In a room filled with other women of color at Brigham Young University, Belgica Alvarez realized she had stopped noticing how often she’s surrounded by white people.

“It’s kind of like a social fact,” said Alvarez, a senior. “[I] didn’t realize that I was used to being the only brown person until I’m in a room full of brown people. And then I was like, ‘Wow, this does feel different.’”

Students who have joined the Provo school’s new Women of Color club, which began meeting last fall, say it has given minority students an “empowering” space to talk about the unique challenges they face on a campus that is 82 percent white.

At the same time, the university’s Idaho campus shut down its similar cultural associations in favor of academic societies, which focus on education. This means that where there was once a Mexican Cultural Association for students who shared that heritage, there is now a Spanish Language Interpreter Society focused primarily on learning goals.

Students of color at BYU Provo have reported feelings of cultural isolation on campus in the past. In at least two student-made YouTube videos, one released at the end of 2016 and another in February 2017, black students said they have felt at times like “they don’t fit” at BYU.

Alvarez said the Women of Color meetings have been well attended, with 30 to 40 women at the first one in October. (The Salt Lake Tribune has not been allowed to observe, under a campus policy prohibiting media coverage of such gatherings.)

“Everyone needs a safe space,” Alvarez said. “Having to compromise part of your identity to assimilate into a culture that’s analogous to everyone around you but not you can be very draining and emotionally taxing. … I would say the Women of Color club is almost like an emotional sanctuary.”

A ‘space to connect’

Tinesha Zandamela, the club’s founder, said it provides a place for students who face challenges with “discrimination or dating or just daily frustrations to come together and talk and learn from each other and be able to have someone that will get what frustrations they deal with.”

But Louise Wheeler, the club’s adviser, said the importance of such clubs extends beyond social solidarity. They can help students of color achieve academic success.

“It is difficult to find mentors that look like them and have similar experiences as them; they often find themselves to be the only person of their race or ethnicity in a classroom and they can experience difficulties knowing where to go to talk about their experience and difficulties,” she wrote in an email. “So it is important for them to have space to connect with people around a shared experience that might not be understood by others.”

There are other spaces for minority students on campus, but Breasha Morris, a senior, said the Women of Color club offers something different.

“There are the Black Student Union and groups like that, that are just along culture lines,” she said. “But also there comes this intersectionality of being an ethnic minority and being a woman, so you get discrimination on both fronts that maybe even the men of your ethnic group don’t even understand.”

Vernon Heperi, now BYU’s dean of students, first came to BYU from Kaikohe, New Zealand, as an undergrad. He said his involvement in campus organizations and activities offered him “significant support,” though he “never experienced any blatant discrimination” on campus.

“Adapting to the new norms of the local community was, at times, confusing,” he wrote in an email. “And that confusion often led to loneliness and frustration.”

Today, BYU’s new club is supporting women of color on campus in a similar way, he said.

‘My only refuge’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allison Tedford was gearing up to be a coordinator for the Latin American cultural association when BYU-Idaho announced it would no longer support cultural associations. She started a petition that garnered just over 1,000 signatures. Tedford was photographed in Rexburg, Wednesday January 17, 2018.

In the first semester after she transferred to BYU-Idaho from BYU-Hawaii, Allison Tedford couldn’t shake a pervasive feeling of loneliness.

“My only refuge was to go to cultural association activities,” she said. “And it really did help. It just felt like you were home, and I think that’s what a lot of people want to feel like sometimes because they’re so far away from their home.”

Last fall, Tedford, who had served as the manager of the Latin American cultural association, was poised to become a coordinator for the groups. So when she found out on Facebook about BYU-Idaho’s decision to shut down the associations, she was “shocked.”

The post announcing the change was on the Facebook page for the cultural associations, which has since been deleted. It garnered more than 100 comments — many of them from current and former students in opposition — and spurred Tedford to create an online petition urging the university to reinstate the groups.

Though she and other students tried to foster informal gatherings last semester, it was difficult to get students organized without an official outlet, she said.

Tedford noted that the associations brought together not only students from similar backgrounds but also those who were interested in learning more about one another.

“I’m still pretty sad because cultural associations brought something to the school that unified everybody,” Tedford said. “And now without it, it’s like we’re missing more of a good influence in our lives.”

‘These are young adults’

Donna Katrice, who was a student at BYU-Idaho in the early 2000s when it was called Ricks College, said she was upset when she heard about the change because cultural associations were an important part of her time there.

“If that didn’t exist on campus, I probably wouldn’t have had a good experience,” she said. “I think it’s good to have those for, like, a safe haven, because it’s nice to have people that you identify with. … There’s not that many minorities or black Americans in Idaho.”

As of last fall, BYU-Idaho’s campus In Rexburg was 85 percent white, according to demographic information from the university’s website.

Despite the calls from current and former students to reinstate cultural associations, Brett Crandall, a spokesman for BYU-Idaho, said the transition to academic societies will ultimately help students better prepare for their careers.

“The main purpose of the changes were to encourage students to spend their time networking with others and helping them with their academic goals,” he said.

He noted that academic societies are “not exactly the same” as cultural associations, but said the university’s community still offers opportunities for students to find others who understand their cultures and share similar values.

“One of the things that makes it easier to maybe assimilate here is the number of LDS missionaries that we have,” Crandall said. “So maybe someone doesn’t come from the same country you are, but they know a lot about the different cultures.”

Though he acknowledged some students were “angry” and “disappointed” by the elimination of the associations, he doesn’t think it will create long-term challenges for students.

“These are young adults,” Crandall said. “I don’t think they need the university to provide that for them. They know how to make friends and find people that they have [things] in common with — there’s a lot of apps for that.”

Correction: Jan. 29, 7:35 p.m. • A previous version of this story misidentified BYU-Idaho student Allison Tedford’s role within cultural associations. She was poised to become a coordinator over the organizations, not just one club.