At 22 years old, Payson is just beginning his junior year at the University of Utah, majoring in chemistry. When asked about future plans, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I’m going to dental school,” he says without vacillating or conveying a single hint of detectable doubt. Yet, Payson has no airs about him. It isn’t arrogance behind his assured tone. It’s resolve.
One of now 33 siblings, Payson was born to the first of his father’s four wives in Hildale, Utah—one half of the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, home to a large polygamous community known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“FLDS”). Colloquially known as “the creek (pronounced ‘the crick’),” the cities gained international notoriety when the FBI placed their leader and prophet, Warren Jeffs, on their Ten Most Wanted List. Arrested later that year, Jeffs was subsequently found guilty of numerous charges involving the sexual assault of minors and of arranging, conducting, and participating in numerous underage marriages while at the helm of the FLDS Church. He was sentenced and will spend the rest of his life in prison. (The FLDS Church formed when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denounced the practice of polygamy in the early twentieth century. The two groups are not affiliated with one another.)
Fostering an intensely private and sheltered community, Jeffs furthered the group’s isolation when he mandated that FLDS families pull their children from public schools and begin a homeschooling curriculum. Payson had just finished 3rd grade and enjoyed going to school with “gentiles” (non-FLDS children). He begged to go back to school, but to no avail.
“At around age 12, I started working construction jobs and got to travel outside of the community a bit more. That’s when I really started to notice that things were different in the ‘outside world.’ I knew the life my family led wasn’t for me. When I was 14, my dad caught me watching a popular, mainstream movie in my truck on a DVD player I secretly bought at Wal-Mart, and sent me to work on a church farm in Nevada as punishment.”
Payson continues, “When I turned 15, I found out that our homeschooling wasn’t accredited, and it really upset me. One day after church, I told my parents that I was going to leave. Since 3rd grade, I had wanted to continue going to school, and finding out that my education wasn’t accredited solidified my decision.”
Barely a teenager, Payson set out on his own and went to live in Salt Lake City with an older brother who had left the community. His brother introduced him to Shannon Price, the director of The Diversity Foundation. With her help, Payson enrolled in high school.
“The transition to high school wasn’t too bad. When I was working on the farm in Nevada, I had a pre-algebra textbook and tried to teach myself the lessons as often as I could,” he says. “I’m lucky that I left so young because a lot of people that leave at 18 or 19 are so behind that they just give up on college altogether.”
The next year, Shannon helped Payson gain emancipation in order to sign for his driver’s license, qualify for college grants (FAFSA), open a savings and checking account, and sign for a car loan. The Diversity Foundation covers the remaining tuition and pays for Payson’s books. In addition to Payson’s education, The Diversity Foundation is currently helping over 50 young people who have left the FLDS community gain a higher education.
Of the students she works with, Shannon points out a unique brand of courage and ambition that sets them apart. “I love these kids. I truly love these kids. Who they are and what they’ve done is truly amazing. They’re getting an education because they want to. There’s nothing in their culture anymore that places a high value on education and nothing that’s forcing them to go to school. The 50 kids that are getting their college education through The Diversity Foundation are here because they want to be here, and Payson is a perfect example of that.”
“The help of The Diversity Foundation has allowed me to focus on school and get the kind of grades I need to go to dental school. I doubt that I would have been able to go to college at all without the help of the foundation. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it or [known how to get grants or get started],” Payson says.
Payson looks forward to a bright future. “When I get out of dental school and get my practice going, I hope to someday be able to give back by helping young people in the way that the foundation has helped me.”