When Anne Findlay graduated at the top of her high school class in Salt Lake City, she had distinguished herself in several ways. Besides giving consistently long hours to her academic studies every day, Anne had found time to practice both piano and flute, play sports, attend seminary, and participate in Young Women. In short, she was the kind of well-rounded student colleges and universities look for, so she was in the enviable position of being able to choose where she would study.
Offers came to her from colleges bearing America’s most respected names in education. Anne studied the options with her parents and prayed about them, considering her own interests and needs, weighing carefully what each school had to offer. “Having lived in just one place,” Anne explains, “I felt that my education should include a new setting, where I would have a different perspective. But I knew I wanted the Church with me wherever I went. Once I learned how strong the student ward and institute program are in Boston, I began to narrow my choices.”
The best financial aid was offered by Boston University, where she became one of thirty-three freshmen to receive a trustee scholarship and live in the honors dormitory. “It’s everything I hoped it would be,” she says. “I have enjoyed walking the streets of American history and living in a very diverse culture. As the only Mormon among the forty residents of our old brownstone house, I’ve been warmly accepted. I have seen friends of different faiths share common values and have felt respected for my standards. I trudged through rain and mud to attend an LDS Women’s Conference, and I love serving in the Asian branch Primary. On Sundays after our meetings, our singles ward gathers for a meal, and we meet with students from many colleges in Cambridge and young adults who work in the area. It’s great.”
Like Latter-day Saint students around the world, Anne Findlay values the spiritual dimension of her education, which is the whole purpose of the Church’s Institute of Religion program.
The Greatest Possible Support
Currently, there are 1.2 million young adults in the Church, and though not all are students, the Church Educational System (CES) designs classes for them. The magnitude of the CES program is staggering. More than a half a million students, in 137 countries and all fifty U.S. states, meet with some twenty-two thousand teachers—both full-time instructors and volunteers. In the last four years, enrollment has increased by 30 percent. New classes are planned for this year in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and parts of Africa.
Elder Henry B. Eyring, Church commissioner of education, recognizes a variety of concerns parents have as their children approach college age. “We are doing everything we can to make institutes of religion accessible to more young adults everywhere. As we expand the program, we are also enriching it,” he explains.
“Institutes now exist in 73 percent of the places where the Church has units throughout the world,” says Stanley Peterson, CES administrator. “As the institute program expands, we hope to include all young adults in the Church, not just those who are students. We want to provide the greatest possible support during the years when young adults make critical decisions.”
Information on institutes of religion everywhere can be obtained from local leaders and CES personnel. A new directory shows the high concentration of institutes close to more than four hundred college campuses in the United States and Canada. The directory gives college applicants and their parents some helpful comparative data at a glance—a profile of the institute and the school or schools it serves, and information on who to contact for further information.
As students evaluate colleges or universities to determine the one most suitable for them, there are many criteria to consider. There is much more to the selection process than merely qualifying for admission. Such factors as cost, distance from home, size, available courses of study, and academic reputation may enter into the decision. Parents and students are wise to look specifically at the housing arrangements offered, in order to be fully aware of circumstances that may not be appropriate from an LDS point of view.
For some families, Church-sponsored schools have been high on the list; however, entrance requirements have risen and enrollment is limited. In fact, even if it were possible for every young adult member of the Church to graduate from high school with straight-A averages and perfect scores on college entrance exams, still only 5 percent—one in twenty—could be admitted to Brigham Young University. Even including BYU—Hawaii, Ricks College, and LDS Business College, the number of places available at Church-sponsored schools would only accommodate 7 percent of young adult members graduating from high school in a given year. As the Church continues to grow, those percentages will drop still lower; and admissions standards by necessity will become even more selective.
Fortunately, appealing alternatives to Church-sponsored schools can be found close to home or across the nation, island, or continent; they range from large state universities to small private liberal arts colleges, from trade and specialty schools to community colleges. Adjacent to many of these places of higher secular learning, LDS institutes offer classes, activities, and many opportunities for growth.
