BYU film series highlights women, education

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The “By Study, By Faith” web series includes 10 short films documenting the educational and professional journeys of female BYU faculty members. (Photo courtesy of “By Study, By Faith” website)

As the final videos exported, Cassie Hiatt turned to Amy Jensen, executive producer of the web series, and mouthed every word spoken in the films. Hiatt and a handful of other female student volunteers at BYU worked for more than a year to see their short-film series “By Study, By Faith” finally come to fruition. The subject matter? Women and education.

“I think it’s really important for female students to find mentors they can really look up to,” Hiatt said, speaking about the project’s aims.

The web series features ten 3–5-minute interviews with BYU female faculty members. Each segment shares a story about a woman’s choice to pursue higher education and outlines her journey: struggles, successes and takeaways.

BYU’s Theatre and Media Arts Department and the Faculty Women’s Association joined forces for this project. The short films address academia’s relationship with marriage, motherhood and LDS cultural stigmas.

Navigating motherhood and career

One interviewee addressed perceived conflict between motherhood and career within the LDS culture. History professor Jenny Hale Pulsipher referenced 2 Nephi 9:29 in the Book of Mormon, which reads, “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” One counsel of God, according to the LDS Church, is “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which asserts that women are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.

Pulsipher said women can juggle both academic ambitions and motherhood: “I think there’s a sense in our culture that those things are incompatible. And that’s something I struggled with as I was making my decision to go to graduate school. (But) the balance can be maintained.”

Sociology professor Renata Forste attended graduate school while her husband stayed at home with her children. Forste now teaches sociology of gender, women’s studies and demography at BYU. When asked how she balances work and family, she said, “I feel like my daughters have not lost a relationship with me; what they’ve gained is a relationship with their father.”

Jokes abound at BYU about “MRS” degrees and women attending school just to marry. “If I’d have just come to BYU one year and gotten married and followed that kind of pattern, I think my parents would have been totally fine,” Forste said in her interview. “Because that was the expectation.” But Forste chose to get a Ph.D. and pursue a teaching career. She hasn’t regretted it.

Forste said it’s much better to educate oneself and have choices. Then, she said, one can choose if they want to work or stay home and won’t find themselves caught lacking resources for themselves and others. “If women don’t have the education or don’t have the resources they need, their children suffer,” Forste said. Forste’s interview describes what resources college-educated women offer their children.

Camille Fronk Olsen was the first female seminary teacher for the LDS Church. (Photo Courtesy of By Study, By Faith website)
Camille Fronk Olsen was the first female seminary teacher for the LDS Church. (Photo courtesy of “By Study, By Faith” website)

Trailblazing in the workplace

Using education to benefit others was a common thread in the interviews. While some interviewees emphasized using education to benefit family life, Camille Fronk Olson divulged how she molded her professional aspirations to help other women.

Olson was the first female seminary teacher for the LDS Church. She held the position as a trial run at first but soon received an official job offer. She hesitated, doubting her abilities. She wanted to say no. But then thought of all the times people said women couldn’t do the job. “I couldn’t let men see I couldn’t do it,” Olson said. “So I hunkered down.”

Olson received a renewed job offer the next year. “The only reason I said yes was so I could teach for one more year and open door for other women,” she said. Olson ended up loving her job and getting a master’s degree financed on her employers’ dime. She now works at BYU as a professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture and serves as department chair.

Olson partly attributes her success to divine intervention. “I just look at different places where I have been able to work and make a contribution and recognize that was not my choosing,” she said. Olson believes she was led by divine power, and she claims that such guidance is given to all.

Co-executive producer of “By Study, By Faith” Tom Lefler also works for BYU as associate chair for the Department of Media Arts. He said he’s worked with a lot of women over the years at BYU. “In many cases, they are less confident, but brighter,” Lefler said. “But they didn’t know they were brighter.”

Empowering students in their wake

“By Study, By Faith” was originally supposed to be a relatively small project. It was going to be a simple Q&A — a student would ask a question, and a female faculty member would answer. But the film crew decided to deepen their storytelling and show how women got from point A to point Q.

Some of the web series contributors, pictured left to right: Melody Chow, Elisabeth Weagel, Cassie Hiatt, Amy Jensen, Melissa Lee and Tom Lefler. (Nate Christofferson)

The young filmmakers’ interest in the interviewees grew. “When we started to get invested emotionally and the young women started to get more actively created in the process and took some ownership, then all of the sudden, the project got much more complex,” Lefler said.

Hiatt said the long process was worth it. When she attended the premiere, the videos gripped her differently than before. “I was able to stop watching them as a filmmaker who had to think about all the things that needed to be fixed,” Hiatt said. “I was able to watch them as a female student and feel empowered and inspired by what I was doing.”

Bobbie Lee, a senior media arts major at BYU, joined the web series team because she sees value in granting oppressed or invisible groups a voice. She said LDS women tend to face negative judgment when they don’t follow familiar LDS female lifestyle paths. “I think it’s about time we stop saying, ‘You don’t need to go to grad school; you’re going to be a mother,'” she said.

Lefler saw preparation as a takeaway theme for the web series. “It seems to me, from what I’ve observed and from what we’ve focused on with this film, that you’re always better off to be prepared,” he said. “Whatever that means. And everybody’s going to interpret that slightly differently.” He said some may interpret “being prepared” in an individual way that eliminates family and children, while others may prepare to support a family for religious or cultural reasons. “But hey, life is complex, and we’re all agents, and we have to sort those things out,” he said.

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