The following is an excerpt from a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation’s most interesting colleges. In this chapter, Mormon students at BYU show the author the strange appeal of a college experience that doesn’t include sex or alcohol.
Chapter 20: Brigham-Young University (excerpt)
My host at BYU was an old acquaintance from middle school who had moved out to Utah after 8th grade. I didn’t know she was a Mormon when we were acquaintances in middle school, but I remembered that she always had sleepy, half-opened eyes because she went to 6am church service every day before school. When she responded to my Facebook post and said that I could stay with her at BYU, it all made sense.
Nicole invited me to meet her at a Mormon camp retreat. The retreat was an hour away from BYU in the mountains west of Provo. I was always nervous to meet each week’s new host, but this week I was especially nervous. Part of this was because I had been alone all summer and my social skills had regressed, so I felt shy and uncomfortable, but mostly I was nervous because I didn’t know anything about Mormons. I was scared of offending someone, breaking a rule, or doing something humiliating.
When I arrived at the campsite, I saw a couple hundred students gathered together under a big pavilion, brightly lit within the darkness of the surrounding woods. After parking, I stood outside the edge of the pavilion, looking for Nicole in the light. The environment felt more like a family reunion than a college retreat. It was noisy, and the students were separated into groups playing little games, all of them energetic and joyful. When Nicole saw me, she walked over from her group.
“Wow, you made it!” she said. “I didn’t think you would actually make it all the way out here!”
She brought me over to her group, and I sat down in the circle next to her. When I arrived, the students had been broken into groups of ten to play icebreaker games. Everybody was here on account of being in the same “ward,” which is a division of Mormons grouped together within the Latter-Day Saints church based on where each person lives. This was a “singles’ ward,” meaning that everybody was unmarried. Since a new school semester had begun only a few weeks before I arrived, the students were still getting to know the other students in their new singles’ ward, and this was the first retreat.
I didn’t talk much with Nicole but instead jumped right into the icebreaker games with everybody else. The game they were playing when I arrived involved saying specific facts about yourself based on the colors of Skittles you picked from a bowl. If you drew a yellow Skittle, for example, that meant, “Say one fact about your family.” For this fact, the students in my circle all shared the number of siblings they had. One girl had six siblings, another had nine, one guy had seven. They all had giant families. When I drew a yellow Skittle and said I had only one sibling, they all gave me sympathetic looks as if I had just shared some bad news. “That means you two must be extremely close!” one student told me, as if to cheer me up.
Over my shoulder, the rest of the students played the same icebreaker game, and as I looked around, I noticed an abundance of smiles. The interactions seemed profoundly wholesome, and I knew I wasn’t just imagining it. There was a gentle friendliness on each face that made me feel much older than everyone, perhaps because I was associating wholesomeness with childishness. In the world I knew, a person becomes more cynical as she ages, so nobody over about 13 years old would ever play these icebreaker games unless she were forced to. But these students were loving the games, and everybody took a genuine interest.
The other thing I noticed was that the guys didn’t seem to be judging me. I was accustomed to walking into a fraternity house, for example, and receiving judgmental stares until my host convinced everybody that I was cool, safe, and welcomed. At BYU, the guys seemed to welcome me immediately and without caution. Their eyes were warm and inviting from the first moment. I followed their lead, and after about an hour, I felt a little less cynical and a little more wholesome.
One of the games we played involved Student A covering his or her head in shaving cream while Student B tried to throw Cheetos into the shaving cream. Another involved sucking Skittles through a straw. Another was a big race to see who could be the first to remove all the tissues, one by one, from a tissue box. (Nobody made a joke about masturbation, because Mormons aren’t supposed to masturbate.) For the last game, my team pushed me to the front to be our representative against the other teams. I tried to decline, because I typically hate games like this, but my team insisted, and I eventually agreed. The competition was to fetch gummy bears from a big bowl of pudding using only your face. I walked to the front of the pavilion and lined up with the other contestants at a long table. Someone shouted, “GO!”
I slammed my face into the pudding to fetch the gummy bears. The students were screaming and cheering. Ice-cold pudding covered every inch of my face. Eventually somebody won, so we stopped, and when it was over, I wasn’t embarrassed but instead felt strangely exhilarated. My fellow contestants and I were given paper towels to wipe off our faces, and as we stood to the side cleaning up, I had a big smile on my face, a real one.
