This morning, as I was walking through campus in sunlight so bright and heavy it seemed almost palpable, as I was admiring the beauty of the gardens and the trees and the buildings, I had a moment of wonderful clarity. I was at Brigham Young University, my dream school, the school I had planned to attend ever since I was old enough to know what a university was; I had arrived!
Frankly, this realization should have hit me days ago. Had I woken up that morning and found myself a college student my surprise might have been understandable, but what really happened is much the opposite. Indeed, my road to BYU started years ago, when I first started to take an interest in the lives of my parents. I would question them on their likes and dislikes, on their moods and thoughts, and on their pasts. Many of their stories involved their years at BYU. This is where they met; this is where they came of age, where they found out who they were and what they wanted, where they made decisions that are shaping their lives--and mine--even today. As I listened to these stories, I decided that one day I would go to BYU, in the same way I decided that I would be president of the United States and drive a Ferrari and marry Emma Watson. Though my decision was simply and perhaps naively made, I proudly told anyone who asked that one day I would be going to the Y.
This juvenile persistence lasted until early in my senior year, when I began to think about what I wanted to study and who I wanted to be. Things started arriving in the mail--pamphlets, fliers, letters, posters, stickers, guides, postcards. I was flattered by the attention, and sought to return the favor by carefully studying the things I was sent, considering the possibilities each flier spoke of. Although I continued to tell people I was going to BYU, my personal resolve weakened, then disappeared altogether as I learned of the multitude of other options available to me.
Through the tide of information coming at me from every direction, I did manage to glean one important fact: I should apply to multiple colleges, however many applications my budget and patience could handle. I needed to branch out into different locations, different themes, different sizes and shapes and mottoes and purposes. The decision of where to actually go came later; what I needed were options. A short time after this realization, I decided it was time to begin filling out my applications. I would apply to BYU, as it was my parents’ alma mater and I was still quite fond of it, and to Utah State as well, where one of the professors was a close friend of my family. I would decide on which other schools to apply to as the process progressed.
I began assembling my information, writing up a list of extracurricular activities and awards. I decided on what was important to me, a home-schooled Mormon boy who had lived in North Carolina his whole life. I wanted a school with strong physics and chemistry programs (even as I write this I am unsure which discipline I will go into), a school where I could develop spiritually, and a school where I could find good friends and eventually a wife. I looked at the pamphlets and the postcards and the team mascots and the catch phrases, and I decided where else I wanted to apply. Along with the previously mentioned pair, I would apply to two other universities. The first of these was the University of Utah, BYU's arch rival. The second was Harvard.
My decision to apply to Harvard was a difficult one. Perhaps the most acclaimed school in the country, and one of the great universities of the world, the name evoked for me images of elite groups of incredibly intelligent people, future surgeons and businessmen and lawyers and statesmen, the cream of the crop, assembled together to seek learning and wisdom at the feet of renowned educators. The thought that I might be worthy to join their ranks, through hard work and an aptitude for test taking, was stimulating. The very real possibility that they would reject me was terrifying. However, I overcame my fears and began the application, completing all of it but the mid-year report. This I would send in several months later, after the first semester of school ended.
My first few acceptances came in, from both the University of Utah and Utah State, two good Utah schools where I would be likely to find friends and companions who would share my beliefs. Soon after receiving my acceptance letter, I realized I did not actually want to go to the University of Utah. I applied there simply because it was in Utah; I had no deeper reason, no great love for its academics or atmosphere. Almost as soon as I was accepted, I declined admission. This narrowed the field down to three colleges, all of which I had good reason to want to attend: BYU, the school of my childhood dreams; Utah State, in beautiful Cache Valley, where I knew a professor; and Harvard, that prestigious convocation of genius. I had not yet been accepted to either BYU or Harvard, but the year was still young and I held out hope.
Once the idea of Harvard had entered my mind, it was hard to remove. It seemed to me that the whole world would be clamoring to employ me if I graduated from Harvard--the coat of arms bearing the word truth would act as some sort of master key, unlocking opportunity after opportunity wherever I went. I began to daydream about the people I might meet, the world-changing conversations we would have.
Today I am left wondering whether I would have been accepted by Harvard, for I terminated the application in its eleventh hour, declining to send in my mid-year report. As quickly as the vision and desire came to me, it was shattered by several cold doses of reality and perspective. The academics of Harvard were, I learned, intensely competitive, for each student desired to be the best at the expense of their peers, and while I looked forward to the challenge of college this type of cutthroat competition was not nearly so attractive. On a financial level, attending Harvard would require obtaining massive student loans which would then take years to pay off. Finally, the moral environment described to me by the Harvard alumnus I consulted was decidedly the opposite of the environment I had envisioned myself in at college. I decided against Harvard.
Around the same time I ceased my Harvard plans, I was accepted to BYU. I now had two schools left to choose between. Both universities had accepted me; both had strong physics and chemistry departments; both had large groups of Mormon students and good moral environments. The playing field was level, each college seeming to have many of the same strengths. Finally, after weeks of writing lists, making comparisons, pondering, praying, and making phone calls, I made my decision, maybe because they sent me clever things in the mail, maybe because they offered me a scholarship months before BYU got around to it, maybe because I simply wanted to have made a decision--I would go to Utah State! I began to think of myself as an Aggie. I put up a sticker on my mirror. I started talking to people who had graduated from Utah State, and a few who were still going there.
Several weeks progressed in this way, until one day I made a discovery. I was apprehensive about my decision, unable to summon full enthusiasm for my future school. The snake of doubt wound its way firmly around my heart, crushing my confidence, making me question my reasons and decisions. What if being flattered by all the mail I received was not a solid reason to choose a college? What if the same was true with their promptness in accepting and scholarshipping me? What would I be missing if I rejected BYU, what spiritual insights and opportunities could I have there that would not be available anywhere else? One night as I sat thinking about my concerns and my future as a student, I reversed my decision. I was not an Aggie, I was a Cougar!
I would love to say that the change was instant, that all shreds of doubt flew from my mind like iron flakes pulled by a magnet, that the pathway has been bright and clear ever since. I would love to say this, but it would be a lie. I have oftentimes been unsure of my decision, wondering if Utah State really was the best choice. However, my confidence has grown, grown in the way a flower grows, slowly and modestly shooting upwards toward the sun, towards peace and surety of mind. It grew enough for me to pack up my shoes and my toothbrush and get on a plane to travel two thousand miles away from my home. It grew enough for me to say goodbye to my family. It grew enough for me to walk onto campus alone, knowing I would get lost a dozen times on the first day.
It grew as I sat in class and listened as my professor taught us that writing essays helps us become like Christ. It grew as I got to know my fellow students and as I felt the strength of the standards we share. It grew as I learned of the history of this place, of the inspiration and sacrifice that created this school. This morning the small, humble bud of my confidence opened to a bright flash of color, of wonder. Like a flower, it bloomed.