New Gatherings to Zion
The institutes throughout the world—not unlike the temples that have been built in recent years—are evidence of another kind of gathering to Zion. In early days, the Church grew as converts joined the Saints in the Rocky Mountains; however, the gathering today is happening in every land on every continent. This contemporary kind of gathering of Saints also suits an increasingly diverse people, young adults bonded by faith and by a love of learning.
Wherever LDS students choose to study, they have the chance to build up Zion, whether in that community or in their own hearts. For returned missionary L. T. Erickson, a junior at the University of Southern Colorado, the institute program was a strong reason for staying home in Pueblo for college. L. T. is president of the USC chapter of the Latter-day Saint Student Association—the activity arm of the institute program—and enjoys the small group of twenty who share the activities there.
“I had taken classes at the institute to prepare for my mission and liked the teacher very much,” he says, “so I came here to school. I decided to take part in building a small piece of Zion right here on my campus. We have a great time. Students get together for family nights and lots of other fun activities.”
“In one of my classes,” says Kristina VanWagonen, a freshman at Willamette University, Oregon, “the professor takes a very secular approach to looking at biblical history. But several times in class, I have listened to what my teacher and classmates consider mere history, and I have felt deeply moved by the Spirit. Other times, I’ll feel confused by what’s taught and walk across the street to my institute teacher, who clarifies things.”
The leavening influence of Latter-day Saint students in colleges around the world results in blessings for the members themselves as well as for those they meet. As others meet bright, curious young people their own age who stand for something, they gain new respect for the Church and its members. That’s what happened for Katy Menser. Katy was not a member of the Church when she enrolled in a small liberal arts college in the eastern U.S., but she was impressed with the high standards of two of her classmates. In conversations, they began discussing the purpose of life and were soon answering her questions about God. “Both guys lived their religion, and it showed,” she says. “They were extraordinary examples of goodness, but they were so full of fun, too. And from them, I discovered how to be more creative in having fun, besides learning what’s really important. One of them invited me to church and institute, and by the summer of our freshman year, I was converted. The other ended up baptizing me, and now both young men are serving missions, as I’m planning to do myself next year. Of all the things I expected to find in college, I never expected this.”
Though college friends may not be converted, Jonathan Naatjes, who attends Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, says, “They may adopt some of the values they see us share and become better people because of it. Perhaps this is one way we can fulfill our mission as the salt of the earth.”
Speaking of ways institute has affected his own college experience, Jon says, “It’s amazing how often I have been blessed with gospel insights into the things I am learning in school by concurrently going to institute and prayerfully studying the scriptures. Likewise, my academic studies have enriched my gospel studies by giving me new perspectives. The college environment has compelled me to learn and study in depth gospel teachings I may otherwise never have considered or pondered. I am stronger for having done so.”
A Daring Adventure
Anyone who leaves the familiar comforts of home and enters a college campus will agree—something begins to happen to you. Just what that something is will depend on why you go and what you are willing to give. But it is an adventure. It’s the daring adventure of getting an education, testing your childhood assumptions, trying your wings.
This adventure may be on a local campus across town, or it may be farther away. But emotionally, it is a daring step requiring great courage. It was a difficult challenge for Tim Jafek, who experienced the feelings of isolation many students feel when living away from home for the first time. Tim had been an excellent high school student in Littleton, Colorado, where most of his friends and classmates were not members of the Church. He was attracted to a small liberal arts college in the East.
Tim, now a returned missionary, has graduated from Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, and plans to go to graduate school. “Before my mission, college was a mixed bag,” he concedes. “During my freshman year, the institute was quite small, and there was no LDSSA; I didn’t really feel part of things.”
Returning to college after his mission, Tim was “able to take full advantage of the resources for intellectual growth, and I found my place socially and religiously as well.” Things went considerably better for him: he not only graduated with high honors, was selected for Phi Beta Kappa (the national honor fraternity), and received the award for top graduating student in anthropology, but he was much more involved with institute and even helped establish an LDSSA organization on campus. The institute and LDSSA helped Tim get a better balance, a better education.
