Reflections on BYU

KC KernBYU, Mormon 21 Comments

Last week, I graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems.  In an attempt to make this post more than a self-congratulatory indulgence, I’d like to take a moment to represent myself as the “token BYU student” here at Mormon Matters, and offer my thoughts and perspectives about my BYU experience.

I took a fairly typical course: I lived in the dorms (Deseret Towers) as a freshman, took two years off for a mission, came back, got serious about a Major program, and finished it up in 3 additional years (plus some spring and summer classes.)

Overall, I am very pleased with my BYU experience, and look upon it in overwhelmingly positive light.  If I may, I’d like to highlight a few of the outstanding parts.

  • Freshman dorm life was a blast. Unfortunately, academics occasionally took a backseat that year, but the episodes I experienced with my dorm-mates are truly priceless, and they lead to the formation of some very lasting friendships.
  • The mission-prep resources are unparalleled. For a kid getting ready to go on a mission, there are few better environments that the BYU freshman community.  Not only are there classes, firesides, etc, but the fact that you are in it with others who are also preparing leads to a great setting to get excited about and prepared for entering the MTC.
  • Student employment opportunities. Upon my return from my mission, I was a resident assistant in the dorms.  That proved to be a fantastic experience, and I was very happy to be able to share my mission insights with those yet preparing.  After that job, I was employed by the International Studies center to be their webmaster.  That proved to be very valuable in helping me apply the material from my academic programs into a real world settings (computer programming, database administration, etc)  These employment opportunities were also gateways into meeting faculty, getting my name out, etc.
  • Off-Campus Environment. While perhaps a bit more rough around the edges, there was a plenitude of events, locations, and other resources off-campus to enjoy a good time.  Some of the off-campus apartments were nicer than others, but on a weekend night, there were never shortages of pools/hot tubs, rec rooms, or sport courts to help have something to do.
  • Mormon “Celebrities” on Campus. In addition to an Apostle visit to campus each semester, there were opportunities to run into semi-recognizable names on Campus.  I more than once ran into Lloyd Newel (think Music and the Spoken Word,) and even met Dan C. Peterson in the back of a lecture hall, and was able to have a nice 20 minute chat with him.  My New Testament class teacher was Stephen E. Robinson (“Believing Christ”) who I greatly admire.
  • Robust Academic Programs. Most of my course work was at the Marriott School of Management, which consistently receives high marks nationally.  I was often overwhelmed by the homework and exams, but I never felt cheated or short changed when it came to the quality of the business school’s academics.
  • Affordability. When compared to other university programs nationally, BYU rates are a huge bargain.  Thank tithing subsidies for that.
  • A Wholesome Environment. Don’t be fooled, you can find pretty much anything at BYU.  Yes that may shock you, but its true.  However, for those seeking a wholesome and straight-laced lifestyle, BYU is certainly a haven for that.  While everyone does develop their own sense and path of spirituality, BYU does provide a sustaining environment for those more or less within mainstream orthodoxy.

I must say however, there were a few times when I was quite significantly irked at certain elements of the BYU system.  Without ranting too extensively, let me elaborate:

  • The facial hair thing. This topic has been discussed ad-nauseum, so please, refrain from commenting profusely about this, but I have to say I was rather annoyed when I was turned away at the cafeteria for having 24 hours worth of scruff.
  • Parking. This is a problem almost anywhere many people congregate, but the students really got the short end of the stick on this one.  The faculty get the premium spots, and the students get the lots that require 15 minute walks to campus.  Hmm… who’s the customer here again?  I ended up just walking, carpooling, busing, or biking most of the time.  This was one battle I did not feel like fighting.
  • Image Paranoia. Keenly aware of its ambassador status for the Church, BYU is dead set on projecting the “Garden of Eden” image to the world.  My positions as BYU employee let me in on a few ins and outs of PR control, and I was disheartened to learn of a few administrative moves involving hush-money and cover-stories for the sake of saving face.  Also, while permitted/tolerated, student protests were met with high levels of disapproval from on high, and the tight lipped responses from BYU administrators regarding the relevant issues seemed a bit jarring.  (Remember the Dick Cheney graduation incident?)
  • The dating scene myth. Its true that many couples meet and marry at BYU.  But I had been misled into believing that the girls are all righteous fair maidens with visions of eternal marriage dancing through their heads.  That bubble burst fairly early on, but I still never got quite the picture of how things were really supposed to work.  I did my fair share of dating, make no mistake, but let me tell you, it’s not what they say it is.  I’m still single.

I really could go on for much longer, about the good, and the not-so-good.  But let me say again, I am please to call myself a BYU grad, I enjoyed my experience, and I am very grateful for the career and employment paths that it has opened for me.  After all, that’s really why I went to college.

