYU only AN option, and not THE option?

    It’s so strange how things change. Like you, I felt as though I could never be happy attending another college. But then I realized that I actually might not be happy attending BYU. My greatest anxiety was over the environment; I worried over the lack of large cultural diversity, and whether I would stand out. I worried that something bad would happen there, something which would drive me further from my faith. I realized I just wasn’t ready to be so absolutely immersed in LDS culture yet. I still need breathing room. So, I’ve decided to attend another university. BYU can be a wonderful opportunity for many other people, but I, ultimately, decided it just wasn’t the good, healthy or right choice for ME. But what you decide is up to YOU.

    BYU is a fantastic place. It’s a very nice university, with a great campus and quality professors and mentors. It could be a good opportunity to grow your faith, and expose yourself to a wholly spiritual environment. It can also give you the chance to meet some like-minded Mormons, as Sister Brooks did, and recognize some of the subtle diversity of our church and its members.

    But if you chose to go to a non-LDS college, realize that there are options to still have an LDS college experience. No matter where you’ll go, you will still find the church, fellow Mormons, and, most importantly, the Holy Ghost right by your side. There are even opportunities to live with other members, if that is what you chose. The city where I will attend university has off-campus, all-Mormon boarding homes ran informally through the stake. Contact local wards and see if there are any options like that at the universities you are considering, or make a call to find a potential LDS roommate for on-campus housing.

    The choice is all yours. Consider what you want. Think on it. Pray on it. And, if still left uncertain, there’s no shame in flipping a coin. Hey, with that list of schools, you really can’t go wrong! You have an awesome future in front of you, no matter what you decide. I hope you have a great college experience and a lovely conclusion to the remainder of your senior year- we’re almost done!

    Good luck!

  81. JL

    I just want to say thank you to everyone who has commented on this post, it truly means the world to me that you would take the time out of your day to help an anonymous stranger navigate the stress-filled senior semester of college application decisions. While many have posted their own personal stories, which I am indeed grateful for, this decision will ultimately come down to what I feel the spirit directs me to do. Your stories have helped me to visualize myself at all of the schools I have applied to, especially Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard, and have helped me to realize that no matter where I go I can thrive if I enter with a willingness to love others for who they are and to love the experience for what it is, be it Utah Valley culture or not. I want to particularly thank Joanna and Rachel Odell for their posts/comments. Joanna thank you for reminding me of my lack of control over that proverbial butterfly, and reminding me to have faith that it will be the best dang life i never could have dreamed of living. Rachel, thank you again for helping me visualize what it would be like to attend a school like Harvard, it is a lot less scary now that I imagine myself like you, being stimulated by inter-faith conversations and learning from amazing institute teachers who aren’t afraid to ask critical questions. Come April, when all decisions are finalized, you may see my real name pop up in your facebook inbox, thanks for the invitation. And thanks to everyone who shared their BYU experiences with me, both good and bad. Whether I find myself next year in the honors college desperately competing with ambitious mormon undergrads vying for a place in line to hop up on that coveted springboard, and having crazy Helaman halls adventures with my Political Review/AdLab/HFAC photography friends, or at an Ivy just trying to partake in all the good things the school has to offer while somehow keeping up with sleep and a social life, I will be content with my decision. Thanks to you all, I realize now happiness lies somewhere in the middle ground.

  82. Nathan

    Though you didn’t come seeking parental advice, I can’t help but think of my own daughter when considering your current situation. And let me just note that I have strong opinions about the importance of life-long learning. My own experiences have taught me that academia is one of many invaluable sources for learning. (I am an arts and culture professional who also gets to moonlight as adjunct faculty.) I’m glad you are actively invested in your future path. You should weigh all the options and make a deliberate choice, with the understanding that sometimes life finds us whether we choose it or not. Maddening isn’t it? I can’t say what the right decision will be, but make one you can own, and then courageously learn from the immensity it will bring. And all the while, know that God’s grace and love can be found in Cambridge, Provo or India.

  83. Kari

    I haven’t read all 90 comments, so pardon if I’m being repetitive.

