Same place, different faith — Life at BYU for students of other religions


There are more than 34,000 students at BYU, and more than 98% of those students identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some students of other faiths recently talked about their experiences at BYU and what they wish professors and other students knew about interacting with people who have different beliefs.

Taif Almadi, Sunni Muslim

BYU student Taif Almadi poses outside the Harold B. Lee Library and Spencer W. Kimball Tower on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Taif Almadi

Religion: Sunni Muslim

“The hijab catches a lot of attention, which is a good thing. I feel like a lot of people respect me more because I choose to show my religion. But sometimes that’s the only thing people see.

“Part of the reason I came to BYU was because religious institutions have different morals from other institutions, and I felt like if there were any place in America that I would feel comfortable to move away from my family and my religion, it would be at a place close to my own beliefs.

“The only interesting or surprising part of coming to BYU was how little people know about Islam. I would love it if people could understand how much common ground there is between religions. You’d be surprised! I mean, the more I sit with people and listen to them, the more I realize that we have more in common than we have differences.”

Emilie Møller Mikkelsen, Agnostic

BYU student Emilie Møller Mikkelsen poses at the BYU Museum of Art on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Emilie Møller Mikkelsen

Religion: Agnostic

“Two years ago, when I came and lived in the dorms, I just thought I was going to be here for a year and then go back home and then start university in Denmark. But I came here and I just grew to love it so much. So I ended up deciding to stay.

“A lot of my friends had judgments and stereotypes about what this would be like, which kind of scared me. But now after coming, they’re all like, ‘Oh, wow, she is happier than she’s ever been. She’s out with friends every single day.’ So I think they’ve just realized that it actually is such a good place for me and that people are just so kind.

“I didn’t know about the LDS religion before coming. But I think it’s just been so eye-opening and so interesting. I think everyone is just so kind and welcoming and open, which I’ve loved. I think a huge part of that is the religion, that people are so nice and have such good values and morals and love to serve others and be there for others.

“There have been a few times where I do feel people are trying to convert me, or like, becoming friends with me because they see an opportunity in that. And that makes me kind of sad, the fact that people feel like that’s the goal with me, that they expect me to get baptized at some point during my time here at BYU. But I’ve been here for two years already, and obviously, I know about the Church and I do go to church with my roommates and friends every Sunday. I take religion classes, I’ve met with missionaries before. So I am just like, ‘If I want to know more about your religion, if I want to explore this, I will.’ So I’m like, ‘It’s not your place to push. Because that’s also wrong.’”

Preston Pflaum, Confessional Lutheran

BYU student Preston Pflaum poses at the Joseph F. Smith Building on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Preston Pflaum

Religion: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

“Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are on this campus. I have been chatting with some missionaries on Thursday nights, just getting to know them. And it’s been really awesome getting to know them and other people in the law school as well.

“Back where I come from, the culture is polar opposite to what it’s like out here. We don’t have soda shops as much out there. We have way more bars. You go from everybody going to the bars Thursday, Friday, Saturday night to going to class Monday morning hungover, to out here where everybody’s going to church on Sunday mornings. Very few college-age students back where I come from went to church on Sunday morning, so it was a pretty nice flip.

“I really don’t feel like an outsider. I’ll get some professors who just assume that everybody in the class is LDS and I’m one of the only ones who’s not. But it’s fine. I really have no issues. I’ll answer any questions, but I don’t expect anyone to cater to me. I entered this institution knowing that I was going to be a religious minority. I’m not going to make that everybody else’s issue. That’s something I came in here knowing and if you want to ask questions, great, but I’m not going to take issue with the fact that not a lot of people out here know as much about Lutheranism.”

Vibalia Raj, Hindu

BYU student Vibalia Raj poses in the Life Sciences Building on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Vibalia Raj

Religion: Hindu

“I never really liked the religion classes, especially my first few years when I was still trying to understand the culture. There were students in the classes who assumed everyone was LDS and said things about nonmembers and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a personal attack.’ So that was not a good experience. I like the non-LDS class sections they have that are very flexible. 

“It’s so easy for the campus missionaries to differentiate me from others because they know I’m not American because I’m brown and have black hair. If I experienced this anywhere else I would be like, ‘It’s OK, they’re missionaries. They’re doing their job.’ But hey, this is BYU. If I really wanted to know about getting baptized in the Church, I could ask anyone. 

“I’ve had some really good experiences in my major because my professors have been very understanding of where I come from. I went on two study abroads, and those were probably the best experiences I’ve had in BYU. When we went to Costa Rica with all my professors, when they heard students making comments and assuming everyone was LDS, my professors would talk to me because they understood it was wrong to assume like that. So it was good to know that I’m not dealing with this alone.