I know that BYU isn’t for everyone.  I had several close friends who never could hit a stride in the BYU universe, and became casualities of the system.  I like to remind people that BYU attendance is NOT a requirement for salvation, and many members of the church get by just fine without ever having set foot in Provo.

For me, I was a close enough match to the “target audience” that I got through the experience without a sour taste in my mouth.  Again, I look back on the past 6 years (minus 2 mission years) with satisfaction and accomplishment.

So for you fellow BYU alumns, how does your experience contrast to mine?  For non-alumns, how do my comments square up to your concept of what BYU is like for a student?  Or just feel free to throw out any comments about BYU in general.

Comments 21

  1. I’m a grad from the school up north, so I’m not as familiar with BYU culture, other than what I’ve heard from friends and relatives and read online. Most of them enjoyed their experience a great deal, too, but voiced some similar complaints.
    But the thing I’ve not heard much agreement on is the diversity (or lack thereof) at BYU. Obviously students from all over the country and world attend BYU, but in what proportion? How often does the average student interact with another student from, say, the Middle East, Africa or Eastern Asia?
    In addition to racial/ethnic diversity, what is ideological diversity like? I imagine that in the Humanities, a student is more likely to encounter liberals/Democrats than in, say, the Econ or Business departments. But did you feel that a diversity of viewpoints on political and social issues was heard/encouraged?
    I’ve always thought of BYU (and Utah County) culture as somewhat monolithic, and voting patterns certainly bear that out. But how visible are those who don’t conform politically?

  2. KC Kern, my experience was very much like yours. While I loved BYU, you’re definitely right that it’s not for everyone. My little brother went there for a while, but it was not a comfortable fit for him. And my own son went to USU, which I felt was a much better fit for him than BYU would have been.

    Congratulations, btw.

  3. Congratulations on graduating, though I guess you failed in the MRS degree. 😉

    Interestingly, my wife and I both went to BYU. We both studied International Politics. We both took similar classes. But…we met online years later when she lived in New York and I in Boston. We overlapped at BYU for two semesters and she chides me very much for not going to the library more often to get more opportunities to actually meet her (she worked at the reference desk). Ironically, I’m now a librarian. 😛

    I too was surprised at the dating scene. In my year before my mission in California, I went on like 20-30 dates. In all my time at BYU and UVSC (1997-2001), I think I went on like 15 dates.

    I don’t think BYU is going to change much to make it more comfortable for a good number of Mormons. And that’s too bad. Because I know I wanted to be around fellow Mormons, but after my experiences there, I prefer now to be around non-Mormons for the most part, and Mormons just at church.

  4. The younger me, the 18 year old fresh out of high school me…had a great time at BYU. It was harder after my mission, when I lost a lot of my testimony and still had to go to church to keep that yearly endorsement. It was hard to see all my friends marry at 20, 21, and 22. It was hard to be the only one who DIDN’T marry…but then I graduated, got out of there and saw the real world. However, I was always proud of my education.

    Fast forward 6 years and I get accepted to the PhD program at BYU that is one of the best in the nation. I walk into the introduction meeting, 8 of us chosen out of hundreds of applicants and we say a prayer. After getting a masters at NYU, that came as a very weird thing to me. Also, when one of the other girls stated that she was there in theprogram simply because she had not yet found a husband, then I waited until the end of the meeting, walked out, called the next day and withdrew from the program. I realized that I had become to radical in my ideas, education and religion, to ever feel comfortable in that controlled environment again.

  5. I really enjoyed my BYU undergraduate experience (BA humanities). My graduate degree wasn’t much fun, though. I think there’s a limit to the amount of time you can sanely live the lifestyle without getting frustrated by the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of of BYU culture. My biggest frustrations were with honor code enforcement, the Provo/BYU housing and parking cabal, and the authoritative structure that discourages student input and diversity of thought on campus.

    Ironically, I’m headed back to the Y to join the faculty, perhaps proving that you can leave BYU, but you cannot leave it alone. Haha. Rise and shout!

  6. I got my undergrad elsewhere and am currently getting my Master’s at BYU. I appreciated the even-handededness of the post, because I’ve been disappointed in some of the things that I’ve seen here as well. However, it has been a good experience thus far. My advice is actually to skip BYU as an undergrad and just do grad work here, preferably after you’re married.

    As for diversity of thought, I’m in a fairly liberal program, social work, and have been surprised by the diversity of thought. Sometimes that’s pleasantly surprised, and sometimes I have to remind myself that everyone has agency to believe what they want, even if it isn’t in line with church standards. Contrary to what you might expect, there are no thought police within the classroom (at the admin level is another matter). I have been challenged in some of my political beliefs, and happily so.