    I agree that hefty college debt=bad idea.

    The idea that you could be happy only at BYU. Not true. It may be a great fit for you, and there may be schools that are really poor fits that you might consider a transfer. However, I strongly believe that our physical surroundings have only limited influence on our happiness. How we respond to stressful situations have much more impact on our happiness.

    Additionally, I can see some value in attending a school with a strong church presence. I attended the U of U, back in the days of Lambda Delta Sigma (the LDS-backed sorority, though even then it was significantly different from the Greek system). Most of my best college experiences stem from my time with my sorority gals.

  84. JL

    Dear Joanna,
    I am sorry to drone on but I feel what I have to add will be of interest to you, so allow me to further express my gratitude.
    This weekend I had the distinct privilege of speaking with Elder Bednar at a special devotional in my stake. There were many things he said that answered all of my prayers and questions, but specifically he told me this: It doesn’t matter. He told me to “rip to shreds any sort of strategic advice on career planning you have been given. Ultimately Heavenly Father knows better than anyone what you need and if you only trust in his ultimate wisdom and press forward with faith, he will direct you to a life better than anything you could have dreamed of living.” When he said this I immediately thought of that proverbial butterfly you told me about, for what he said was nearly precisely what you had already told me. Yes it is flapping its wings, but now I have been given the peace that if I have faith it will in no way ruin my life, but make it the best life I never could have dreamed of living. Elder Bednar did not downplay the importance of becoming great and achieving all that I can, he only admonished me to direct that ambition in a way that would best serve the Lord. He told me again, however, that many of our decisions are of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, because ultimately, if we live with faith, we will be directed to the life that we were meant to live. So this is me, putting faith in that proverbial Spirit butterfly that will guide me to the best path for me, and thanking you again Joanna for your advice, it was truly apostolic in nature.

  85. Ruby

    Dear JL,
    I had to comment, mostly because I saw that you’re from Arkansas. I grew up in Arkansas with a vibrant dream to go to the University of Virginia. However, in the end, I chose a BYU school. It’s nice to get out of the state but tell you what, I missed out on the education my friends received and their college experience was totally different from mine. While they can network with hundreds of successful people, my network is filled with stay-at-home moms. I love my friends from the school but they chose a life different from what I have now. There is a STRONG push for marriage, you’ll feel left out if you don’t marry. If you marry, you’ll be ostracized by single people… It’s just weird. In the end, follow your heart. People are going to be rooting for BYU (let’s be honest, their football team is AWFUL and will never get better) and these people are going to come across too strongly. Hold your ground. Go where YOU want to go. Close your eyes and envision your dream school. If a name pops into your head, GO THERE. Don’t hesitate. The gospel is the same everywhere. If you want religion, you’ll be able to go out and find it. Sure it was nice to be surrounded by other members at first (I grew up in a small stake) but I personally got tired of them after a semester. They’re all the same. The number of girls seeking MRS degrees is really sad. You’re so YOUNG. BE FREE. Pursue your dreams! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!! Please, just be true to yourself. You’ll thank yourself later, I promise. Good luck!

  86. Maggie

    My husband and I have very different views on this. He went to BYU. I was accepted at Duke and Yale, and never even applied to BYU. I just knew it wasn’t where I wanted to go. So, I ended up paying a lot of money for a really awesome college education, meeting this BYU guy who, it turned out, had paid in tuition what I spent on my meal plan, and had ALSO gotten a really awesome education. We were hired by the same company, for the same position, he at a slightly higher salary (Negotiate much, ladies?) I finished my Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins. He got his PhD at a great, but less prestigious university, here in Virginia. He’s about to take a job making over twice what I make, in the same field – admittedly, I get to work from home, and I have an interesting but low-stress job, and I feel good about the fact that I’ll be at home when kids come home from school.

    So, my takeaway from this is: I feel really bad that I didn’t apply to BYU, that I disrespected BYU, and that I didn’t make better use of my time at college (well, actually no – I had a really fun time making good grades and good friends in college. We discussed interesting things, had fun adventures, etc., but I was never ambitious about ‘connections’)

    On the other hand my husband STILL feels really bad that he doesn’t have an Ivy League degree on his Vita. It keeps him up at night sometimes. However, it does not seem to have impacted his outcomes at all – just makes for less impressive cocktail party conversation (we’re drinking cranberry juice, of course).

