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Utah (CNN) -- I didn't really know what to expect when I got to Provo, Utah. I knew that many people here were followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. And I was here to visit Brigham Young University -- also known as the Mormon university.
Mitt Romney graduated from here in 1971. I was visiting the school to find out how they viewed their famous alumnus, and if people would vote for him because he was of the same faith -- that report comes next week. For the moment, let me muse on my visit to BYU.
I went to university in Leeds in the 1980s. It was a time of political ferment. Thatcherism was at its peak. We had demonstrations and sit-ins. The students' union was a hotbed of political activism. Most big European schools were like that in those days, as we battled everything.
The campus of BYU is a world apart from my experience; new buildings, manicured lawns, and plenty of flower beds to beautify the surroundings. And a student body that frankly looks nothing like the student ragamuffins of my own university days. The bell tower lets you know this is a religious-based institution. At 12 o'clock they ring out a selection of light hymns as part of the top-of-the-hour chimes.
Meeting staff and students, I felt the differences almost immediately. The polite inquiry as to whether I'd like "a beverage" had me checking myself before replying "oh, coffee would be lovely." BYU follows a strict interpretation of the Mormon Code and caffeine is banned on the campus. Flustered, I couldn't think of much else quickly enough besides "oh, a water would be lovely."
The students here have a different air about them. Walking around the campus it looks as if they have all bought their preppy clothes from J.Crew, Gap or similar. Nothing wrong with that of course. Neat. Tidy. Oh, and everyone smiles.
Smiling. The woman at the ice cream shop smiled. The guides showing me round the university smiled. The student who handed me Mormon literature smiled. It was hard to imagine any of these clean-cut youths suddenly bursting into a bout of obscenities as they stubbed a toe or dropped a plate.
Respectable and respectful throughout is the best way to describe them, and for good reason: They have all signed the Honor Code.
The code requires them to be, among other things, honest, true, chaste, benevolent and virtuous. There is a reminder on a poster at the bowling alley, which announced "we follow the honor code" and asked visitors to uphold standards of grooming and dress. When I suggested there was plenty of time in the future to uphold grooming and dress, and that surely student years were designed for rebellion, my host gave a "we know what's coming next" tolerant look and, ever so politely, explained there were plenty of other schools for that, and this was a Mormon school for those who wanted to live the Mormon way of life.
Living the Mormon way of life is central to this school. At BYU there is a lot of hand holding (between men and women only), with chaste kisses and long looks. I know that Mormon beliefs forbid pre-marital sex, but somehow I imagined that meant no relationships, and by extension, no physical contact. By now I was realizing I was the victim of my own preconceptions and prejudices about this faith and its worshippers.
And then the penny dropped. Having probably spent their youth in the minority -- depending on where they grew up -- for many BYU students this was the first time they were in the majority, the norm! They needn't explain why they didn't drink alcohol, swear or want to wear ripped jeans with their butts hanging out. At BYU everyone knew why, and believed the same as they did. Far from being restricting, this homogeny was their freedom to be as they wanted to be.
But there were moments when I wondered what sort of life experience these students would gain here. And I wondered, what it might be like for the person who discovered they were gay and wanted to explore their sexuality; or the student who became pregnant or fell by the wayside and lapsed into drink or drugs. What would it be like for someone who felt like they didn't fit in?
I enjoyed my visit to BYU. My host was completely charming throughout and happy to take all my impertinent questions in good humor. What struck me most was this was a college which, on the face of it, looked so familiar and yet underneath was a world apart from any school I had seen before.