PROVO — Rob Foster believes being tall and black probably gave him an edge when it came to Brigham Young University students remembering him when they cast their votes for president on Friday.
Foster and his running mate, Eisha Tengelsen, were basking in their win Monday. They captured 43 percent of the campus vote — 2,580 of 5,959 cast for three sets of candidates. Foster is the first African-American ever elected at the predominantly white university of 30,000 students in Provo. Just 0.7 percent of BYU students are African-Americans.
BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tengelsen isn't the first female leader, but she's the first to be part of a clearly diverse candidacy. "We made a stand for multicultural acceptance where the others just talked about it," Tengelsen said. "I think that was noticeable."
While Foster and Tengelsen recognize the attention they'll draw, they have goals that they hope will take the spotlight away from race or gender.
"We want to make everyone feel more of a sense of belonging here," Foster said. "We don't want to split the campus up into the special interest or minority groups. We want to view the campus as a whole, unify the BYU campus."
Foster said he was initially recruited from North Carolina by BYU sports officials to play basketball, but after a year playing for Ricks College, he decided to tackle issues being bounced between the administration and the common student.
"If there are concerns, I can be an ear. I can take those concerns to the administration," Foster said.
"We're going to make a difference, and we're going to have it done before fall semester," Tengelsen said. "We're setting up mentoring, expanding the legislative offices, increasing our public relations and getting the students to care," she said. "There's like a huge morale problem right now."
Foster said oftentimes, students get discouraged because they feel isolated and alone. He hopes to find ways to reach those who need a connection to the university outside their classes.
"When I was at Ricks, that's what I did. I joined clubs. I got involved. That made a difference," Foster said. To accomplish his goals, Foster — along with Tengelsen, the seven council vice presidents and the 39 members of the student advisory council at BYU — will meet with students, each other and the administration. For Foster, that will mean juggling his classes, his new marriage and his job with the demands of the presidency, which he estimates will take about 40 hours of his time each week.
He has been one of the council vice presidents, so he's prepared for the rigors ahead.
"I haven't been president of this large a body before, but I've been in the program for about two years now, and I know its possibilities," Foster said. "I don't plan on butting heads with the administration, but on building a Zion kind of communication."