    In terms of connections, my husband has a weekly video chat with friends from BYU, who are finishing their PhD’s, starting new companies, and generally being leaders in their fields. I’ll exchange the occasional email with friends from college to see how they’re doing.

    So, do you want to be cocktail-party impressive, or do you want to graduate with low debt and an awesome education, and still be able to make some great connections? Both are valid options, and there are plenty of great-but-not-bank-busting schools other than BYU. I confess I am not immune to the instant shock of respect I feel when someone mentions they went through the Ivy League, but I am also realizing that while going to a fancy school certainly implies intelligence, BYU has produced all of the close non-family friends I have been really impressed with since then – and they are singularly intelligent and hardworking people (FYI, I live in the DC beltway, not Utah)

    I confess, when I was young I had no conception of what ‘$45,000 a year in tuition’ meant, but the fact that my husband and I have both made it through our undergraduate and graduate degrees with ZERO debt (my undergrad degree was compliments of my grandfather) is kind of awesome. Also, it means that, not yet out of my twenties, my husband and I are able to find a nice house in a nice school district and still be saving for the future rather than paying off several thousand in student debt – nothing to scoff at!

  87. Ian

    I had a similar decision to make as I was applying to college, except I only applied to two: Harvard and BYU. My parents both went to BYU. Interestingly, though, for the purposes of this thread, my mother disliked her freshman year in the late 70s enough that she transferred to George Washington and graduated from there, but she returned to BYU to get her MBA after marrying my father while he finished his undergrad.

    If it had just been up to me, I would have gone to Harvard, but unfortunately upper-middle class families with a large income on paper but six children and a mortgage don’t get treated as well in the financial aid calculus as some others, and ultimately it would have taken a lot in loans to afford. So I went to BYU. I could tell you all about it, but suffice to say it was a great experience and I echo what many of the above commenters have said: you can find what you’re looking for nearly everywhere, so in a lot of ways it depends on you. I’m in law school at Stanford right now, and I love it. I don’t feel like my preparation is any less than those here from Ivy League schools, so there’s another data point for you, and I paid very little for my undergraduate degree in comparison with my roommate who went to NYU at the tune of $45,000 a year, funded by his parents.

    Ultimately, it depends completely on you. Don’t let anyone tell you one or the other is categorically better. Think about majors, career paths, debt. Joanna brings up a good point in the original post, which is that BYU tends to be better at practical things. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. If you think you would be interested in engineering, accounting, economics, languages, physics, biochemistry, etc, then BYU is about as good a value for the money as you’ll get. If you’re more interested in literature or the humanities, it’s a decent education but certainly not world-class.

    Those are a few of my thoughts. Good luck with your decision! As long as you feel good about it, don’t let anyone tell you you’ve made the wrong choice.

  88. Cicero

    I would like to point out that there is at least one social studies area that BYU leads in: Economics. BYU has one of the best undergraduate Economics programs in the country. Possibly the best. The BYU Economics professors have significant connections to the Chicago School, the current leading school of thought in Economics academia.

  89. LMA

    I followed a link to Joanna’s blog today, the same day I also read a news story with the lede, “Allegheny College’s Ford Memorial Chapel was transformed into a boudoir of sorts Wednesday night, as professional sex educators advised students in attendance how best to touch themselves and their partners to reach orgasm in what was billed as an educational seminar.

    The chapel, built and dedicated in 1902, is where Catholic mass and non-denominational services are conducted every week at the private liberal arts college . . .”

    I was not LDS or anything close to it growing up. I attended a small, private, high-achieving liberal-arts school before moving to an Ivy League graduate school. When our eldest child, years later, was considering where to go to college, I encouraged her against BYU. (I’m a convert by this time.) For exactly the reasons given by Joanna: you need “diversity.” It turns out, of course, that what diversity really means is exposure to people who drink a lot and extol the virtues of commitment-free sex. But I digress.

