More than half of the students at Brigham Young University Hawaii are from outside the United States, making it the most diverse undergraduate school in the United States. Although the school has just 2700 students, seventy countries are currently represented in the student body. Preference is given to students from outside the country in order to encourage the diversity that is considered an essential part of the school’s learning experience.
The dream of this school began in the 1950s, when David O. McKay, a church leader was visiting Laie, where the school is now located. He watched as a group of ethnically diverse children participated in a flag ceremony and began to envision an environment in which people from all over the world could come together and learn about each other. They could then return home to use the wisdom they gained from the experience in business, in government, and in church service.
When he became the president of the Church, he began to put concrete thought behind his dream and in 1955, he broke ground for the school. It was then called Church College of Hawaii and was only a community college. It became a four-year college in 1974. David O. McKay said, “From this school, I’ll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally,”
Students are required to speak English well, since classes are taught in English, but native speakers help their classmates improve their skills. Students also learn work and leadership skills by operating a popular tourist attraction called the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center provided employment in an area that had little, but it also gives the students an unusual range of skills they can take home with them.
The diversity is not tucked away or ignored. Instead, it is celebrated and explored through cultural celebrations and through classroom and personal discussions. Most students are Mormons—a nickname sometimes used to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—so they find an element of unity through faith that allows them to feel unified even in an environment of great diversity. The diversity is sometimes overwhelming to students, who then find comfort by being with those who share their culture, but the school works to ensure they don’t remain segregated.
When they return home, they take with them all they’ve learned about other people and can use it to bring about peace and understanding in their own countries. Church leader Marion G. Romney said in 1973, “This college is a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of the Master Teacher have an opportunity for developing an appreciation, tolerance, and esteem for one another. For what can be done here interculturally in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth” (Church News, 10 Feb. 1973, p. 15).
Not all students are Mormon, although most are. In 2012, the school made headlines when it elected a Muslim to serve as the student body president, the first non-Mormon to fill the role in its history. Mustapha El Akkari grew up in Lebanon, a child of war. He came to the United States as a basketball for a Christian college in Texas because his family hoped to send him to a safer place. The first Christian college asked him to pretend to be Christian because other students would be uncomfortable having a Muslim in the school. He agreed, although he himself was uncomfortable with the deception. He later transferred to BYU-Hawaii, also a Christian school. There, he was not asked to pretend he was Mormon or Christian. In the welcoming fold of this diverse school, being the only practicing Muslim was acceptable.
Although many campuses fill the news media with stories of racial prejudice and conflict, BYU-Hawaii stands as an example that schools—and the world—don’t have to operate that way. People united in a common goal can work together, finding unity from what they share, not from what makes them different. The differences can serve to strengthen them and increase their ability to carry out the good the world so desperately needs.
Mercedes White, Muslim immigrant first non-LDS student body president of BYU-Hawaii, Deseret News, May 8 2012
Megan Marsden, More than 70 countries are represented on one college campus, Deseret News, March 21 2013
Benjamin Boud, Graduating Students Share BYU-Hawaii Experiences, University Advancement, 15 January 2007
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.