    “[Not] all the girls are righteous” — LOL, even though it’s sad.

  7. I’ve never understood why people act so surprised that there are some “dissapointing” things happening at BYU. It’s a university that happens to be attached to a church, not a church masquerading as a university. I got a BA and an MA at BYU. I also spent time studying at Boise St. and Sacramento St. I am currently working on a doctorate at Ohio University. And I can tell you one thing: all the sad stories of housing problems, parking problems, dating problems, administrative problems, PR cover ups, etc., it’s all going on at every university in the country.

    There are plenty of things to dislike about BYU. There are problems that are unique to BYU. There are political battles being waged in every department. Again, just like at every other school in the country. I’m always amused at how smug Mormons feel when they get to bash BYU. Not that we should be afraid to voice an opinion or be critical. That’s fine. You don’t want to go there? That’s fine, too. But let’s not lose sight of reality here: BYU is a university with a high caliber of students and faculty, excellent facilities, extensive educational resources, and is a generally fun, safe place to get a degree. I felt no more limited, controlled, or put upon at BYU than I have at any other university. When problems arise, whether at BYU or at another school, I find a way to work through them, around them, or with them. It hasn’t always been ideal. I’ve been frustrated from time to time. But that seems to be how the world works. As for the people who are dissapointed because they didn’t get married while they were there, or who walked away because they were too “radical” for the poor, provincial hayseeds of Happy Valley, I have to wonder, have you found that all your wildest dreams came true as soon as you were out of Provo? Was everyone you met outside of BYU wonderfully open-minded and sufficiently idealistic for you? Aren’t you glad you got away from that horribly difficult environment and into a place where everyone likes you and understands just how special you are? Okay, so the sarcasm has gotten a little thick. I realize most people have been fairly moderate in their assessments. But I think I just wanted to throw a little sand in the faces of the axe-grinders. Nobody ever said BYU was the Garden of Eden. Get over it and enjoy it for what it is. And be thankful you didn’t have to take out $35,000 a year in student loans.

  8. In response to Joe, there are two main things that you need to take into account as to why people like to bag on BYU. First of all, many of its graduates throw the “Lord’s university” stuff in other members’ faces who didn’t go to BYU. The fact is that there are plenty of people who do think that BYU is a Garden of Eden, which is why an even-handed critique is rather refreshing. Second, because the university is affiliated with the church it should be held to a higher standard. Yes, it’s just a collection of individuals who are trying to do their best, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be disappointed or critical when they don’t live up to the standards they’ve set for themselves.

  9. Hi,
    I’m going to make 2 posts. One from my perspective as a former BYU student, and then I’ll follow up with the perspective from my new role as a parent of a BYU student.

    I grew up in Orem, so it was kind of assumed that I would go to BYU. I just made the mistake my freshman year of staying at home, but going to the Y. Big mistake. I just drove down for classes and then came home in the evening. I never established a community. I missed out on much of the fun part of the Y, and was only doing education.

    Fast forward 18 months for a mission. I stayed in an apt, but got engaged right before the semester started, and then married during the semester. So… I got about 3 months of apt life. Really not very exciting, though I do remember my roommate and his girl friend having sex in the bed next to me one night. That was interesting. He was our ward Elders Quorum Pres prior to that incident.

    I started to get very frustrated with the attempt to completly control my education, personal life, and many other areas. It was just oppressing. I left after my Sophomore year and moved to San Jose CA. I worked for a year and then got 2 degrees in the Bay Area. Leaving BYU was very good for me.

    More to come in the next post.

  10. Part 2

    After leaving BYU, I was still a fan of the program, and the football program. One of my daughters early pictures is of sitting in a small chair, with BYU sweats on. She became true-Blue. She set a goal very early on that she wanted to attend the Y. This year she got accepted and this past week has checked in to Helaman Halls and has been attending all the freshman week activities.

    I think that BYU is going to be a wonderful experience for her. She is a free-thinker and I know she is going to be frustrated with several things there, but I think she will thrive in all the friends and I hope establish friendships that will last a lifetime.

    Just an experience shared for some of you who might be reading this. We were able to get onto the field yesterday before the game. Spent time walking around watching the players warm up, from literally 10 feet away. MAN. THOSE GUYS ARE HUGE! I got to shake Lavell’s hand, we were on the field for the kick-off. WOW! what a great way to start off the season for her. She has the fight-song memorized already. Anyway, I’m a proud daddy of a little girl who will do well at BYU, the daughter of someone who didn’t do well with the oppression. I would not with BYU on my worst enemy, but I’ll do all I can do to provide support for my daughter who thinks BYU is the best thing on earth.