“That was crazy!” I said. “That pudding was so cold!”
“I know!” said one of the guys. “It’s all up my nose! Gross!”
We all gave each other high fives, and nobody seemed to remember or care who had won the race. When I returned to my team, they gave me high fives too and said things like, “Man, you did awesome!” I won’t lie, this felt great even though I’d heard them say the same things to everybody else.
When I started talking to the students on my team and mentioning why I was there, the first question I usually got was about whether or not BYU was different from other schools. I had only been there for two hours, but already I could tell that BYU was unlike any school I had visited. The students were amazed to hear this. They thought that BYU was just like any other college.
After the games, we had an hour of free activity time. Some people tossed footballs. Lots of students sat around chatting. Some of them played board games (“Mormons love board games”). During this time, I noticed a guy and girl engaged in some aggressive, elementary-school-style flirting. They were standing alone, facing each other.
“What?” he said with a slight smile.
“What?” she said back.
He got louder. “What!?”
She did too. “What!?”
He raised his arms to his sides, pretending to be angry, and cocked his head to the side. “WHAT!?”
She did the same as she choked back laughter. “WHAT!?”
They took steps toward each other as their pretend altercation escalated, getting up close in the other’s space as they cocked their heads in mirrored, opposite directions and raised their arms. As the flirting reached its crescendo, they burst out in laughter, put their arms down, then chuckled off the remaining tension while looking into each other’s eyes. It was cute, as well as a little bit cringeworthy. Nobody else had been watching them—everyone was busy engaging in other silly activities. There was goofy dancing, games of chase, and loud jokes. Lots of smiles. It was the sort of environment where, if I had arrived with a friend, I could have sustained a cynical attitude, but since I was there alone, I had no choice but to go along with it.
Up next was a “fireside,” which meant a religious lesson. We lined up chairs in church-pew-style rows and took our seats. One of the students prayed to begin the fireside, and I peeked during the prayer to see if I was praying correctly. Mormons pray like the average Christian, except they cross their arms instead of clasping their hands. After the prayer, a woman who was no longer a student came to deliver the lesson, speaking into a microphone.
“Hey everybody!” she began. “So we’ve all come out to this campout for a number of things: for friendship, for fellowship, but most importantly, for relationships.”
I raised a brow.
She continued. “So before we get started, I want all of you to switch seats so you’re sitting boy-girl-boy-girl. Ready? Go!”
I knew this was a single’s ward, but I didn’t realize the campout would be the Mormon version of single’s night.
I was on the outside of a row sitting next to Nicole, who was sitting next to her boyfriend; technically, I was already in a boy-girl-boy sequence. This meant I didn’t need to stand up to look for a girl to sit by, a task I thought was potentially disastrous. But in front of us was a row of only girls who now had to stand up to look for boys. One of them stood up, saw the empty chair next to me, then came and took a seat. This put her on the outside of our row and made me her sole adjacent boy.
“My name’s Kayli,” she whispered.
Immediately I felt a strange pressure. She was looking at me all sweet-like, and while I tried my best to be kind to her in response, I had to repress my urge to tell her that if there’s a Mormon heaven, I almost certainly won’t be joining her there. I whispered back, “Hi Kayli, I’m Drew.”
The woman up front gave a talk about three different girls she knew. One of them was an 18-year-old just dying to get married. The next was a 21-year-old who got engaged but eventually broke it off. The final girl was a 24-year-old who had written off marriage to focus on her life but was surprised when she was wooed by a 21-year-old man, and now she’s happily married. The twist was that all three girls were past versions of the speaker. The moral at the end was that a person needs to learn how to be happy, and only then will marriage happen, and any age that happens is ok. For some people, 18 years is old enough, and for others, “even as old as 31” is ok. At some point when she was talking about physical attraction, she said a line that received universal laughter, which was, “Oh c’mon guys, don’t tell me you’ve never looked at a girl and thought, ‘Oh yeah, she could be my eternal companion!’”
(Mormons call their husbands and wives their “eternal companions.” Apparently Mormon men don’t think, “I’d sure like to take her to bed!” but instead, “I’d sure like to take her to heaven!”)