At Occidental College in Los Angeles, Zena Harris had a similar boost from institute. “It wasn’t until the beginning of my senior year that I found myself surrounded by LDS students,” she recalls, after what she describes as two years of spiritual stagnation. “My heart thumped as I was introduced warmly to four returned missionaries, three freshman women, and three other active student members. We met twice a week for institute, once for family night, and on Sundays for church. Everyone grew really close very quickly, and I felt like this group of students was my family. During my senior year, as opposed to my sophomore and junior years, this larger number of students made a difference for me, and we all soon made a difference to others, as two freshman students began to attend. One was baptized in December 1992, and the other continues to attend all LDSSA activities.”
Educating Hearts as Well as Minds
The institute program and its activity arm, the LDSSA, are just two dimensions of the Church’s support for young adults; singles wards and student branches are another. And for students who would like a college fraternity or sorority experience, the Church sponsors Sigma Gamma Chi for men and Lambda Delta Sigma for women. These two groups, like LDSSA, are officially recognized campus organizations. Like other fraternities and sororities, they have influence in student affairs, hold social activities, and render service to both school and community.
For Rachel Choules of Boise State University, being president of the Iota Chi Beta chapter of Lambda Delta Sigma has “opened my eyes and strengthened my testimony of the positive influence LDS students have on college campuses. We have taken an active part this year in special events and various activities on the BSU campus.” She adds: “The nationwide service day, with the theme ‘Into the Streets,’ involved students everywhere, and ours was especially memorable—raking leaves and debris at the cemetery in the pouring rain. Another time, I remember the president of a campus fraternity saying that he liked to work with the Mormons because we’re very organized, carry through on assignments, and have fun activities.”
Typical of the fun activities, reports Julie Christensen of the University of Utah, was the 1992–93 New Year’s Eve dance, held in the Cottonwood Mall. “It was wall-to-wall people,” she says. “LDSSA kids from all over were having a blast, dancing, singing, and just hanging out together. As far as you could see down the mall, it was a sea of people bobbing and moving with the music.”
At the University of Southern Maine, Stacey Thompson says, “I thought the Church would become a minor part of my life at college, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. Because of institute, my testimony has strengthened so much, and I know that the gospel can be an important guide every day.
“The feeling I get with campus friends can be frustrating—especially when they try to convince me to have ‘just one drink’ with them. I contrast that feeling with a much more wholesome reassurance I get with friends at institute, where the best things in life are encouraged instead of the worst.”
Amid the blaring bustle of urban commerce and traffic, or in more secluded settings on quiet, wooded campuses in the shade of cypress or spreading oak, or in suburban meetinghouses and private homes, young people are diligently educating their hearts and minds. They are proving all things and holding fast to “that which is good,” as the Apostle Paul advised. (1 Thes. 5:21.)
Learning requires both study and faith. “True education,” says Elder Henry B. Eyring, “doesn’t bother distinguishing between secular and spiritual; it merely humbles us and opens our eyes to truth. Such an education may be obtained at a great university or at the public library and makes a person no better than others—only better able to serve them.” The institute program is doing that for the hearts and minds of more people in more places every day.
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
(Home: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)
Coming east to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to school from my home on Canada’s west coast was a big decision for me. I had my eyes opened in two important ways. One had to do with the importance of institute, and the other with Church callings and the influence I could have on others around me.
Barely out of Young Women myself, I was excited but not especially confident when called to serve in the Young Women in the family ward during my freshman year. It never occurred to me that the influence of my calling would affect a young woman’s life the way it has. But one of my Beehives was having problems and told me I was the only person she wanted to talk to about them. Since then we’ve become very close, and I’ve been able to help her in her personal life and in classes that were giving her trouble, too.
I am grateful for institute and all it teaches, because among other things, it is there that I met and fell in love with my husband. Now we will study and graduate together. Our wedding in the Seattle Temple prompted questions from friends in my nursing classes. When I told them about being married for eternity, they all agreed that was how they dreamed of marriage being. I told them that they could have it, too, if they wanted it.
The gospel enriches my education, encouraging me to serve others, attend institute classes, and be married in the temple. People are watching our actions even when we don’t notice. What a powerful force for good the young adults of the Church are because of the gospel.
