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Small fish in a big pond: A non-Mormon looks at Cache Valley culture

December 15th, 2014 Posted in Faith

By Michael Royer

LOGAN — There is no mistaking the beauty of Cache Valley. The city of Logan, nestled between the Bear River and Wellsville mountain ranges, provides a gorgeous setting for Utah State University. With Logan Canyon and the northern Utah geography offering endless outdoor adventures to students, it would seem like Utah State is the ideal setting to get a college education. For many, it is too good to be true.

According to City-Data.com, a website designed to collect and analyze data for information profiles on all cities in the United States, of the 77,473 people who affiliate themselves with a particular religious preference, 95 percent — 73,571 — people in Cache County adhere to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

“Logan is an absolutely beautiful place,” said Nikki Van Lith, a non-LDS junior at Utah State. “It has potential to be such a great college town, it’s really unfortunate for people who are not part of the LDS faith that it has to be in Utah.”

I remember my first time arriving in Logan. It was fall 2010 and I planned to register and attend the spring 2011 semester at Utah State. The drive through Sardine Canyon was spectacular. The trees were on fire with colors of different reds and oranges, and I was excited to start fresh in a place where I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me.

I grew up in the small ranching community of Lamoille, Nevada, just south of Elko, about four hours west of Logan. After high school I attended a small school in Billings, Montana, where I played football for a year, after which, I transferred to Utah State. I came from Nevada, a state where there isn’t a last call in bars and everything is available anytime of the day or night. Then I spent a year in Montana where I was immediately connected to 100 other football players and there was constantly something going on. Coming to Utah State was a bit of culture shock for a while.

It seems I am not the only one who found it to be difficult initially.

“My husband and I have itchy feet, meaning we move around a lot,” said Candi Carter Olson, a professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State. “Logan is one of the most conservative places I have lived. My family regularly attends church on Sundays, but not the LDS Church. We are used to on Sunday if you would like to go out and have a meal, then you can. My kids already know nothing goes on here on Sundays; they just say, “Oh, it’s Sunday” — they are 6. It is a very different mindset around this area.”

Many students who are not LDS have also struggled to fit in with the Utah culture.

“People here seem to be really inclined to stay at home,” said Taylor Murray, a USU junior originally from New Jersey and member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. “Utah State is very cliquey. It seems like people who make friends freshman year seem to stick with that same group of people the whole time they are here. In my experiences, there is not a lot of exploring the social life.

“There aren’t many bars or nightlife,” Murray said. “Students here sort of have to make their own fun because there isn’t a lot going on in the actual town. It isn’t the way college life should be.”

During my first semester at Utah State I found the exact thing I was seeking — starting over and not knowing anyone instantly became the issue. I lived off campus, not knowing anyone. I went to class and went home, making the trip home to Nevada on many weekends because I would simply rather be there than here.

“(For) students who move in and move off campus, it would be really hard,” Olson said. “I don’t know how you do it. It’s not that LDS people are bad, it is just that they have their groups, they have the things that they do and typically people who don’t belong to the church aren’t part of those things.”

One of the escapes from the religious culture is Utah State’s Greek sorority and fraternity involvement. There are currently five fraternities and one multicultural fraternity, which is non-chartered. The non-chartered fraternity does not have enough members to be recognized by their national organization but the fraternity still abides by and is run through the organization, they just don’t hold any weight. There are two sororities and one multicultural sorority, which like the fraternity is non-chartered.

“I never thought of joining a fraternity. I thought they were stupid growing up,” Murray said. “The social life up here was so rough, I had no friends and I was really close to transferring. It is really tough meeting people here and I couldn’t find people with the same values or morals as I have. No one liked to do the same things I did. There was no one to go out and make memories with, it was really depressing and discouraging. I attended rush week and was able to meet people who became my friends. Being a part of a fraternity, there are always things happening and never a dull moment. Pike added to the social aspect for me at Utah State.”

Van Lith had a similar experience when she first arrived as a freshman.

“I toured Utah State and it seemed great, so I decided to come here,” she said. “I moved into the Living Learning Community on campus. I didn’t realize how conservative this place was. Everyone looks the same, everyone dresses the same and everyone is really judgmental against people who aren’t Mormon.

“The first questions I always get asked by any new person I meet is: ‘What ward are you in?’” Van Lith said. “I had no idea what that even was when I first got here. It is a really uncomfortable place for people who aren’t religious.”

