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Belonging at the BYU’s: Advice to a College Freshman

A sense of belonging can make a real difference in your education. But you have a lot more control over whether you feel you belong than you think.

When I was a middle school administrator, I noticed that my 7th graders behaved better, had increased academic performance, and were generally happier when they felt they belonged. I dug into it. I’ve been obsessed with it since

It’s easy to talk about how adults can build belonging for students. But what do the students themselves need to do? 

Expanding our approach to belonging. One of the more sacred experiences I had when I was young, was praying to be given a friend. I was young, and it felt a little pitiful. 

Mercifully, God heard me. 

I did have to ask, however.

So, here’s my first bit of college advice: avoid the passive voice. If you want doors to open, you have an obligation to knock. We are agents, not objects. If we want belonging, we must seek it. God has built the universe on laws, and by conforming to those laws, there is no blessing that can be withheld from us. If you want to belong, you can—but you’ve got work to do.

I am skeptical that weakening those norms would result in more belonging for all.

Yet Arthur Brooks also says we’re not very good at finding what we aim to find. And belonging is like happiness: you can’t find it via the direct route. Some, obsessed with it, find so little of it. It’s a funny little paradox, this required serendipity—a little like Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised: you can only get the thing if you don’t want it most.

So how exactly are we to approach something that can feel so elusive? Consider a few bite-sized insights. Hopefully, a handful will give you something helpful to start with. 

1. One Does Not Make Cakes of Frosting

So, yes, Belonging is important. But it is important as an ingredient in a larger project. One does not make cakes of frosting. And if you see clearly, you are making something here bigger than belonging alone. Know what that is. 

In the medium term, I hope you seek to thrive. In the long term, I hope you become something greater than what you are. Belonging is important to both—but it is not the end in itself—it is part of the path. 

2. Some Great Dieting Advice

One of the more interesting theories about why nordic countries are happier is because they have a healthy sense of what a good life looks like. They set reasonable expectations. When happiness comes, they don’t set their sights on more—they savor it. 

Do you know how to do that?

I once got some great dieting advice. It came in two parts. First, know what it feels like to be full. Second, eat because you’re hungry.

Did you know that’s great relationship advice too? First, know what it feels like to be full. It is possible to “overeat” in social terms. There are some who have wonderful relationships and still want more. They are surprised when their constant need for validation and sociality can’t be met. 

You don’t have to be that way! Ask yourself what a great set of relationships and social connectedness would look like. Then, when it happens, enjoy it.   You need rich relationships, but you also need the capacity to savor them.

That other advice to eat because you are hungry means don’t eat out of boredom or loneliness, as you’ll never eat your way out of either. Watch for the same tendency in relationships.  No amount of close connectedness will make up for unfinished homework, fractured relationships, or the sense that you are not living up to your own moral expectations. 

3. “We Went To School”

President Gordon B. Hinckley was once asked what extracurriculars he participated in during grade school. His answer: “What did we do in school? We went to school.”

I remember admiring friends from my school days, and many had this in common: a no-apologies focus on school. A friend relates living in an apartment wherein watching Simpsons and wasting time on TV programs every night of the week was the norm; he pressed his roommates, “you can go to college. Or you can watch TV all week. Which are you going to choose?” 

There is something meaningful about choosing to engage in school intentionally.

Focusing on school allows you to build relationships with those with similar focus and helps keep your belonging efforts aligned with your larger goals. 

4. Choose Your Love

I recently saw on the website of a large, prominent university that they were actively changing strategy to begin hiring faculty who were “mission fit.” I thought that was obviously the right call. Then I kept reading: they were also shifting toward admitting students who were “mission fit.” That strikes me as even more the right call.

The university I’m talking about is BYU.

“Is the mission of BYU changing me or am I trying to change the mission of BYU?” -David Bednar

I’d bet that large institutions are going to trend in the direction of requiring their constituent members to join deliberately and on the basis of fit. Steven R. Covey wanted a “Statue of Responsibility” on the west coast of the United States to face the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. There’s wisdom in the idea, and it applies here: you have the freedom to choose your associations—and you also have obligations to choose well. You may choose how you exercise your freedom of association, just as you must extend that right to others.

In this case, you have an obligation to choose your college on the basis of shared beliefs and aligned values. 

My mother gave me some advice about marriage once that applies here: “Choose your love. Love your choice.” I didn’t know until later that President Monson gave the same advice

Communities with stronger norms create greater feelings of belonging to those who buy into those norms. High expectations create a unifying pull, but norms also necessarily push people away who don’t buy into those norms—or who are defiant to them. The BYUs have strong norms around discipleship and personal conduct—norms that are not for everyone. I am skeptical that weakening those norms would result in more belonging for all—in part because I am quite sure that it would result in a watered-down institution for everyone. I’m sure BYU would be easier for some to enjoy if they could remove a rule here or change a requirement there, but doing so would necessarily erode its unique nature; which is precisely what makes it a place where I can uniquely belong in the first place. 

So yes, choose your school on purpose. Choose one whose norms you admire and whose values resonate with yours. Be one of those who thrive because they choose somewhere that will allow them to thrive.