    Our daughter was wiser than my advice and chose BYU anyway. She was happy she did, as was her brother after her and her other brother after that. As I have gotten to know the place, I understand why. It turns out that education is not all about the reputations of the luminaries who stand in front of huge lecture halls. Education is about a process in which the student engages. Funny thing, that. The BYU environment absolutely facilitates that process, and I would venture to say better than most. Because the BYU culture is concerned with education, work, morality and self-improvement. It doesn’t disparage those values as bourgeois or privileged or patriarchal, or unworthy on some other ground. And they don’t hold masturbation seminars in the chapel.

  90. Collin Simonsen


    I got a degree in psychology at BYU and I do not know what you mean when you say that mormon culture is anti-intellectual. Mormons get way more college degrees and PhD’s than many other demographic categories. All of my psychology professors were extremely competent researchers who worked 60+ hours a week teaching and researching, including experimental research.

    • schleppenheimer

      Oh, come on. Seriously. Mormon culture IS anti-intellectual. Mormons get college degrees IN ORDER TO MAKE MONEY, not to improve their minds. Yes, they do get lots of college degrees, but the lion’s share of the Mormons I have known across the years (after living in five different states and two different countries) don’t read very much. They are too busy to read. The goal is to make money, not to gain intelligence or to have independent thought. We are a world-wide church, and my guess is that the percentage who pursue degrees is minor when compared to the church population as a whole. Provide some data to refute my point — I would welcome learning that I am wrong on this point. But I’m pretty sure that I’m correct, by virtue of observing that those who join the church NOW are almost exclusively less-educated people. It’s a truly rare thing nowadays to witness a family of educated, well-rounded, solid people joining the church. It just doesn’t happen much. Your psychology professors who work hard teaching and researching … they’re an anomaly.

      • Collin Simonsen


        “As Latter-day Saints become more educated, they are more likely to be active Church participants, a trend opposite what is found in most denominations (online source:”

        “LDS women are more likely to graduate from college than Catholic or Protestant women, but less likely than Jewish or nonaffiliated women. For graduate education the pattern was similar—a higher percentage of LDS than Catholic or Protestant women have received graduate education.”

        Mormons are taught to get lifelong education.

        I majored in psychology which is not a lucrative field unless you get a phd which most students did not do. You can’t tell me that those students were not interested in education for education’s sake. And the psychology department was one of the largest at the university.

        My wife, who also is a mormon, has a master’s degree in english literature. She did not do that to get tons of money. She knows a lot of other mormon women who are similar who she met at BYU.

        The church does encourage education for both enrichment and practical reasons. A person making more money will, obviously, not be poor and will allow their spouse, (usually the wife) to stay at home with the children. For many LDS that is their ideal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make more money rather than less money. If there are mormons who are too concerned with making money, well nobody’s perfect. I know they won’t be happy unless there’s something of better value in their lives. But if a person is getting an education for a good job does not mean that they are anti intellectual or that they don’t value education for education’s sake. Most mormons that I know read quite a bit.

    • schleppenheimer

      Collin, you’re reply to my post (schleppenheimer) was thoughtful, measured, and contained good support for your thesis. Thank you for teaching me something.

  91. Joel

    I hate BYU – Go Utes!!!

  92. Marc

    Joanna. A college education is much more than academics. If your interest is attending college is to catapult yourself to the highest position in the job market, then by all means, you should attend Harvard or the like. Ditto if you interest is in making connections that will provide you with the greatest fiscal and professional opportunities. However, to me at least (and yes, I am a BYU alumni like yourself) there was great value in attending college with others who kept the same standards I had been raised to believe in, knowing that I was equally benefited by what I wasn’t exposed to as well as what exposure I received, I felt my education benefited me in the greatest way. At BYU, I could seek out and find much of what was virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy. No doubt such can be found at other universities, but at what cost, and after how much exosure to their opposites? Remember that intelligence is the only thing we can take with us to the next life, and I would rather spend my time on earth learning light and truth from an institution based on values similar to my own than in dragging my mind through the underworld that awaits elsewhere. No, BYU is not a perfect university, but the fact that they try to maintain both behavioral and educational standards gives it a thumbs up in my book.