“Don’t assume all your students are LDS. Not all of us are comfortable in class putting up our hands and saying, ‘Oh, I’m not a member,’ because we don’t want to put that right out there. If you know somebody who’s not LDS, get to know them and maybe create a safe space. It’s not like we’re attacked all the time, but it would be nice if people were also equally interested to know where we came from. If anything, it’s your turn to understand my culture and where I come from instead of asking me to adapt to the culture. I’ve done a lot of that, and it’s been a good experience. But it should be mutual. I learn about your culture, you learn about my culture. It cannot be one-sided.”

Leah Marett, Christian

BYU student Leah Marett poses at the Harris Fine Arts Center on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Leah Marett

Religion: Christian

“I chose BYU much like other people here do: I felt like I was supposed to come here. I’ve been here for over three years now. So I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. There are certain things that I really appreciate about the LDS Church. But I do think it’s important to talk about the things that are difficult for nonmembers.

“I do wish professors understood that when you are teaching in a class, there are nonmembers there most of the time if it’s a lecture class. I’ve been in a lot of classes where the assumption is that there’s no non-LDS students. And I just wish people understood that when you portray someone else’s religion incorrectly, just because you’re with people that agree with you, that’s not cool.

“For me, and I think for a lot of nonmembers, we’ve participated in the LDS Church, we’ve met with the missionaries, we love them, we care about them and we care to learn their faith. Sometimes I’ll ask people, ‘Hey, do you want to come to church with me?’ and I think some people here think, ‘Oh, that means they want to convert me.’ And the reality is, I just want more people here to be able to relate to me and something that’s so personal to me: my faith. I wish that people would be open to experiencing that and be willing to go into those places where you’re the minority. I think that’s a really big way that we can include nonmembers more and actually have real interfaith relationships instead of just a superficial understanding of what different people believe.”

Noor Assi, Sunni Muslim

BYU student Noor Assi poses at the Joseph F. Smith Building on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Noor Assi

Religion: Sunni Muslim

“My dad was comfortable with me being here, just because he thinks the LDS faith is so similar to teachings in Islam. Most of the things I know about the Church I learned here. I knew who Joseph Smith was before I got here, but that’s about it.

“As almost a senior, I feel comfortable with the community around me and being a student at BYU. It was definitely so tough my freshman and sophomore years. I was in a CS class once and a guy who used to sit next to me asked me about my religion, I said I was Muslim, and he never sat next to me again after that. People talked about missions and the Church and I just felt like an outcast, like, ‘There’s a conversation that I will never be a part of.’ I feel like I’m not looked at as Noor. I’m looked at as a nonmember, international student more than just myself. Some people talk about you like you’re the next person to be converted. 

“But I kind of stepped out of my comfort zone. I forced myself to be engaged on campus — I was part of the Student Advisory Council for a while, and now I’m a mentor for the Diversity and Inclusion Office in the Computer Science Department. I feel like putting myself out there and meeting other minorities at BYU helped me feel like I’m not the only one who’s not similar to everyone else on campus. 

“BYU does a great job of giving us our voice and giving us the space to express ourselves. The BYU chaplain, Jim Slaughter, is the best human to ever exist. He hosts events for nonmembers all the time and is really supportive of everything we do. It’s almost like we’re his kids. He never fails to show us how much he cares about us and how much he appreciates that we’re here and how much he thinks we’re important to the BYU campus. Even though there’s much to work on in the culture at BYU, I still feel like eventually it has come to feel like home.”

Rand Alrabadi, Christian

BYU student Rand Alrabadi poses in the N. Eldon Tanner Building and outside the Jesse Knight Building on campus. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

Name: Rand Alrabadi

Religion: Christian

“My mother is Catholic, and my dad is Greek Orthodox. But throughout high school I went to a Baptist Church, and now I’m at a Mormon school, so I just consider myself a Christian, period. 

“It’s my third year at BYU but my sixth year in Utah. When I first came to BYU, I’d never heard of the LDS Church, and I never knew they consider themselves Christians as well. I’ve never felt really like my experience education-wise has been affected by me not being a member. My professors have been welcoming and super kind to me. But when it comes to friends and being in a circle that I’m comfortable with, in the beginning that was hard, but now I’ve gotten used to it. 

“I love the Church so much and I love their system. I love what they do for their members. I have so much respect for them and I believe in a lot of the things they say, so I don’t really have a problem with learning about other religions. But at BYU, as soon as they know you’re not a member, sometimes your friendship with them becomes more of a conversion project.

“That was really hard for me in the beginning because I felt like I was never comfortable to be around people and say out loud that I’m not a member of the Church because I know they’re going to be suddenly interested in being friends with me and probably look at me as someone that they should convert. I just wish there was a boundary between teaching me and kind of forcing your beliefs, because at the end of the day, I have my own church that I believe in as well. I feel like we have to somehow find that fine line between being respectful and not enforcing beliefs, and just teaching each other in a loving way.” 

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