During the fireside, Kayli arranged then rearranged her hands on her knee, uncrossed then recrossed her legs, and even looked over toward me once or twice. I was terrified, not only because of my responsibility to Kayli by virtue of our proximity, but also because of what was happening all around us. One row ahead of us, a guy had reached over to hold his adjacent girl’s hand (she accepted), then he kept looking at her sentimentally at specific, uncomfortable moments—for example, when the speaker said, “Sometimes it hurts not to know love, no matter how young we are, so you singles really need to help each other through this time,” and at that moment he gave his girl a smile while nodding slightly and squinting his eyes as if to say to her, “Hm, that sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it?” As I watched them, my cringe meter was all the way up. This fireside was so uncomfortable for me that I felt real physical pain in my chest, a tightness of my heart, and I felt I needed to recoil and shield my face, but since the circumstances prevented me from doing so, I had to just sit there with a mortified grin.
Did that guy and girl in front of us really just meet each other? Were they really already holding hands and trading sentimental glances? Were Kayli’s occasional glances at me her attempts to initiate similar little moments? I was too afraid to find out, so I ignored her completely. I couldn’t decide if I was supposed to hold her hand or not. It seemed completely insane to hold her hand, but it somehow felt like I was supposed to. (Even if I had wanted to, my hands were too sweaty from nervousness.)
I also felt lousy because I started thinking that, even if I did talk to Kayli, I would only be a bad influence for her. She was innocent, and I was bad in some fundamental, unchangeable way. So as Kayli sat next to me, in addition to feeling strange for obvious reasons, I also felt a little guilty, like she was good and I was bad, and I could only harm her. People don’t really work that way, but that’s how it felt, and I sat there unable to move, thinking, “If only she knew... if only she knew...”
After the fireside, a student with a guitar came to the front of the pavilion and played some songs as everybody sang along. The first song was something from The Little Mermaid (“Mormons love Disney”). The next song, “I Want To Grow Old With You,” he introduced by saying, “This one’s good for flirtatious guys.” The last song he played was, “The Middle,” by Jimmy Eat World. At first, I thought this was a strange song selection, but then I heard all 200 Mormons sing along, and I understood at once why they liked it. (Check out the lyrics—it’s very wholesome.)
After the music performance, we prayed again, then the students rose to mingle amongst each other. I told Kayli it was nice to meet her before she slipped away.
“I’m so sorry,” Nicole said. “That was so weird. I didn’t know it would be like that. That was even weird for me. I’m sorry.”
I laughed. “No, it wasn’t too bad. I just didn’t know if I was supposed to make a move on that girl.”
“Why? Did you want to?” Nicole asked, excited.
“No! I just didn’t know what was going on,” I said, laughing.
“Ok, well don’t worry, I don’t think that will happen again. That’s not what it’s usually like here.”
It was an overnight campout. There were a few guys’ cabins and a few girls’ cabins, and everyone started splitting up to claim their beds in their respective cabins. I went to my car to grab a sleeping bag but ended up sitting there alone for 30 minutes to take a breather and collect my thoughts. When I eventually went to one of the guys’ cabins to find a bed, I accidentally walked in on a rather risqué co-ed game that was taking place out of view of the adults who were facilitating the campout. One of the students was explaining the rules.
“Ok, one guy tries to kiss whoever is it,” he said, “while the other person who is it tries to kiss their face.”
When I stepped into the cabin, the 15 or so students playing the game turned my direction and stared at me, so I froze for a second and then slowly turned around and walked out. I had a conversation about the game a few days later with Nicole’s boyfriend and his roommates. The students I walked in on were considered the bad kids, they told me. The game is called Kissing Rugby. It involves one person trying to make it from point A to point B without being kissed by the other person of the opposite gender. Occasionally the game escalates into tackling, pinning, and hugging-type maneuvers. Accordingly, the game is considered inappropriate by most students.
One of the guys in the conversation who hadn’t heard about Kissing Rugby before said, “Whoa, that’s basically lip rape!”
Because he said ‘rape’ someone asked him, “Why all the bad words?”
The first guy said, “Bad words? You mean because the other day I said ‘sex’?”
“I don’t know, but that game is sketchy. I don’t really want to tackle girls. Just too sketchy.”
Someone else said, “Yes, sketchy for a Mormon boy.”
The first guy said, “All I’m saying is it takes a certain sort of girl to play it.”
