Non-Latter-day Saint students talk about BYU experience

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Laith Habahbeh walked around BYU and was baffled. The environment was not what he expected.

“The first thing I was thinking was BYU has a lot of LDS people,” Habahbeh said. “I expected it to be 70% or 80%, but it’s 99% to 1%, so that was a culture shock.”

Habahbeh was surprised by the people and culture at BYU. Habahbeh is a Muslim from Jordan. He learned about the Honor Code, which aligns with his beliefs, so he decided to come to BYU and study economics. Not only did he experience a shock coming from a different country, but the way people interact here was also not what he expected.

“I felt like it’s totally different than what I pictured,” he said.

Despite the initial shock, Habahbeh said BYU provides a safe and wholesome environment and that he enjoys the education.

“I love how it pushes you to learn more,” he said. “Some of my favorite things about BYU are how polite people are, as well as the level of intellectuality and spirituality.”

He said it’s hard when he sees people who don’t want anyone to think badly of them and just want everyone to like them.

“People are more enclosed here, yet still nice, formal and friendly,” Habahbeh said.

He said people where he is from trust each other early on and become quick friends and that those friendships are lasting, whereas he feels that at BYU, he is the one always initiating the interaction. 

Left to right: Nada Al-Massry, Omar Boudiaf, Bilal Omar and Laith Hababeh visit Temple Square on Nov. 9. Omar Boudiaf was new to the area and his friends wanted to show him what is special about Utah. (Laith Hababeh)

“Here you gotta kind of push the person to meet more often,” Habahbeh said. “Sometimes if either of you don’t talk, you probably won’t talk for a long time until someone builds up motivation to talk.”

Habahbeh finds friends at BYU by participating in activities with people who share his interests.

There are clubs and other resources at BYU to help improve the experience of those who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These programs and clubs try to allow students to worship how they want, integrate into the BYU campus and get the help they need.

BYU graduate student Anthony Rose, who identifies as Presbyterian, is the president of Cross Seekers Christian Fellowship, a club for protestant and evangelical students. The club helps students find churches and get what they need spiritually. 

Rose said he grew up as a religious minority in Canada and does not mind being a non-member. He also said being a graduate student is a different experience from non-member undergraduate students’ experience.

“I like being with people who don’t believe what I do, because we can discuss and learn from each other,” Rose said.

Similar to Rose, Kennedy Lawrence, a freshman from Oklahoma, said coming to BYU was not as shocking. Lawrence’s father is a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and so she was a little more familiar with the culture. 

“It’s serious here; you guys follow what you believe,” Lawrence said.

BYU was not Lawrence’s first choice, but she applied with encouragement from her dad’s bishop and said she felt like she had to go to BYU for some reason. She had been planning on going to Oklahoma State University, where she said she would have been on her own to do and wear what she wanted to.

“I was surprised with the dress code,” Lawrence said. “I cried after I read it.” 

She lives in the dorms, and her friends are members, so in her first few months, Lawrence said she has learned a lot about the culture. She said it was funny coming to BYU and not understanding the lingo used by other students. 

For example, Lawrence used things that already made sense to her to understand difference Church concepts, such as the first presidency.

“At first I would call it the cabinet because the president has two little advisors and then the twelve,” she said.

Lawrence said she has enjoyed the religious culture at BYU and attends church weekly with her roommate and friends. She has also enjoyed her religious classes and finds the professors very helpful and accommodating.

“I love my religion professor (Keith Wilson). He’s the best,” she said. 

Lawrence said one of the hard things about not being a member is the dating environment. It shocked her how fast dating and marriage happens.

“The marriage culture here is crazy,” Lawrence said. “Everything happens so fast here; it’s kind of scary. It’s like, ‘Will I ever meet anyone here? Everyone is getting married by January.’”

Anastasia Abramyan plays tennis for BYU. (BYU Photo)

Anastasia Abramyan, a BYU tennis player from Russia, said BYU is very different from what she was used to. She said that as she talked with coaches and signed with BYU, no one told her about the Honor Code. She knew it was a religious school but did not know what that entailed.

“I was raised with, ‘I can do whatever I want,’ so I never had a desire to do anything bad,” Abramyan said, “but here with restrictions, I want to rebel.”

She recalled the first day of school and seeing so many girls dolled up. She said she found it strange to see a university where the culture focused on marriage.

“A lot of girls just want to get married here,” Abramyan said.

Besides the marriage culture and rules, Abramyan has also had to adapt to BYU’s focus on religion. It was interesting for Abramyan to see how everyone is really spiritual, such as a professor relating the gospel to physical science and her tennis team praying before every match. Although Abramyan thinks praying before matches is great, she said it’s hard when she doesn’t necessarily believe in God. She does, however, say she is very spiritual.

“I believe something is there — a power that helps and guides. There are a lot of miracles in the world,” Abramyan said. It is hard for her to believe in God, she said, because there is no proof. Abramyan was baptized as a child into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Melissa Tartaglio digs holes for the foundation of a church she and a church group started building for a village in Alaska in 2017. (Melissa Tartaglio)

Despite these struggles, Abramyan said she has enjoyed her BYU experience, especially being on the tennis team.

“They are like my second family,” she said.

Melissa Tartaglio grew up in Connecticut and, like Abramyan, belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.

She dated a member of the Church when she was going to school in New York City, and he suggested she apply to BYU. 

She said her experience at BYU has been positive and she has made good friends.

“The people here are insanely nice,” Tartaglio said.

She said she found the lingo she heard at BYU interesting, but she had served a summer mission for her church in Alaska, so she was able to understand students who talked about missions. Tartaglio said it is not hard to live in Provo, and she works as an investigator at the Provo Missionary Training Center.

Tartaglio met Carter Hague in their Introduction to the LDS Church class, which is the first class non-members take before other religion classes to help them have a base understanding of the Church and its teachings.

Melissa Tartaglio and her Russian Orthodox church group visiting a gravesite of a recently recognized saint on their mission in Alaska in 2017. (Melissa Tartaglio)

Hague is from Idaho and was familiar with the Church. He attends church each week with his friends and even has a calling. He was baptized into the Catholic Church and he considers himself to be a Christian. 

When Hague first came to BYU, he was shocked at how unified the student body seemed.

“That’s definitely not as common,” he said.

Raised Catholic, his standards were pretty similar to those at BYU, but one of the hardest things for Hague is exclusivity.

“Being a non-member automatically places you on the outside, so you have to actively seek out and become part of the ward and other things, but it’s a lot of fun,” Hague said.

The number of students that are not members on the BYU campus is small. BYU spokesperson Todd Hollingshead said about 1.5% of the student body are not members of the Church.

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