  11. Regarding faculty getting better parking than students:

    1. RHIP

    2. How many people are affected if one student is late for class because he can’t find a close parking space? How many people are affected if one professor is late for class because she can’t find a close parking space?

  12. Joe: thanks for your comments, but I think I know why people leave BYU and complain, in addition to Austin’s comments in #10. Austin noted that “the university is affiliated with the church it should be held to a higher standard”. I’ve heard this a lot, and agree to a certain extent. At the same time, I realize that the school is run, just like the church, by people, who make mistakes and don’t always do things efficiently or effectively. That’s not the criticism I level at BYU and its administration. Far worse is the attitude espoused by both those in positions of power, and those attending the university, that it can do no wrong. That it is being held to a “higher” standard and succeeds on all levels at all times. And when things don’t work out, its always someone else’s fault, not those in charge. And if you disagree with the administration, that somehow your faith in HF/Jesus Christ/the Restoration/the prophet should be called into question, as well as your faithfulness in obeying the commandments. This attitude that the school can do no wrong, held by the vast majority of students, faculty, staff, and administration at the university, as well as by the myriad alumni that dot the globe, is unique to any institution of higher education in the world (except BYUI and BYUH). Sure other universities make administrative errors, struggle through all of the problems mentioned above, but at least they don’t pretend like they don’t exist, or blame them on naysayers, or attack those who speak out for reform.

  13. KC,

    Thanks for being the token BYU student. As someone who’s main knowledge of BYU comes from word of mouth and 2 months living next door at the MTC, it is of interest to me. As my oldest daughter enters first grade this year, I can’t help but aspire that she go to the best university for her needs, 12 years from now. BYU doesn’t automatically enter my mind for what I perceive her needs will be (but the affordability is a nice benefit). Things could always change in twelve years, and I certainly would not be disappointed if she chose BYU. A PAC-10 school with a strong institute program (which is my background) is what naturally comes to mind!

  14. Biv #7: Shameless! The brief time spent with your daughter at Sunstone tells me she would be eye-rolling til retinas detached, if not outright mortified, to see that comment. But then, I think there’s something in the Mom handbook about “shopping” your kids. 😉

  15. SteveS – “And if you disagree with the administration, that somehow your faith in HF/Jesus Christ/the Restoration/the prophet should be called into question, as well as your faithfulness in obeying the commandments.” Wow, this statement hit home for me.

    The worst example of this attitude that I ever saw was in a Bio 100 class. The syllabus said we were going to do an in-class homework assignment, so students were using their notes to complete it. The professor (class of 900) said into the mike that he saw students cheating on the quiz. Several students responded that the syllabus clearly said it was an in-class homework assignment, not a quiz. This guy just could not admit he made a mistake. He told the class: “You do whatever you think the true gospel of Jesus Christ would tell you to do.” It was one of those moments when you really really really hope actual lightning will strike a person.

  16. “Sure other universities make administrative errors, struggle through all of the problems mentioned above, but at least they don’t pretend like they don’t exist, or blame them on naysayers, or attack those who speak out for reform.”

    SteveS: Have you ever spent much time at another university? That is exactly what happens! Ignoring problems, shifting blame, and attacking opponents is by-the-book behavior in most any administration. It’s part of the job description. Again, let’s criticize BYU. Let’s pull back the curtains, pull down the power, shout sins from the housetops. (As you’ve pointed out, it won’t do much good.:)) And you’re right, BYU is very good at deflecting detractors and reigning in dissent. They may be less concerned with *appearing* to be fair and flexible. But there’s one thing I can’ figure out: where the “vast majority” of students and faculty are who think BYU can “do no wrong.” I just didn’t meet many of them. (Sure there are some, maybe more at BYU than some other schools, but you can find their equivalents at Harvard, Yale, Duke, etc.) I did meet some people who complained a lot, and a lot of people who were very aware of the drawbacks of attending a private, church-owned university. But most of these people had weighed the options and made a choice that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages *for them*. It’s the same decision process that you have to make when attending any school, accepting any job, or making any purchase. I guess what strikes me are the number people who act like they were snookered into attending; that enjoy any number of years of a cheap, relatively elite education and then act somewhat self-righteously surprised that they attend a university that actively promotes and protects the interests of its chief sponsor and sugar daddy, the LDS church. I hate to resort to this line, but “you knew what I was when you picked me up.”

  17. Well, the only time I’ve spent in Provo was 2.5 weeks in the MTC. The University of the church may be in Provo UT, but the “Lord’s University” is in Rxburg,ID! . . .wink, wink. 😛

  18. Hello,

    Congratulations! I’m sorry to say it so late! Are you the KC who lived in Belgium when you were a kid? If so, I tried to get in touch with your parents, but no success. Hope everything’s doing well for you!

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