The night of the campout was bitterly cold. Nobody brought warm enough clothes. Under the pavilion, we drank hot chocolate and played board games while other students were in the cabins. Nicole and her boyfriend Isaiah were rumored to be off in the woods making out. The board game I played was a roleplaying card game where you shoot people and take their possessions. Somehow everybody played this game humanely and with mercy. Winning wasn’t important. In fact, everyone was going so easy on each other that it took a very long time for the game to end. When someone was in the position to defeat an opponent, frequently they wouldn’t do it; they’d just pass on that turn so nobody would lose and the game could keep going forever.
Later that night, I met back up with Nicole, Isaiah, and Isaiah’s roommates. They were standing in the dark, away from the pavilion, looking at the sky. We were far enough outside the city that it was dark enough to see the center of the Milky Way jutting across the sky. We stood close together, shivering, looking up.
“Do you know about our missions?” a guy named Eli asked me. He had a gentle voice and spoke to me like an old friend.
“No, not really,” I said.
“Well, pretty much all Mormon guys go on missions from age 19 to 21. We get assigned somewhere, and our only job is to teach about God. But it’s pretty difficult. We work from 9am to 10pm seven days a week for two years straight. And we can only email our family once a week, and we can only call them on Christmas and Mother’s Day. We don’t watch movies or anything like that. We’re just outside in the area we’re assigned to all day, every day.”
“What kind of places do you go to?” I asked.
“All over the world,” he said.
“They all change so much when they’re gone,” Nicole added.
“How so?” I asked.
“They just grow up. Most of the boys are immature before they leave, and afterward they’re just different.”
Almost all the guys at BYU have been on their two-year missions before starting college, which means your average guy is two years older than the girls in his graduating class. Nicole’s boyfriend and his friends had already been on their missions. They were all 22 or 23, while Nicole was only 20, but they were in the same class. In the starlight, the guys retold stories of crazy times on their missions like encounters with gun runners and drug users, getting chased by wild dogs, and, funniest of all to me, the many times they had to do an excessive number of chores for people who ended up not actually interested in Mormonism (the typical agreement is that a Mormon missionary offers to do “service” for a person with the understanding that the recipient will allow them to discuss Mormonism afterward; this means that missionaries often spend all day mowing yards, cleaning homes, and moving furniture, only to be brushed off in the end and asked to leave before they give the Latter-Day Saint sales pitch).
It occurred to me that Mormon missions are a nicely designed modern rite of passage. The children are raised with a huge emphasis on family, but during their missions they are separated from family for two years as they learn to be independent. It’s true that sometimes college itself separates a student from her family and serves as a rite of passage, but it doesn’t always work that way. A surprising number of college parents keep up with their child’s life so completely that they know about their child’s day-to-day workload and can ask questions like, “Have you finished your Calculus assignment yet?” The Mormon prohibition against regular emails and phone calls was an interesting solution to this problem.
One of the guys told a story that made me feel a little bit sad. He was the youngest of three brothers, and both of his older brothers had become “inactive” Mormons, which was a more pleasant way to say that they didn’t believe in Mormonism anymore. The youngest brother—the guy who was telling me the story—was the only brother so far who had gone on his mission. The other two brothers openly state that they will never do a mission. The father of the three boys quotes the Bible and says, “First is last and last is first.” The implication is that his boys will follow a Biblical path and go on their missions in reverse order, youngest to oldest. The father and the youngest brother are still holding out hope, waiting for the other two brothers to go on their missions. As he concluded his story for me, he smiled and said, “So whenever my oldest brother goes on his mission, it’ll all be complete. First is last and last is first.” I wondered whether the brothers were truly “inactive” or if they were completely gone, and I wondered how long the family would hold out hope. For the person with true religious belief, death isn’t real; you and your loved ones, as long as you remain believers, will live together in Heaven. The real death is if your loved ones lose their faith, because it means you will be eternally separated. Heaven isn’t so great if the people you love aren’t there too.
“It’s so cold!” said Nicole.
“We should all huddle together,” said Isaiah.
Everyone agreed, so they formed a tight circle with their arms wrapped around each other.
“Aren’t you going to join, Drew?” Nicole asked.
“Yeah, c’mon in!” said Eli.
“Yeah, yeah, ok,” I said, before taking sheepish steps toward them.
They opened up a hole in the circle, and I filled it in. At first the group hug was too wholesome, too sentimental, and I felt that same tightness in my chest from earlier, but after I took a deep breath, I was able to relax a little and enjoy it.
Nicole asked, “Isn’t it warmer in here?”