BYU Student Association Director of Student Leadership Anthony Bates opened the first PEN (Perspective Education Narratives) talk on Oct. 18 in the Wilkinson Center by giving students permission to ask hard questions.
“One of the biggest inhibitors of communication is political correctness. Sometimes we become so paralyzed with the way we phrase the question we want to ask, that we end up never asking the question at all,” Bates said. “This forum has been put in place to give students a chance to ask the hard questions.”
BYUSA leaders hope PEN talks will be the catalyst to a new culture of acceptance and communication on BYU campus.
A panel of six non-traditional BYU students gathered for a discussion on social connectedness and belonging. The panel included BYU athlete and Baptist Haley Rogers, a non-traditional BYU student in the thirty plus demographic, father of three Jeanpierre Van Tonder, Utah native Katelyn Perry, Navajo tribe member Kyran David, LGBT community leadership member Emma Ramirez and Jewish BYU ballroom dancer Arianna Davidson.
BYUSA’s purpose is “to contribute to the building of Zion communities,” according to the BYUSA Facebook page.
Each Perspective Educational Narrative was put in place to inspire BYU students and motivate them to act to change the culture of BYU, according to Vice President Dilan Maxfield. Every forum will have a different theme, a different set of panelists and will be held twice every semester.
Maxfield also said every discussion will be run by students through a private Q&A setting. Students in attendance can submit their questions to the panelists live through a URL, the BYUSA Instagram story or by scanning a QR code.
Vice President of BYUSA Communications Elisa Huhem said she believes the PEN talks will give minority groups an opportunity to be heard and understood.
“The purpose of PEN talks is to open up a dialogue on campus where different perspectives that aren’t usually heard — and that most students aren’t typically exposed to as often — can be given a voice and a space to talk about topics that are sometimes hard to talk about,” Huhem said.
Huhem’s experience on the project has been so positive that her own views and perspectives are changing.
“Working with the panel has opened my lens to a lot of different perspectives and just people on campus that I probably would have never gone out of my comfort zone to reach out to,” Huhem said. “It is so sad because as I am getting to know them, they are incredible, I would’ve totally missed out on this opportunity, and I’m hoping students that come will feel the same way and want to come back for more.”
BYUSA Program Director Kyrie Papenfuss said it’s easy for students to judge others when they are unfamiliar with a culture or perspective. She said she hopes these discussions can help end these misconceptions and judgments.
“I think this is a great way for students to step into the shoes of someone else and realize what it’s like to be them and struggle with different types of things. It will be a great educational opportunity for everyone,” Papenfuss said.
President of BYUSA Simeon Toronto said the idea for the events stemmed from his campaign for office with Maxfield. During their campaign, they talked to minority groups around campus who did not feel included in the BYU community.
“We are most excited about the opportunities that previously were not in existence for people to feel included,” Toronto said. “This will be a message that will have an opportunity to open doors and help people feel included in a way they haven’t before.”
BYU freshman Julia Sasin was in attendance at the event to expand her own point of view.
“I think it is super interesting and super important to realize that there are a lot of cultures and different people that go to BYU. Even though it seems like the majority of people here are the same, there is a lot of diversity and I think we need to celebrate that and learn from that and use these experiences to our advantage,” Sasin said.
Rogers said during the panel that students can help others feel included by embracing them, differences and all.
“You don’t make people not feel different by ignoring their differences. You make people not feel different by embracing them,” Rogers said.
Toronto said those who chose to attend these discussions will have an experience that will not only change their education but their lives outside of BYU as well.
“In a world that is becoming increasingly contentious, angry and not wanting to see eye to eye, starting a conversation will open the door to inclusion and belonging,” he said.