  93. E B

    Good question. I also had my heart set on BYU plus full scholarship, meaning I could afford it better than elsewhere. Like Joanna, I’d ask anyone to consider what field they want to go into because some things are great and others not so great. Besides that though, I just loved attending a church school where the Spirit was invited into our classroom discussions, we had campus devotionals, forums, and great opportunities to grow our testimonies. It was a great preparation for all that followed, in my case.

  94. Jefferson

    Besides a few western states, no one cares about BYU and honestly a lot of people think the place is a little weird and racist. Sometimes saying I went to BYU is a negative professionally (that would not be the case if I lived and worked in Provo or Utah, but I don’t). Stunningly for some – outside of UT/AZ/ID, no one cares about BYU athletics either – The NCAA conference you end up living in will be the one talked about. I agree with Joanna’s advice of going to the finest university you can possibly get into, enjoy the institute program and stay active in the church and everything will work out fine. Because of how the precious gift of the Holy Ghost works, the spirit can be a significant part of your education no matter where you are.

  95. Vero

    Sorry I have to leave a comment because I’ve noticed so many people commenting on the MRS degree. File this into the “You can make your BYU experience what you want it to be.”

    I graduated from BYU in 2003. Only of my roommates was married when we graduated (and we didn’t particularly think that was a great decision). There were six of us. There was no late night cry sessions about when our time would come. No wondering when Mr. Right would sweep us off our feet. We were young. There was no angst. I don’t think we gave marriage a lot of thought. Many of the girls I was around were the same way.

    Contrast that with my ex-sister in law (who is 2 weeks older than me), who went to school NOT in UT/ID and said her biggest fear as a 20 year old was to never marry. I looked at her like she was a crazy person.

  96. caedmon

    BYU has been censured by the American Association of University Professors for its anti-intellectual/anti-academic freedom attacks on its own professors. BYU’s application to establish a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honor society for the liberal arts and sciences has been rejected three times because BYU was not deemed “academically mature enough”. PBK was of the stated view that BYU’s “narrow mission statement precludes inquiry. . . . If students are unable to question, there is no liberal arts education.” (see “The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU” by Bryan Waterman and Brian Kagel)

  97. I went to a world-class place for my first year of college. The professors were great in their fields, and I loved the intellectual challenges they were able to offer me. I learned a ton in my classes and enjoyed them. But the students were lost, and the professors had little to offer me beyond their rather narrow areas of expertise. College is a time when you are building a comprehensive perspective on the world, and the moral and spiritual dimensions of that perspective are the most important part.

    This world-class place according to secular standards had very little wisdom to offer me in that department, and I was surrounded by students who were clearly feeling the lack of such wisdom, but trying to convince themselves and anyone who was looking that they were just fine.

    College education today in most places does not take seriously the most important human questions, usually does not even validate the sense we all have deep down that we need to answer those questions. The prevailing model for college today says that you need four years and $180K of world-class instructors on everything except the most important part, and says you are supposed to figure that part out on your own. It’s a cop-out.

    The intellectual content, disconnected from the spiritual, left me very unsatisfied. I went to BYU because it was easy and inexpensive and familiar, to spend a year figuring out where to go instead, never dreaming I would stay. I found a wonderful community of people who understood that there is a deep meaning to our lives and had a good sense of what that is. Some of them were eagerly seeking to expand their understanding of that meaning in all kinds of ways. Some of them weren’t; some were pretty boring and even annoying and sanctimonious. But there was a deep spiritual current there, both in and out of the classroom, that allowed me to learn and grow in ways I couldn’t have done at a secular university.

    BYU is not perfect, but it is one of a very small group of schools left that take seriously the idea of educating the whole person, and the only one* where you will find numerous students and professors who understand the basic truths of the gospel and are building their intellectual lives and journeys on that foundation.

