I have heard many people argue against religious freedom at BYU by stating, “If you don’t think you can live according to the Honor Code, you shouldn’t go to BYU in the first place.” I believe that my story illustrates that it’s not that simple. The college years are a formative time in anyone’s life, and no one can predict the changes that will take place during those years.
Because I chose to graduate from high school one year early, I was applying to colleges at the tender age of 16. I grew up in a devout Mormon household, and BYU was the only college with which I was familiar. I spent a few weeks of every summer on campus, attending EFY and various summer camps, so it was a natural choice for me. Furthermore, my parents told me that they would only pay for BYU’s tuition prices; if I decided to go anywhere else, I would have to cover the remainder of my tuition. This provided a strong economic incentive for me to attend BYU. Furthermore, I was only a teenager, and still very much subscribed to my parent’s belief system. I signed the Honor Code in full confidence that I would still be Mormon when I graduated in four years.
However, the late teens and early twenties were a critical time of personal development for me. As I learned more about the Mormon faith, the sciences, and the world around me, I grew increasingly agnostic. As I developed my own system of ethics and morality, I felt that I could no longer abdicate my moral responsibility to the teachings of the church. By the time I graduated from BYU, I no longer felt comfortable calling myself a Mormon, and felt it was more accurate to describe myself as agnostic. I also did not feel comfortable signing the Honor Code for the last two years of my education.
While I was no longer religious, I still subscribed to a strong code of ethics, and my personal belief in honesty prompted me to approach Honor Code office in my final year at BYU to admit to some infractions that I had committed. This resulted in the delay of my graduation by four months as a punishment, which nearly resulted in me being unable to attend medical school. My final graduation date ended up being one week before medical school classes began. This type of delay was so unusual that my admission was nearly revoked.
The process of working with the Honor Code office was humiliating. There was enormous pressure to comply with their demands, or risk failing to graduate and continue in my career. I had to tell several strangers the details of my infraction and write essays promising renewed obedience to the church, which was degrading. I completed the process with as much sincerity as I could muster. On the day of my graduation, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders — I would no longer be forced to live a lie or please the demands of inquisitive strangers. I was free to live according to the dictates of my own conscience, and not the dictates of the University.
I am now in my fourth year in an MD/MPH program at another university, where I also work as a tutor. My personal beliefs have no bearing on my graduation status, my housing, or my job, and for this I am deeply grateful. I served as a Senator for the School of Medicine in the University Senate in my sophomore year, and I was filled with gratitude that there was a way for student voices to be heard at the university. At BYU, students were not encouraged to speak out against injustices they observed; rather, they were punished if their views differed in any way. I was so grateful to be able to live as I saw fit, and to have the freedom to speak out if I felt something wasn’t right at the university.
I feel lucky that my time at BYU ended so well. Many of my friends were less fortunate. Some were forced to live a lie in order to graduate, hiding their true beliefs from their friends, roommates, and bishops. Others were evicted from the school and their housing without a diploma, wasting years of effort. While the delay in my graduation did not ultimately upend my career plans, it caused severe distress, and had my beliefs been slightly different or had I worked with a different staff member in the Honor Code office, my life might be very different than it is today.