San Jose State University
(Home: San Jose, California)
The institute program at SJSU is strong and wonderful. We have a terrific teacher, whose resourcefulness has led to what we call our own cafeteria. We students help stock the kitchen at the institute, where many of us meet for lunch—as schedules allow.
The institute has helped me to learn that there is no limit to the amount of good we can do as students if we worry less about how successful we are and concentrate on how useful we can be.
For me, college has been a place to become involved. I have tried to take every possible opportunity to participate in campus life. Universities are loaded with ways LDS students can serve God as we serve others, become leaders, and champion praiseworthy causes.
My own service began with orienting new students through campus tours. That was satisfying, so I organized a volunteer tutor program. Another exciting thing for me was spearheading the student organization of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi. This national society recognizes outstanding contributions of faculty members but never had student chapters. I suggested that they consider adding student chapters to their organization, and they accepted the idea. I was appointed president of the SJSU chapter and helped establish the national program.
Working with university administrators on the honor society led to my participation in the First Annual SJSU Lecture-a-thon, in which fifty professors spoke consecutively for twenty-six continuous hours, setting a record for the longest university lecture in history. Interestingly, one result of the publicity following the lecture was the creation of a new scholarship endowment.
Utah State University, Logan, Utah
(Home: Salt Lake City, Utah)
Deciding where to go to college wasn’t hard for me, because I knew just what I wanted from a school. I felt I could keep my standards high in an environment that had people from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of values. I wanted good teaching in my field of special education; I wanted to be far enough from home to be on my own but close enough to come home when I chose to. Logan is about an hour and a half from home and has an excellent program in my major.
Because I grew up in Utah, I was aware that people who don’t belong to the Church can feel left out or judged by members. Without meaning to, members can be subtly exclusive. I have tried to be alert to this in myself as I meet others. We have discussed in our institute class how we can genuinely accept and love others and treat them with respect without giving up our own beliefs.
I’ve learned to take a real interest in other people for who they are. As I do this more, I find my love for the gospel grows and so does my love for others. One of my best friends is not a member, and I have come to appreciate her and have learned many valuable lessons from her. For example, when we first met, I remember being judgmental of her—things she believed, things she thought were important. But I guess because our personalities blended so well, it seemed worth working through the differences. What happened first, in a way, was that because of her I overcame my fear of friends who might threaten my beliefs. And instead of being threatened, my beliefs have been strengthened.
My institute teacher has helped, as we have discussed practical daily aspects of living our religion. More than any other Church class, institute has grounded my faith in knowledge to match my feelings.
Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona
(Home: Mesa, Arizona)
Although I still enjoy the security and benefits of living at home with my family, I have faced new challenges. Many of these challenges have been easier to handle because of institute.
Attending institute in Mesa has provided a positive atmosphere for strengthening my testimony and developing friendships with other LDS young people. Weighty decisions like choosing a major and whether to serve a mission, as well as just how to live each day, all seem easier because of our association.
Transitions like leaving high school and going to college or to work can be hard. I have made many new friends at institute. We listen to each other’s challenges and blessings, and we seem to become as close to each other in a short time as we had been with people we spent years with in high school.
It’s easier for me to live the gospel when I associate with other strong students who share similar values. We support each other, whether we are playing, serving, worshipping, or discussing and studying the gospel.
My spiritual needs are being met at institute, where the topics are aimed at the issues I face in this stage of my life. Institute helps me live closer to the Spirit than I could without this program’s influence.
United States Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut
(Home: San Diego, California); (Home: Valdez, Alaska); (Home: Montrose, Colorado); (Home: St. David, Arizona); (Home: Gooding, Idaho); (Home: Lakeside, Arizona)
Students attending the military service academies have an appreciation for institute classes and activities that few other students can appreciate. This is a group expression of how important institute is for us, a small group of LDS students at the United States Coast Guard Academy.
One of the most important roles institute plays in our lives is the indescribable relief it is from our intensive regimen, in which we are constantly monitored for military decorum. As we walk in the door of institute, all protocol lapses, and we become brothers and sisters without rank, without having to maintain the strict formal bearing that is so essential to military training.
