In a moment when American universities are pushing to retain freshmen and increase graduation rates, Brigham Young University’s faith-based education may offer some distinct advantages — especially when students catch the vision, scholars say. A new class, “UNIV 101: BYU Foundations for Student Success,” was designed with this in mind.

After a three-semester period of evaluation and development, the course is currently being taught to 34 freshmen sections, with plans to make it standard for all incoming first-year students starting next fall. The course is intentionally capped at 25 students per section to foster discussion and connection with a peer mentor assigned to each class. Senior faculty across campus departments have volunteered to teach, with 260-280 sections scheduled for the fall semester.

“We want every student to understand deep down the prophetic vision and spiritual mission of BYU, where they can use this inspired direction as a foundation for success during their time at the university,” said Richard Osguthorpe, associate academic vice president for undergraduate studies, who helped oversee the course design process. He summarized the course’s aspiration to foster belonging by “connecting students to the BYU mission, to campus resources and to each other and their professors.”

This foundations course is being implemented as the university’s recently installed president, C. Shane Reese, has reemphasized the school’s religious mission. “It is the destiny of Brigham Young University to become what those prophetic statements predicted it would become,” President Reese said during his 2023 inaugural speech.

Reese told the Deseret News about his experience helping teach one section of the class, calling it “one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

“I was a first-generation college student who struggled to find my way around a large campus. This would have been a game-changer for me,” Reese said.

“The students are so hungry for this course built on mission, resources for success and connection,” Reese said. “The deepening relationships offer hope. This course will be a critical step for BYU reinforcing our inspired mission and strengthening the student experience from the moment they walk through our doors — to Become BYU.”

According to research from BYU scholars Justin Dyer and Jenet Erickson, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, students on religious campuses tend to do better when it comes to anxiety and suicide prevention, even when individual students may not be as religious as their peers on campus.

“A religious campus tends to be protective,” Dyer told the Deseret News, including “for people who you wouldn’t think would fit at religious schools.”

A separate study from BYU professor Patti Freeman and Texas A&M’s Gary Ellis analyzed 6,000 experiences from nearly 900 students and found BYU’s tradition of weekly campuswide spiritual devotionals helped increase a student’s feelings of connectedness to the university. In turn, students who participated in experiences like devotionals had higher retention rates than those who didn’t.

BYU administrators believe the new class will further these aims. After piloting a similar class at BYU-Idaho, Church Educational System leaders found better retention outcomes. The course is pass/fail, and students practice values core to the BYU experience, including disciple-scholarship, peacemaking, intellectual humility and community belonging, according to course materials.

Undergraduates in the class complete assigned readings, write about key questions and explore the university campus “using the dual languages of spiritual guidance and intellectual discovery” the course’s syllabus states.

The syllabus lists a variety of talks as required reading, including “Peacemakers Needed” from President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, and “Turning Enemies into Friends” from Sister Sharon Eubank, the current director of Latter-day Saint Charities.

A university professor who has taught the class told the Deseret News that representatives from BYU’s Office of Belonging and other departments sometimes come in to talk about campus resources and encourage ways to create a unified atmosphere.

The course has generated recent headlines for including in its curriculum a 2021 speech from President Jeffrey R. Holland, acting president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, titled “The Second Half of the Second Century of Brigham Young University.”

The speech calls on faculty to be more forthright in providing a defense of church teachings, including those on the family and traditional marriage. He asks for an intellectual defense, referencing a speech from the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who President Holland quoted in his remarks: “In a way (Church of Jesus Christ) scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple … who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the kingdom.”

That speech is one of 34 readings the syllabus lists and one of three readings from President Holland specially, including President Holland’s 2013 talk expressing compassion for those struggling with mental health. A university spokesperson said course materials “involve several important and significant addresses that have been given at BYU,” and that the new course has been “well received by our students.”

The syllabus highlights additional campus resources for students. Paired with President Nelson’s landmark peacemaking address is a reference to BYU’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, a university resource to aid in mediation. The course also acquaints students with other campus services such as Counseling & Psychology Services, the University Accessibility Center, Multicultural Student Services, Academic Advising Centers and Women’s Services and Resources.

Teagan Lambert, a BYU student who took the class, said it made her familiar with the various resources and accommodations available on campus. “It is very beneficial,” Lambert told the Deseret News. “It smooths out, at least for me, the transition from high school to college.”

Lambert said one of her favorite parts is its small learning environment. “It was a good way to connect with my classmates and get to know them,” she said. “We all got very close, which I loved, and because of that class we would hang out together outside of those classes.”

Big questions guide each week’s class discussions. Some questions listed in course materials include, “How do we help create a community?” and “I have been given much. How can I give?”

In addition to faculty members, peer mentors are trained by the Office of First-Year Experience, according to a course FAQ for instructors. These mentors assist students in transitioning to campus, which is another main component of the course, as students learn how to approach faculty members and develop an educational plan.

“Becoming BYU will require enriching the student experience and strengthening our already student-centric approach,” Reese told faculty and students last fall.

“We strive for every student to have an inspiring learning experience. ... We frame these experiences by our conviction that each student is a child of God.”