Jake Heaps' announcement this week that he's transferring from BYU illustrates an issue that is prevalent at BYU: It is a highly competitive environment, as much for the top high school quarterback in the country as it is for the homecoming queens and valedictorians who arrive at the Provo campus without fanfare.
BYU can be a tough place for regular kids — never mind scholarship athletes or music and math prodigies. Don't get me wrong, BYU is an amazing place. No place like it in the world. But it can be awfully lonely for the faint of heart.
By nature, college campuses are competitive environments, but BYU is also competitive in a different, well, LDS-centric way. There's enormous internal and external pressure there to perform, to be the best — athletically (for those on scholarship), academically, socially (to date and find a spouse) and yes, even spiritually — to conform and live up to the high expectations of the sponsoring institution. And every year, the bar is raised and the pressure seems to ratchet up a few more notches with another crop of incoming freshmen rolling in from all 50 states and around the globe.
All three of our older kids were accepted to BYU and our youngest, who is a senior, is also applying. None of our kids are scholarship athletes, so they applied like everyone else. Our older three are boys and they spent a year in Provo, living in dorms, before they left on their missions.
They all returned to BYU, but one struggled academically and came home. That isn't easy, but our children's BYU experience isn't so unique. It works out for some and not for others. That doesn't mean my son is a failure; his grades have improved at a local college, albeit a less rigorous academic school. The upside is he's more confident. Those are the dilemmas kids and their families sometimes have to make.
There was a flurry of applications that arrived in BYU's Admissions Office last week to meet the Dec. 1 early registration deadline. I have been a local church leader in the East since 1997 and in that time I've probably conducted 100 ecclesiastic endorsement interviews that included all four of my children.
I hear from parents every year of their frustration with the process of getting their kids into BYU and certainly understand it. As the Church grows, it's increasingly difficult to get kids admitted to BYU because of the global competition. Thank goodness for BYU-Hawaii for relieving BYU-Provo and BYU-Idaho of the demands it would surely have from those students applying from Polynesia and the Pacific Rim.
It's my understanding that BYU's administration, likely under the direction of the Board of Trustees, is hoping to achieve greater diversity at BYU. I can only guess that with more LDS members living outside of the United States than within, Church leaders would like to see future foreign leaders get the BYU opportunity, if they're qualified. The most recent BYU figures indicate 14 percent of the student body are minorities; 98½ percent are LDS; and only 1½ percent are non-LDS.
It seems quite a few of that 1½ percent non-LDS demographics are scholarship athletes. Admittedly, I used to assume that if you're non-LDS and qualified, you'd be automatically admitted. Not so. I share the following with the permission of the young men involved.
A few years ago, I got an email at work one day from two Chinese students studying locally at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Gou Jei and Keda Che were college roommates at a university in Shanghai, came to Philly together in a student-exchange program, and continued to be roommates at St. Joe's. Keda Che was a math major and Gou Jei was in computer science.
Both come from prominent, wealthy families. Gou Jie's parents are both physicians and Keda Che's mother is a university professor, his father owns a latex manufacturing company, and his maternal grandfather is a general in the Chinese Army.
They decided they wanted to change their major and both pursue accounting, so they did a "Google" search. BYU popped up as the No. 1 accounting school in the U.S. so they did a little more research, which took them to BYU.edu, LDS.org and Mormon.org.
They learned their application required an ecclesiastic endorsement, so they asked their accounting professor, a Catholic priest named Bruce Bidinger, if he would help them. It so happened that Father Bidinger had been my boys' principal at their Jesuit Prep School in Philly and knew that my boys were at BYU and I was a Mormon bishop. So, Father Bidinger gave the two Chinese boys my info and invited them to contact me.
I met with them and conducted their interview. I learned that both carried high GPAs, were excellent students and though they struggled with the language a bit, we could still communicate. It just took a little longer.
At the time, one of my sons was serving his mission in Hong Kong, where he spoke Mandarin. My missionary son informed me that tea posed one of the biggest problems for them in the conversion process because it was such a big part of Asian culture.
In the interview, I emphasized the Word of Wisdom aspect of the Honor Code, especially coffee and tea and asked each if they were committed to live it if they were admitted. Without hesitation, they said they would.
Neither of them were going home over Christmas break since they don't celebrate the holiday in China, so I invited them to spend it with my family. Over the break, we took them to Chinatown in Philly to a restaurant they recommended. Thinking that this was a special event — they aren't LDS, they haven't been accepted to BYU and they probably miss home — I didn't see the harm in their having tea, so I told them so.
Oddly, they seemed hesitant. I asked if everything was OK. Keda leaned in and whispered to me, "Mr. Vai, we already told you we won't drink tea. We cannot go back on our word. BYU expects us not to drink tea."
Instantly, I felt ashamed that I invited them to rescind their commitment after they had already given it. I was stunned. But not as stunned as I would be in February when I learned they weren't accepted by BYU. I expected their application would be a slam-dunk. Obviously, it wasn't.
Perhaps they may not have been so willing for me to share their story if things hadn't turned out so wonderfully for them. Not surprisingly, things did. In fact, spectacularly.
Keda Che was accepted to Ohio State, from where he graduated last summer and is now in graduate school in Ohio. Gou Jie chose to remain at St. Joe's from where he'll graduate in June. He'll return to China to work a year or two before re-applying to graduate school in the U.S.
Since tithing subsidizes Church schools, BYU will always have more LDS than not. I just wish we could improve that miniscule 1½ percent, because clearly there are qualified non-LDS students who share our values and want to come to BYU.
I don't envy the Admissions Office. Do you reject qualified LDS kids to admit qualified non-LDS? Would I be willing to give up a coveted spot for my daughter, who is otherwise qualified, for a non-LDS student who is just as qualified, if not more? Honestly? Probably not. We want her to have the BYU experience every bit as much as she does.
Most of us who had the BYU experience want it for our kids. Obviously, space at BYU is finite. It's so tough to get in and getting tougher. Our daughter is applying to two East Coast schools in addition to BYU, just in case. There's no guarantee.
In September 1985, my senior year, I slipped into the upper tier of the Marriott Center to hear President Gordon B. Hinckley speak to the student body in a devotional in which he articulated the purpose of BYU. He said, "... The primary purpose of BYU is not football. The primary purpose of BYU is to provide a first-class education in the disciplines and skills that will qualify you for productive lives while at the same time inculcating within you a solid foundation of spiritual values."