Elsa Jacobsen had a problem. After years of working hard in school and excelling in the classroom, on the student council, and in the ballet studio, she had created a situation for herself that she didn’t quite know how to handle. Several top universities, including Stanford University located near Palo Alto, California, were vying to have Elsa as a student. All were great schools, some were offering attractive scholarship packages, and any of them would provide lots of great learning opportunities.
“I finally narrowed it down,” says 18-year-old Elsa, “and after a lot of fasting and prayer I received a peaceful confirmation about coming to Stanford. From the time I arrived here, I knew why. I love it here.”
Everyone should be so lucky to have problems like that, right? But whether you’re an ace student or you’re praying that the local junior college will look past your grade point average and concentrate on your potential, the decisions you make about your education will affect the rest of your life.
Once you arrive there will be even more decisions to make: What will you major in? Whom will you be friends with? Whom will you date? It’s a huge change, and it can be a little overwhelming. But Elsa and her Stanford classmates have come up with several great ideas for establishing a great after-high-school life that will work whether you’re headed for the Ivy League or Hometown U. Here are some of their stories:
Dustin Matsumori, a Stanford freshman from Murray, Utah, faced a dilemma similar to Elsa’s. He knew he was going to go to college, but where? And why? So Dustin started doing what any good student would do—his homework. He considered cost, class sizes, majors offered, and the student population at each school on his list.
“I came to visit Stanford with my parents and was really impressed with the beautiful campus and the great weather,” says Dustin. “Then the tour guide started giving us the stats about Supreme Court justices and Nobel laureates and other impressive people who have graduated from Stanford.”
Dustin was excited by the prospect of being able to go to a school that had such an awesome reputation. But he wasn’t ready to sign on the dotted line just yet. Something was still missing.
“When I was getting information about Stanford, I found out that the Latter-day Saint Student Association [LDSSA] hosted a seminar each Friday at lunchtime. When I walked into that room with the other LDS students, I felt right at home. It was then that I knew I could go away from home and have wonderful educational experiences and still strengthen my testimony.”
Andy Walburger is a returned missionary who plays on the Stanford water polo team. Being able to play for the team was a big factor in his decision to go to Stanford, but it wasn’t the only one.
“I love the LDS community here at Stanford,” he says. “I think relationships are a very important part of a college education. In fact, a big part of what you learn at college happens outside the classroom, so you want to make sure that it will be a good atmosphere. Having LDS friends here has made all the difference for me. After all, staying at home by yourself every Friday night isn’t a lot of fun.”
Holly Goodliffe, a freshman from Salt Lake City, says that although she was thrilled to be at college, there was some uncertainty as she faced her first days in a world where her parents weren’t nearby.
“I think that being away from home for the first time has really helped me appreciate the gospel more than ever before,” says Holly. “I feel like I have a solid foundation. Also, I know I can rely on my other LDS friends. We sort of look out for each other. If someone’s not at church, we let them know we missed them.”
Mark Madsen led the Stanford basketball team to the NCAA Final Four last year. He is a tenacious and aggressive player, and it would be easy to assume that basketball is the only thing that matters to such an impressive athlete. But Mark, who served a mission in Spain, says that it’s church, not sports, that gives him the anchor he needs in his life.
“Going to church at the student ward is a huge relief for me, especially after a road trip with the team,” says Mark. “After a few days in a strange city playing against tough guys, it’s nice to come and sing the opening hymn and be with my ward family. I love Sundays.”
Even though LDSSA is just one of several religious, academic, and professional groups on campus, the LDS students say they think it is one of Stanford’s most noticed groups. Their numbers may be small—less than 100 of the 7,000 undergraduate students are LDS—but their impact is felt in almost every dorm, classroom, and organization. These guys are involved with a capital “I.”
In addition to the athletic pursuits of Mark and Andy and their LDS teammates, there are LDS athletes in gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and crew just to name a few. Emily Andrus, an LDS student from Salt Lake City, just finished a year in office as student body president. This year another LDS student, Maren Norton, took her place. One LDS student leads daily campus tours. Several are in musical, dance, and performing groups. And at nearly every rally, game, performance, or debate, there is a small but vocal cheering section of LDS students.
“I’m always running in several different directions at once,” says Emily. “But my LDS friends watch out for me. I’m well taken care of.”
That involvement and the support network that comes along with it make it easy for all the LDS students to let their gospel light shine. In every group and on every team, people notice that the Mormon kids seem to have their own fan club, which leads to questions about the gospel. Lisa Arrington, a recent convert to the Church, became interested in the gospel because she was friends with Mark. She wanted to know more about the friends that seemed to always surround him and why they always seemed so happy. Now Mark isn’t just her friend; he’s also her home teacher.
But it isn’t just high-profile activities that bring missionary opportunities. Dustin’s friends noticed he didn’t drink. They asked questions, and soon Dustin was sharing the Book of Mormon and For the Strength of Youth pamphlets with the guys on his floor. Holly’s roommate, a Christian, noticed that Holly read her scriptures daily just as she did. She wanted to know more about Holly’s beliefs, and now they occasionally study the Bible together.
Meghann Evershed, a sophomore, jogs a few times a week with her friend Matt Blythe. While they jog, they often talk about the gospel.
“I really enjoy discussing religion with Meghann because she’s very clear,” says Matt. “She seems to have all the answers. It’s cool to understand her beliefs.”
Four years seems like a long time, but time flies when you’re having fun, and these students are definitely doing that. It’s the kind of fun that comes from working hard, playing hard, and loving and living the gospel. It’s the kind of fun that anyone, no matter where they go to school, can have if they want to.
So maybe you didn’t get a perfect score on the SAT, and the thought of college algebra makes you break out into a cold sweat. Just remember that whether you’re trying to decide between several schools or just hoping that one will take pity and let you in, every problem has a solution. Especially when you have the gospel to guide you and good LDS friends to help you find your way.
It’s a simple concept—one that will make you look very smart no matter where you go to school.
Here are some things that make the Stanford LDSSA great. Keep them in mind when you’re choosing a college—your bishop can tell you if there’s an institute program at the school you choose. Or if you choose a school without an LDSSA, maybe you could team up with other LDS students or young adults in the area and help implement some of the following ideas when you arrive:
All incoming freshmen receive a welcome letter and a packet of information about where the student ward meets, where institute classes are held, and how to get involved.
Stanford students stay connected via e-mail. If there’s an activity or an event, it’s easy to let everyone know.
Helping the community is a great way to build friendships. Stanford students have developed a tutoring program that allows them to help struggling elementary, junior high, and high school students succeed.
Stanford students use the buddy system. Each incoming freshman is assigned a “big brother” or “big sister,” an upperclassman who can show them the ropes.
Institute classes not only provide a spiritual dimension to education; it’s also a great break from other studies and a good way to see friends. Stanford students make every effort to schedule their other classes so they can attend.