BYU students constitute nearly 34,000 members of the world population, according to BYU statistics, and Provo is one of the largest communities of Latter-day Saint young single adults in the world. Like the pioneer exodus of the 1840s and 1850s, youth from across the globe have chosen to gather with members of their faith in Provo either for a short visit or for study experiences. Three of these foreigners spoke with The Daily Universe to describe why.
Viktoriia Kashperenko is originally from Kherson, Ukraine. She was baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Warsaw, Poland, in 2016, where she’s been living for the past four years. She was first introduced to the Church on a 2013-14 exchange program trip to the United States where she stayed with a family of Church members in Texas.
Kashperenko was 17 when she first visited Utah. She said she was surprised by what she found, remembering people were nice but appeared to stick to their own groups of friends and family. She also said she did not expect Utah girls to be as stylish as she found them. The biggest surprise, she said, was meeting people who married so early and women who would willingly stay home and take care of their babies.
“In Europe, I feel like people put education and a career first, and after they have reached what they wanted, they start thinking about the family,” Kashperenko said. “I also grew up in a country where even two kids were quite a challenge for the parents, so seeing families with four, five or six kids seemed so crazy to me.”
Kashperenko said Utah always seemed more monocultural than what she is used to. She said it’s common to find a wide variety of people from different parts of the world coming together in her branch in Warsaw.
Church members in Poland come from countries ranging from Africa to Germany to Thailand to America, with most church meetings conducted in two different languages, she explained.
“In my branch, people are very open, inclusive and understanding, which derives from the differences we work with on a daily basis,” Kashperenko said. “People here are willing to allow new people in, whereas I’ve felt like it is harder to make new friends with people from Utah since they already have their own friends and family and may not need or want to let new people in.”
Kashperenko said people in smaller branches like her own tend to be close to one another — like a family. Together, they would watch General Conference, go on trips, celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving and serve one another.
Once she graduated college and landed a career in Warsaw, Kashperenko said she wished she could live in Utah so she would have more dating opportunities. She said she felt if she stayed in Poland, she would never get married in the temple or she would have to lower her standards. Utah, she said, with its wide selection of young adults, seemed to be the solution.
About a year ago, Kashperenko met her now-fiance Cory McBride at a family home evening activity held for the young single adults of her branch when he was on a business trip in Warsaw. They fell in love after months of dating and are now applying for a K-1 visa to marry in the States and settle in Minnesota.
Judith Vocker is from Cologne, Germany, and currently studies in Leicester, England. She visited Provo for the first time this March. She said her main attraction to Provo was the spiritual experience she expected to find.
“With two temples in one city, the Spirit is much more present than what most European members are used to,” Vocker said.
She was also impressed by the grandeur of nature that fills Utah Valley. Coming from a place where the nearest mountains are hundreds of miles away, she said she loved being surrounded by them while in Provo. She said one of the most important things for her during her trip was that she was able to take advantage of as many hikes as she could and explore the surroundings with friends she had in the city.
Vocker agreed with Kashperenko that Utah lacks the cultural diversity and history she enjoys in her own town.
Rebecca Isaksen said she disagreed with this. Having grown up near Oslo, Norway, Isaksen said that while she originally held stereotypes in her mind about Utah culture, the most surprising part of her experience studying at BYU for the last three years has been realizing just how much diversity exists.
“I’ve met a lot of different people with different opinions,” Isaksen said. “Now, when I’m home in Norway, I explain to people, ‘Yes, the stereotypes are true, some people are fake, and some people don’t live the gospel the way they should, but I’ve also met some of the kindest and smartest people I’ve ever met. It’s a mixture.’”
Isaksen said she visited Provo multiple times growing up, which she said is common for Scandinavian members.
“Every semester I’ve been here, at least one Scandinavian comes to visit, and a lot of times they’ll wish they could come here too,” she said. “One of my best friends came to visit, and she was really nervous because she’s always been semi-active and has piercings, so she thought that people were going to judge her. But we just had fun.”
Isaksen said most of her friends tell her they understand why she loves it so much after coming to see her. They love the culture, the people and the nature, but above all, visitors come for the dating, she said.
While most BYU students would take a trip to Norway for the hikes and tours, Isaksen said, most college-age Scandinavians come to Provo to take advantage of the dating atmosphere and number of young adults.
Isaksen said navigating the social dynamics of Provo was tricky at first. In her experience, Americans and Scandinavians take different approaches to friendship.
“In America, people embrace that everyone they meet is awesome and act like best friends but then never really talk again. It’s a very American thing to say, ‘Hey, let’s grab lunch sometime,’ but not mean it,” Isaksen said. “In Norway, it’s very rude to say you were going to do something and not do it, but I’ve come to realize it’s just a different culture.”
Isaksen said people cycle through friends a lot in Provo. It’s something she said strikes her as odd because she still maintains great relationships with her friends back in Norway.
“Once someone moves wards here in Provo, people assume they’ll never see each other again,” Isaksen said.
Finding her own niche of friends took some time, she said, but it has proven to be one of the most rewarding parts of her experience in Utah.
Isaksen said the most enriching aspects of Provo life have revolved around her interactions with others and her appreciation for the outstanding education she has received at BYU.
“I just love the person that I’ve become,” she said. “For me, I feel like Provo has helped me find my passion, and it’s helped me get involved with other people who are passionate.”