    You will have plenty of time to learn what the “world-class” secular places have to offer later. Your undergraduate years are the time to solidify and broaden the spiritual foundation for your intellectual life, and if you seek out the best professors at BYU and get strong grades, you will be able to go to places like Harvard, Columbia, etc. for graduate school. Go to BYU!

    (*Southern Virginia University is also worth noting for a comparable overall vision. But it doesn’t have anything like the rich offerings of BYU yet)

  98. So your husband got a world-class education at Columbia? You went to BYU and were exposed to ideas outside Mormon cultural orthodoxy. Your husband never took a single class or was exposed to a single prof outside Liberal orthodoxy–according to Columbia grad David Horowitz. So who was exposed to more intellectual diversity. You or your husband? How many liberal high schoolers go off to an Ivy League school and are converted because of their exposure to a brilliant conservative academic? Zero would be the correct total.

  99. rah

    Its late on the thread, but here are my thoughts. BYU does have strong academic programs in some fields that make it very attractive especially for the cost – economics, engineering, accounting among some others. They send their best students in those fields to the best PhD programs in the country. The fact you can get that for a low price should be a consideration. However, if your set of options really include schools like Harvard and Columbia then I say go there unless you are 1) completely unsure what you want to do and 2) likely to rack up large debt figuring it out. I can speak specifically to Harvard because I live in the area and know people who attend (I got my PhD from the better university just down the river 🙂 ). There is a strong vibrant YSA program at Harvard/MIT/BU where you can find many co-religionist peers. The same will be true of USC and Columbia. BYU has many very bright students and in some areas good academics (I agree with Joanna, if it is social sciences you are interested in cross the Y (sadly) off the list given your other options) but you will meet amazing Mormon peers in Cambridge and NYC and increase the diversity of your friends as well. Go to the school with the best program in the area you are interested in and that won’t leave you overly hocked in debt in a field that doesn’t pay.

    The decision my wife and I made to leave BYU to attend Cornell for our undergraduates when the opportunity arose is the best we ever made. It opened the world up to us in a way that has forever impacted our lives. We wouldn’t change a thing. While we still are paying off some student debt (because we chose to return to grad school in later life) we have chosen fields and areas where that is an investment and not a burden. It led to opportunities to live in Europe, Boston and now Asia. The Mormon friends we have made at these non-church schools we went to our still among our dearest. The Y isn’t a bad option by any means but it definitely is not defacto Jesus’ special place on earth for all smart Mormoms.

  100. I chose BYU-Idaho. I’m an intelligent person, but I understand myself well enough to know the place church needs to have in my life. BYU-Idaho is not academically vigorous for the most part. I came here for the spiritual environment above all else. Why on earth would someone choose to live in Rexburg, ID except with that reason in mind. The prestige of an Ivy League education sounds tempting, but a mind on the eternal perspective has led me to seek safety for my soul in the spiritual tundra of Idaho, rather than the great halls of learning found in Massachusetts.
    Also, in terms of exclusivity, BYU-Idaho is one of the most inclusive schools in the West. We accept 97% of students that apply, and therefore have a greater diversity of potato farmers for you to marry at BYU-I do. 😉

  101. Fozzie

    My senior hear of high school, I had no desire to go to BYU. I had spent my adolescence in Utah County, and although my mom liked the thought of having her son go to college only 30 minutes away, I was yearning for some new and exciting opportunities. I also had a few fascinating liberal literarians as friends in high school, and I worried that those types would be rare at BYU. Several high school friends described me as the “poster child” for the Y, and this compounded my desire to go elsewhere. College seemed like such a crucially formative period, and I worried that after spending all of my growing-up years in a highly idiosyncratic culture, I would later be shell-shocked by the outside world. This is precisely what happened, but more on that below.

