When the school year draws to a close in May, Russell Ault ’12, Kyle Cooper ’12, McKay Nield ’12 and Thayne Stoddard ’11 will pack up their belongings and leave behind their respective dorm rooms for not one summer but two years away from Yale.
The four students will each spend the next two years abroad serving as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a religious rite of passage all capable Mormon men between the ages of 19 and 25 are encouraged to fulfill. (Mormon women are encouraged to serve 18-month missions, but there is less of an expectation for them to do so and they must wait until they are at least 21 years old, Cooper said.)
Yale College has just a handful of Mormon students, as evidenced by the fact that Yale’s Latter-day Saints Student Association counts only 12 undergraduates as active members. But many of them set aside time in the middle of their bright college years to serve their Church as missionaries abroad — in spite of the complications that come with being away from their friends and studies at Yale.
“It’s going to be hard,” Stoddard said of his move to Belgium and the Netherlands this coming summer. “But I think it will be well worth it.”
A TWO-YEAR TITHE
While certainly not obligatory, missions are highly encouraged and in some cases expected of Mormon young men, Cooper explained, stressing that his parents gave him the choice of whether or not to go. Nineteen is the traditional missionary age, Stoddard added.
“Lots of times when I explain my mission to friends here, they want to try to frame it in secular terms and the benefits to be had from it — like, you’ll learn a language or you’ll be in a different place for a while — and I think that’s all great. But at the same time, it’s not why I’m going,” said Cooper, who is from Centerville, Utah. “It’s important because I believe in the Church and in its message.”
Walker Frahm ’10, who returned from his mission in Romania in 2007, likened the Mormon mission to a tithe on the first 20 years of life. The experience is a means of both building the Church’s presence around the world and helping young Church members to develop spiritually and personally, he said.
“The stereotype of Mormon missionaries is walking around in white shirts with black name tags,” he said. “And that’s kind of how it is.”
After being assigned to a location by Church officials, missionaries spend up to three months at a missionary training center, most commonly the one in Provo, Utah. There, they study scripture and, if needed, a foreign language, while also preparing for their proselytizing work.
Missionary life is closely regimented. Television, movies and electronics such as iPods are not allowed, and communication is limited to weekly e-mails and written letters, as well as one family phone call on Christmas and one on Mother’s Day, Stoddard said. On a daily basis, missionaries rise early to study before going out to speak with local people — for example, by approaching them in marketplaces or knocking on their doors, he said.
“The mind-set is not to go out armed with arguments and proofs and convince people, ‘You have to believe this or you’re crazy,’ ” said Alan Hurst LAW ’10, who did his mission in Germany after his first semester as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University. “We explain [Mormon doctrine] to them, invite them to think about it, ponder it, pray it and, if they believe it’s true, to join the Church.”
THE Y FACTOR
But going on a mission comes at a cost to some aspects of the Yale experience, students interviewed said.
By the time Ault, Cooper and Nield return as sophomores, their freshman-year friends will be seniors, and Stoddard’s current classmates will have graduated already.
“It’s really difficult to consider that all these new friends I just made sort of have to be put on the back burner,” Nield said. “But at the same time it’s something that I believe is worth it.”
And returned missionaries confirmed his sentiments.
“That was definitely a growing experience, sophomore year,” noted Shebby Swett ’09, a fullback for the football team who served as a missionary in northern Italy the two years after his freshman year. When he returned to Yale, Swett said, he spent most of his time with his freshman-year friends at first but met new people through the football team and in other social contexts.
Frahm had to deal with being apart from not only his Yale friends but also from his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Frahm ’05 GRD ’08.
Jennifer Frahm, who completed a mission in Sweden while Walker Frahm was in Romania, said the two of them wrote letters and sent recorded audiotapes to each other to keep in touch — an experience she said helped to lead to their marriage last summer.
The spiritual development to be gained from missionary work was well worth the cost of an interrupted college education, said Jeremy Jacox MED ’15, who was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he left for his mission in France.
And from the way Jacox talked about his mission in an interview — sharing photos of the people he encountered, a ticket stub from his flight abroad and a well-used daily planner — it was evident how “transformative,” in his words, the experience was for him.
Leaving Yale mid-college is tricky not just emotionally but also practically, the students said.
“Logistically it’s been pretty tough, actually,” said Cooper, who has not yet received his assigned location.
While Yale College permits undergraduates to take off two consecutive semesters, a longer absence technically requires a withdrawal, Swett said.
In order to be eligible to return to Yale, Stoddard explained, missionaries must take the equivalent of one Yale credit for each year away — a requirement that Cooper, for example, said he hopes to fulfill by learning a foreign language wherever he is assigned to serve his mission.
Upon returning from their missions, Mormon students have to go through a modified re-admission process which requires an essay, two letters of recommendation and a brief interview, Walker Frahm recalled. In contrast, Hurst said, Mormon students at a Church-owned school like his alma mater BYU have a more “streamlined” re-entry process, which simply requires a form notifying the school of the planned mission and leave of absence.
But for Mormon Elis, challenges such as withdrawing from college are part of the trade-off of coming to Yale, a school several students said they chose precisely for its diverse community, as well as for its academic prestige.
Still, Hurst said, Mormonism is often misunderstood, including at Yale.
“On occasion there’s the sense that something that’s foreign doesn’t need to be taken seriously publicly,” Hurst said. “But first, take it seriously enough to learn what we believe and what we are as much as you can through our own eyes.”
Mormon students from various schools within the University meet for church on Trumbull Street, where a combined 200 or more students and New Haven residents, Frahm estimated, attend separate services for single and married members.
Many of the Mormon students said that a religiously diverse and intellectually rigorous environment at Yale has served to strengthen their faith.
“I’m forced to think about what it means to be a Mormon in a little bit more critical way,” Cooper said.
Added Walker Frahm: “I spent two years in Romania doing something that was really hard — knocking on doors for 80 hours a week and getting rejected over and over again. So if I can do that, then I can do anything.”