University caters to Mormon students on East Coast

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2001

BUENA VISTA, Va. (AP) -- Most people could probably list all the Mormon schools they know on one finger: Brigham Young University. But a small institution in Virginia hopes to change that.

Southern Virginia University, the only school east of Utah to align its curriculum with the Book of Mormon, has increased its enrollment six-fold since it opened in 1996.

Glade M. Knight, chairman of the school's board of trustees and a Richmond real-estate executive, said SVU was founded to give young Mormons a place on the East Coast where they can learn while surrounding themselves with their faith.

''This was divinely inspired,'' Knight said. ''It wasn't a moneymaking venture.''

Although it has no official ties with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Southern Virginia University has already earned the nickname ''BYU East.''

About 98 percent of its student body and 75 percent of its faculty are Mormon. The school enforces a moral code that's common throughout the Mormon community: no coffee, tea, cursing, cheating, tobacco, alcohol, pornography or premarital sex.

Professors also regularly include church teachings and history with academic material, and lead students in prayer before class.

''Teachers who are openly agnostic have a way of pushing students to think their way,'' said SVU President Curtis Fawson. ''It's important to provide students an atmosphere where they're not assaulted at every turn.''

Students from Eastern states, who grew up in communities where they were part of a religious minority, said they appreciate the chance to be with others of their faith.

''I was the only LDS in my high school, and sometimes I got criticized for it,'' said Brian Uzcategui, 18, a sophomore from Palm Springs, Fla. ''So this is great. I always wanted to share the same values and morals with others around me.''

Freshman John Michener, 19, of Catonsville, Md., said he wanted to continue his wrestling career after high school, but only if he could wrestle with other Mormon students.

''Here, I won't have to worry about the drugs and alcohol, the partying -- you know, the locker room stuff,'' Michener said.

Under various names, Southern Virginia University has been in existence for 130 years. Its elaborate Main Hall was once a hotel built in anticipation of a railroad boom in the early 1900s.

Five years ago, Knight and a group of Mormon businessmen took over Main Hall and the surrounding 150-acre campus from the private school's cash-strapped owners. No money was exchanged. Instead, the group agreed to pay off the school's $4.5 million debt.

The new owners redesigned the curriculum, replaced the president and hired new professors. Several incumbent professors were allowed to stay after agreeing to uphold the new administration's moral code.

Southern Virginia opened in the fall of 1996 with 74 students, and the student body has been growing ever since.

Last semester, 420 students from 43 states enrolled in nine liberal arts degree programs including business, art, English and multimedia design. The school also has a fledgling sports program.

About 160 people have graduated from the school, including 24 students who received bachelor's degrees and 33 more who received two-year associate's degrees last month.

''This was the dream of what could happen if everything went right,'' said Academic Vice President John Peterson.

Some local residents were concerned when the new students first arrived, said Francis Lynn, 72, a retired school teacher who lives two blocks from campus. But their fears soon faded.

Lynn said he's seen student groups picking up trash on the highway and planting trees around the neighborhood. One time, students even came by his house to rake the leaves.

''I was out in my yard, and here come a bunch of kids with rakes, and they were singing some song, and they said, 'We'll help you with that,''' Lynn said.

Harold F. Kidd, mayor of this city roughly 100 miles west of Richmond, said he'd like to see the students stick around for a while after they graduate.

''They're family-oriented folks,'' Kidd said. ''And their potential to develop business here is really good.''

Southern Virginia is still very much an experiment, Peterson said. But there is a real market for such a school.

The denomination now claims more than 11 million members worldwide, and each year about 80,000 Mormon seniors graduate from high schools in the United States and Canada, according to church officials.

But BYU and Mormon-affiliated colleges in Idaho and Hawaii admit only about 14,000 freshmen each year, leaving 66,000 outside of church-related schools.

Southern Virginia officials hope many of these students will think about heading east instead of west. Already, they expect a student body of about 2,500 in the next 10 years.

Several BYU and church officials, including Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City-based denomination, said Southern Virginia is the only university east of Utah to align its curriculum with the Book of Mormon.

But the church has not endorsed the Virginia school as an alternative to BYU or as a means for educating the growing numbers of young faithful, said church spokesman Dale Bills.

Instead, the church sponsors supplemental education programs near college and university campuses for thousands of Mormon students, Bills said. But church officials still wish SVU ''continued success,'' he said.

Knight said he never asked for financial help from the church, but he has held informal discussions with church leaders about the school.

''I felt that we were on a mission to see if we could do this by ourselves,'' Knight said. ''The challenge for us now is to convince (church) members to donate to the school.''

The goal is to become a university that draws both liberal arts and science students, Fawson said. But this will take time. The school hired its first chemistry teacher just this spring. And full accreditation is not expected for another few years.

''We're not there yet,'' Peterson said. ''But things keep getting better as people find out who we are and what we can do.''


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