More than 70 countries are represented on one college campus

Published: Thursday, March 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Students gather to raise their native flags to cap off Spirit Week at BYU-Hawaii.

Monique Saenz

LAIE, Hawaii — With all the surfing and swimming, studying may not seem like the activity of choice in the beautiful community of Laie, Hawaii.

While it’s hard to imagine attending school in paradise, many students come from all over the world to attend BYU-Hawaii, making it the most diverse school among all baccalaureate institutions in the U.S., according to Michael Johanson, BYU-Hawaii’s communications director. Approximately half of the 2,700 students who attend the university come from outside of the United States.

On Feb. 16, BYU-Hawaii students celebrated the diversity of their campus by raising flags from 68 different countries against the backdrop of a mosaic depicting another flag raising — the one that gave President David O. McKay, ninth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the vision for an institution of higher learning on Laie in 1921.

Each of the 68 flags was held by a citizen of that country. Students from four of the 76 countries currently represented at BYU-Hawaii spoke at the ceremony, which preceded the flag raising. This event was the end of what they call “Spirit Week” at BYU-Hawaii, similar to Homecoming Week at other colleges.

President McKay had witnessed children from different ethnic backgrounds pledging allegiance to the flag in a little school at Laie. His vision was that children of God could come together from around the world to learn from each other, after which they’d return to their homeland as leaders and missionaries, according to Johanson.

On March 12, 1955, a few years after President McKay became the president of the church, he broke ground for the Church College of Hawaii.

Kalolaine Soukop, a member on the board of directors for the Polynesian Cultural Center, remembers attending the Church College of Hawaii back in 1957.

Although she was petrified to leave her parents and her 14 siblings in Tonga, she wanted to fulfill her father’s dream of one of his children moving to America to obtain an education.

As she was getting ready to leave for Laie, her father assured her that as long as she kept the commandments and lived the gospel, God would watch out for her.

It was a hard adjustment for Soukop because she couldn’t speak English very well. On her first day of English class, the professor asked everyone to introduce themselves in English, and Soukop responded by crying.

After sacrificing social activities to double up on English study in her first year, Soukop began to excel in her education and opportunities.

Soukop worked hard to save up money to bring her family to Hawaii, and eventually she did.

In April 1974, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the two-year college would turn into a four-year university known as BYU-Hawaii.

The requirements are equal for all prospective BYU-Hawaii students. However, preference is given to those from outside the United States so the school can remain as diverse as President McKay envisioned it, according to Johanson.

“The diversity of the student body is part of our lifeblood,” he said.

Johanson said the mission of BYU-Hawaii is the same as sister schools in Provo and Rexburg — to mix spiritual learning with secular learning. In addition to academics, the Hawaii location gives students an opportunity to learn more about different cultures around the world.

“Your roommate or those in your class are going to be from a largely varying background here,” Johanson said. “Your experience becomes more enriched because you get other perspectives than what you grow up with. Students share their customs and traditions with each other.”

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