Van Lith said she never had any intention of rushing or joining a sorority, but that was the only option to meet “normal people” who she had similarities with. “I had no friends. It is so hard to find friends here if you don’t share the common ground of being involved in the church,” she said.

“After spending three years at this school I can walk around campus and tell who is Mormon and who isn’t,” said Lexi Walker, a Utah State junior and former member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. “I can tell by how people dress, who smokes, who glares at people sitting on the student center patio smoking. There are some really disapproving people here.”

According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Institute of Religion website, 6,746 USU students are enrolled in campus Institute classes, the largest amount of any Institute in the state by nearly 2,000 people. The University of Utah is second with 4,453 students enrolled.

“Religion runs this school,” Walker said. “The Institute building is literally on campus right next to the student center — if that doesn’t show religious bias, nothing will.”

I was in a relationship with a Mormon woman for several years when I arrived at Utah State. When we first started dating she invited me to a “fireside.” I thought, “Oh awesome, we are going to go sit around a fire and hang out up Logan Canyon or something.” She drove to one of the LDS church buildings, where I was quite underdressed for the formal meeting put on by the church. After I showed no signs of converting after taking the missionary discussions for four months, she ended it because there was no way her family would ever approve of her dating someone who couldn’t give her eternal marriage.

“A big part of college should be dating,” Van Lith said. “It is difficult here because a good majority of the guys are either married or Mormon, which doesn’t appeal to me. I would rather go home to Boise on the weekends where I get a real college town atmosphere and experience.”

A point Olson made goes deeper than just public appearance and trying to find a date.

“One of the most intriguing things is how the conservative mindset is government hands-off as much as possible — smaller government, smaller government, smaller government — unless it comes to legislating other people’s morality,” Olson said. “Here in Utah it is huge, you know — don’t you dare have an alcoholic drink, don’t you dare smoke in public. It is an interesting thing for me to try to reconcile How do you reconcile smaller government with everyone here trying to be in the private parts of your life?”

Some people feel like they get judged for reasons that are unfair.

“I smoke, which is where I see most of the judgment,” said Murray. “Anywhere else it wouldn’t be a big deal but here you are like a sore thumb sticking out. There are great people who are part of the LDS Church. It is just the judgmental stares that I get that aren’t right.”

“I feel like there is not a lot of understanding from the Mormon faith about people who aren’t religious,” he said. “Some act like they are better than you for what they believe in and act like your views and values are wrong because you don’t believe the same thing.”

Murray said that stereotyping is a huge problem at Utah State. “I feel like both sides are wrong at times,” he said. “Non-Mormons have a bias built up that all Mormons are the same, and some Mormons have this idea in their head that their way is the only way.”

Several times during my college career here at Utah State I have been asked by people I meet in classes to attend church with them. After I explain my position and they realize I have no interest in the church, I never hear from them again. Many times I have been asked where I served my LDS mission. When I reply that I am not Mormon, I get these looks that I am not up to their standard. During a class in 2013 I sat next to a woman with a henna tattoo on her arm. Spending nearly four years at Utah State, I have learned what to look for to notice those who are not part of the Mormon faith. I know that it is possible for LDS people to have tattoos but it isn’t very common, especially at Utah State. The first thing we talked about is if we were LDS, and we bonded over the fact that neither of us were.

Eliza Welch, a senior from Las Vegas, shares similar instances during her time at Utah State.

“I know what to look for,” Welch said. “I don’t even know how to explain it, you can just tell. Even the way people talk is a dead giveaway if they are Mormon or not. I approach people who I know aren’t LDS and we bond over the fact that we aren’t. I don’t waste my time trying to befriend people who I know I will have nothing in common with.”

According to the LDS Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website, there are 33 LDS  stakes in Cache County. In comparison, St Thomas Aquinas is the only Catholic Church in the county and there are two Lutheran Churches in the county.

“I really feel like the culture ruins a large part of the social life here,” Van Lith said. “The only reason I stayed and am going to finish is because of their great Agricultural and Journalism departments. There isn’t another program around that is this cheap and so close to my home in Boise. I applaud those who aren’t Mormon who stay in this conservative, sheltered state because this isn’t college.”

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity and support to attend a great university such as Utah State. I realize there are many people who would love to be in my position and have the chances that I have during my time here. Although I feel like I have made the most of my education, I can’t help but feel that I missed out on a lot, simply because the LDS religion is so dominant to those outside the circle.

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