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.”
One of the requirements for students to attend BYU-Hawaii is to have high English comprehension, since the classes are taught in English. American students are able to help the foreign students by speaking English with them in study groups and classes.
One of the main goals at BYU-Hawaii is to help the students become successful leaders so they can impact their native countries in a positive way once they return.
“One country that is a great example of success is Mongolia,” Johanson said. “They have a great economy and we have a lot of students who come here from there who get a business education and several have returned and are working for international accounting firms or in the mining industry.”
Another goal at BYU-Hawaii is to have students obtain work experience while on campus. This way they gain leadership skills and are able to step right into management roles when they return to their home country.
Philip McArthur, dean of the college of language, culture and arts and a professor of cultural students at BYU-Hawaii, loves having the opportunity to teach such a diverse student body — an experience he describes as one few people in the world get to have.
“These are students with great ambition, great nature and good will,” McArthur said. “They all come from different backgrounds of learning styles and world views. I’m always working to present the curriculum in such a way that can draw out the diversity here for good conversation.”
Although secular diversity is prevalent in addition to cultural diversity, faith unites the students and faculty of the university.
“Any of the differences we have get mediated by our common testimonies and faith in the gospel,” McArthur said. “Sometimes we have to stop and look at what’s happening in front of us. Israel is gathering right before our eyes.”
Because one of the main goals at BYU-Hawaii is to learn English, students can return to their countries as intercultural communicators.
“The students almost become intercultural brokers,” McArthur said. “They know how to communicate back and forth between cultures and shift codes in a very sophisticated way.”
School and work can be taxing for anyone — especially for one overcoming culture shock and acclimating to new traditions.
“Sometimes when the students are tired from all the different cultural learning, they’ll retreat into their own cultural groups so they can feel more at home,” McArthur said. “We’re always working to get them to connect with each other. The university sponsors all kinds of activities for students to reach out to each other.”
Sirichai Khamrod, a senior from Thailand who is studying graphic design, received a scholarship to attend BYU-Hawaii — something he considers one of his greatest blessings.
The universities in Thailand are not only hard to get into, but they are also very costly. He is grateful for the diversity that surrounds him.
“It was hard to adjust at first, but now the world doesn’t feel as big anymore,” Khamrod said. “It’s opened my perspective to different cultures and made me more humble.”
Khamrod has enjoyed learning about other cultures, specifically Hawaiian traditions. He plans to take some of the customs back with him to Thailand, such as honoring one's family and culture.
“Most of the kids in Thailand don’t really care about Thai culture because they’d rather go Korean or Gangnam style,” Khamrod said. “I want to encourage people in Thailand, starting with youth adults at church, to do activities that preserve Thai culture.”
Ariel Chaffin, a recent graduate of BYU-Hawaii, feels that her experience on a diverse campus has opened her options.
Chaffin studied English and wanted to focus on British and American literature. But while studying in Hawaii, she was exposed to Pacific literature, which may help her attend graduate school in New Zealand.
“Rather than being focused in the culture that I grew up knowing, I’ve been exposed to different cultures and it’s made me a more compassionate person,” Chaffin said. “It took me out of my comfort zone and opened me up to other students' experiences. It also made me grateful for my own background and culture by seeing others around me.”
Megan Marsden is an intern with the Deseret News writing for the Faith & Family section. She is currently a junior at BYU-Idaho studying communication. The views of the writer do not reflect the views of BYU-Idaho.