Institute becomes a true haven, where we use first names and discuss personal values. Here Shawn, who is a first class (senior) is allowed to speak on equal terms with John, who is a fourth class (freshman). Here the pressures of academic competition relax into personal exchanges of faith and love, where we remove our hats and gloves, loosen a few buttons, and share what’s on our minds or in our hearts.
If college life can feel isolating, then college military life is more so. So our need for and appreciation of this fellowship is great.
Before we had an institute program here, Shawn held informal scripture study sessions with underclassmen. “We would sing a hymn and read the Book of Mormon, then share our testimonies,” he says. “It probably helped build mine the most, because I was doing the leading.”
In New London, the ward has made special provision for the cadets and assigns a host family for each of us during our stay. Social activities are limited, but we join with other singles groups whenever we can.
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
(Home: Encino, California)
Being in the world but not of the world is a personal state of being rather than a physical location. This is something I have discovered for myself during my two years at college, as I have lived and learned among people of many persuasions.
I have become better at making good choices, and the gospel has been the major influence in that process. Before my mission, I didn’t understand how valuable institute actually is. I recall the Christmas break in my freshman year, a real turning point in my life, when I resolved to find out who I really was. My father lovingly challenged me to search for a deeper understanding of the gospel.
Since then, I have seen the inspiration of the institute program and the reinforcement that comes from good associates. When I returned from my mission to Argentina, I got involved in the LDSSA here on campus. Besides the institute classes, I have really enjoyed the activities in our student ward.
We get sixty or so students from several colleges at our Sunday meetings in Chapel Hill. Afterwards we have a meal together and have time to get acquainted. Occasionally we have regional gatherings called the Carolina Connection for students and other singles from North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, to hear speakers, have socials, and get acquainted. Activities like these have enabled singles to feel a part of the bigger Church in memorable ways.
Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
(Home: Sydney, Australia)
As a biology major, I have occasionally found conflicts between my religious beliefs and present scientific theory, which tends to explain our world as a place governed by chance forces or random accidents.
My institute classes have been invaluable as they continually provide me with a solid scriptural background that enables me to differentiate between theories of men and the teachings of the gospel. As I learn about both, I can reconcile them and see a harmony between them.
I have always accepted the scriptural account of the Creation as the way the Lord did it, so men’s theories continue to represent the best man can do without acknowledging God. For Latter-day Saints, any theory that leaves our Father out of the creation of the earth is unacceptable. With institute and the scriptures, I am seeing all knowledge as a whole.
I am fortunate to be able to attend institute class in my lunch hour, one day a week. The institute provides me with a support network for my social needs, too. At different events I have been able to meet students from all over the Sydney region. I’ve made great friends, with whom I feel strongly bonded through the gospel. The bond helps us overcome the negative pressures in a worldly environment. We thrive on learning things together that help us be strong individually.
Smith College, Amherst, Massachusetts
and (Home: McLean, Virginia)
ARIEL: I’ve learned that the Lord is very aware of where those who love him are. In my experience at Smith, I have been blessed to feel his presence with me not only at institute but in my daily study. I’m majoring in religious studies, and my professors have been surprised at how at home I am in the scriptures. LDS students have a great advantage because of institute and our overall religious instruction. If we take the instruction seriously, it becomes excellent intellectual discipline along with what it does for our human understanding. Serving a mission immersed me even more in the scriptures.
Another great strength to me during college has been the wonderful family ward here in Amherst, Massachusetts. They just embrace students and almost adopt us, offering us rides to meetings and activities. And we are really made to feel at home in their homes.
ALLISON: Being at Swarthmore where my beliefs, ideals, and understandings are quite different from those of many others around me has strengthened my testimony. I understand myself much better, because I’ve had to explain my beliefs often.
My family has always been supportive and loving, yet it’s been important for me to realize that my life is different than the collective life of my family. As my individual identity becomes clearer to me, so does the worth of my family and each individual member of it.
Discussions in institute have complemented my academic experience. As I slowly learn to better recognize the whispers of insight and inspiration from the Lord, I become paradoxically both more self-reliant and more completely dependent upon him. The more education I receive, the more central God becomes to everything I do.