    I was accepted to one other very expensive and more prestigious university, and reluctantly chose BYU mainly to be financially pragmatic. After starting my freshman year, it didn’t take me more than a few weeks to love it. My first roommate, who happened to be a child of Sunstone parents, lamented his first day at a family therapy class because he “has issues with the Proclamation on the Family.” I had never heard anyone talk like that before, and we ended up becoming great friends and having a tempering influence on each others -doxies (my ortho- and his hetero-). I personally don’t have a very contrarian personality, but I’m fascinated by and drawn to those who do, and I was happy to meet many of those types during college. I heard people complain about Utah silliness and small-mindedness, but I noticed very little of it, and wasn’t bothered much by it (I have a pretty easy going personality). In hindsight, though, I think one reason I didn’t find BYU stifling was because I had nothing to compare it to. I had no idea of the kind of high-stakes world-view transformation that can occur to students who attend other universities, and I deeply regret denying myself those opportunities.

    By the end of my time at the Y, I had made some great friends and had some wonderful experiences, but having grown up in Utah and remaining there for college, I was ready for something new. I moved back east for grad school to an area with few Mormons and was absolutely stunned by the gulf that separates Mormon psychology and practice from that of secular Americans. I felt as if I’d grown up on another planet. I was still wresting with difficult church history I had stumbled upon about a year before graduating from the Y, so I was not the confident member missionary ready to field any classmates’ questions about blood atonement and polyandry, let alone answer simple queries about why we don’t drink green tea. The secular culture shock combined with fermenting intellect-faith angst led me to dig deeply and read widely the last several years as I consider whether I wish to continue my life as a Mormon. The whole process has been extremely painful.

    JL, if you grew up in Arkansas instead of Utah, you probably will not suffer the same shock as I did upon graduating from the Y. But you might still. It’s one thing to stand for Mormonism in a Bible-belt high school where you and your siblings are some of the most accomplished, talented, and intelligent people there, and quite another to find yourself in a grad school filled with brilliant atheists and agnostics who look with disdain on the religious. Perhaps I would have had a similar shock had I gone to an Ivy league for undergrad, but somehow I imagine that a younger me with a more plastic brain would have been able to adapt more gracefully. Regardless, the opportunity to mix with people of wildly diverse worldviews throughout undergrad is one I would trade for my time at BYU in an instant. Good luck with your decision!

    And one more thing: whatever time I spent in Religion/Institue classes would have been much better spent reading Dialogue instead.

  102. Kerri

    Hey, cousin, I think you are doing a great job of going through a hard decision-making process. You have already proven yourself to be strong, thoughtful, kind, and dang smart in your life up to now. My advice to you? Trust your deepest instinct. When Josh was starting kindergarten, I agonized about which school he should attend, ignoring a simple peaceful experience I had already had about the neighborhood school. I actually enrolled him in another school, but when we walked through the doors on “Meet the Teacher” night, I knew I had made the wrong decision. The next day, I walked to our neighborhood school, signed him up and never looked back. The academics? Not super stellar. The experiences? Exactly what we all needed. If I could have just trusted my initial peace, I would have saved myself months of stress and worry.

    I know, choosing an elementary school is hardly like choosing between your amazing opportunities. To be a USC alum like Grandma and Grandpa? With the ability to be near so many family members who adore you? That sounds fantastic (Finishing your undergrad degree debt free would be a good thing, too.) So do all your other options. (Harvard, Columbia? Seriously, girl, you’re amazing.) But is there one that resonates? Trust yourself. BYU is the right place for some people. It was for me. But it is not the right place for everyone.

    I can’t wait to find out what you choose. Love to you.

  103. Cranky Day

    Heads up – there are now a lot of “Closed Majors” at BYU-Provo. Please research which areas of study you are interested in doing, and check to see if the majors are Closed.

    I found that I could only make my decision after physically visiting my top schools in person. I was shocked (shocked!) when my #1 school was my #1 least favorite place with the vibe “This isn’t the right place for you!” throbbing from it. It was hard to admit that was my feeling. But I’m glad I had that feeling – it made the decision to turn them down easier.

    So for me, visit the schools if you can afford to travel there to do it.

    It’s true that if BYU is on your resume, people make erroneous assumptions about who or what you are. And not all of those are “nice” assumptions.

    And remember, you’re going to be fine. Really. You will be fine and happy and you’ll be OK wherever you choose. Just getting to the final choice is hard. Embrace the decision process. It’s kind of fun, in a sick way. Thank goodness for deadlines.

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