5. Enjoy Disneyland

My wise academic Vice President, Jon Linford, said recently to faculty that if they prioritize well, “Disneyland will have nothing on Rexburg, Idaho—the true happiest place on earth!” He’s right.

Not everyone feels that it’s Disneyland, however. Is that because the school needs to change? 

Let me be clear: faculty and staff need to do all in their power to help students belong. My point is not that they don’t. Rather, my point is that students need to do all in their power too. That includes choosing your love and loving your choice.  Similar to Jon Linford’s question, Elder Bednar asked the faculty a related, penetrating question: Is the mission of BYU changing me, or am I trying to change the mission of BYU?

How do we love our choice?

My mother gave good marriage advice that is related here, too: “keep both eyes open before marriage, and one eye closed after.” There are some who would arrive at Disneyland only to complain about how happy everyone is. And there are undoubtedly some who would arrive in paradise only to complain about how the streets are too golden-shiny. 

It seems to me that belonging is inversely proportional to complaining, and there is always a choir of complainers. No need to join their chorus!

If you decide to look for examples of people being kind, that’s what you will find. If you decide to look for cases of hypocrisy, you’ll find those too. Choose wisely where to direct your attention and what you will spend time looking for. See the good, and let some of the bad things go. 

6. Against Activism

I am, in most cases, against activism. There are good activists—many of whom I’m honored to know personally. They inspire me. There is work that needs to be done to make the world better.

Ultimately, however, it takes a profoundly good person to keep the limelight on those in need; a maturity that is, frankly, rare on college campuses. The temptation is to allow activism to become about you. Some do it to feel a part of a group, others to find meaning—but if these are your priority, you will gain neither a better world nor the validation you crave. 

Those who attempt to fashion the university to their liking will not be pleased with the outcome. Joining an institution with the sole purpose of changing it makes it impossibly difficult to feel that you belong in the institution.

7. Do What is Right

I am not suggesting that all grievances are petty. I am suggesting that you be wise in discriminating between those that are and those that are serious. Narrowing your focus to the evils of the world could leave you bitter and frustrated—and perhaps even hopeless. I urge you to look for the best things.

 You can still keep your eyes open. You will see racism. You will see abuse. You will see people in positions of authority abuse it. Have the courage to do what is right when the time comes.

My plea is that you do so with deliberateness, however. Pray for the wisdom to know how to address such things in the right place, at the right time. Pray for the wisdom to discriminate between those things that are best left alone and those things that God expects you to stand against.

In short, have couragebut be sure to temper it with wisdom.

8. Much Good in this Generation

Activism can easily become about changing things that are outside your direct sphere of influence; consecration is primarily about magnifying your capacity to do good within your sphere. Vow that your community will be better for your having passed through it, and then summon the grit and work ethic to make your desire manifest. 

Heaven knows we need pure hearts to make the world better. I’m reminded of the Lord’s words to Hyrum Smith: “if you desire, you shall be the means of doing much good in this generation.” I believe the Lord will honor our noblest hopes, including this one. 

You will be able to effect more change in a community if people know that your heart is loyal. Where activism can lead to feeling apart from the community, consecration carries with it an additional dose of belonging. When you invest in the community, the dividends of belongingness are paid with generous interest.

9. Lose Yourself

College is a selfish time. Be warned: it must not become about you.

If you seek belonging in conformity with eternal law, you shall surely reap in due season.

You will ‘find yourself’ in direct proportion to how much you lose yourself in service to causes bigger than you. Jesus said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” That applies to finding (or losing) belonging—and so much more.

A friend tells me of sitting in a Sunday lesson on the ninety-and-nine lost sheep and identifying as the one who was lost. He felt lonely. With some prayer, he had the distinct impression, “I sent you to be a shepherd.” The loneliness lifted in direct proportion to how intently well he reached out to others.

Consider, as just one example, your choice of major and career. Is it something that interests you? That you are passionate about? Excellent. Those things matter. So does this: will it serve the world? Choose a career that you love—that also allows you to benefit others.

Be aware, however, that you can lose yourself to losing yourself. Serving others can be overdone too. Service can become a false altar at which you worship or a way to procrastinate important things. Again, wisdom.

But if you would belong, you would do well to imitate the pattern of Him in whom our hopes for our true home lie.

10. The Wisdom of Jean-Luc

I will confess that few people have had such an impact on my life as the British-accented French captain of a ship called Enterprise. Said Captain Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” 

The law of the harvest dictates that you will reap what you sow—and if you seek belonging in conformity with eternal law, you shall surely reap in due season. But the season between sowing and harvest is known only to God. Belonging will come, but I cannot promise when. 

In the meanwhile, remember that everyone—even those I know who do it all right—has passed through times of loneliness. 

As best you can see the holiness in the coming contrast. Loneliness will not last forever. When belonging does eventually come, it will be all the richer for your having known solitude.

About the author

Benjamin Pacini

Benjamin Pacini is a husband, father of four, and faculty at BYU-Idaho in Elementary Education. He served as a teacher and administrator in Baltimore City and Washington D.C. for ten years. He is currently pursuing an EdD from BYU.
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