Missions and Universities

David Aubril is a regular guest author at BCC. He is a French teacher who is fond of didactics, literature, UNIX systems and free diving (with no order of preference). He follows with great interest the contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters, but from afar, from “the other side of the water”, as Pascal says.

There was recently a study about the benefits young women can get from their mission : “Lifelong benefits may await those Latter-day Saint women who opt to serve a religious mission during their college years, a new study from Utah State University’s Utah Women & Leadership Project suggests” (The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 9, 2023). I was pretty sure that it would come up as an argument in support of missions in the April General Conference. 

I remain skeptical, though, about these conclusions. As the study indicates : “With time away from school, there is an increased risk that students will simply not return to college after completing a gap experience. However, our research on female students at BYU suggests this may be a minimal concern in Utah” (Utah Women & Leadership Project, Research & Policy Brief, February 2023). But the relation between mission and university can be far more complex in other parts of the world. Here, in France, for example, public universities are very inexpensive and offer often high-quality superior education. But there are few places, and therefore the selection is severe. If your file isn’t good enough, if you’re not in good timing, if you get off track, it’s over. 

It makes it very hard to leave for two years. I know a faithful young man who is currently studying medicine. At the end of the first year, he asked his university if he could leave to serve a mission. The answer was “you can take a year off, but not two ; maybe at the end of next year”. He asked again at the end of the second year. Same answer. The third time he asked, it was  a definitive no. This committed young man, after many prayers, chose to stay, but was brokenhearted, and felt guilt for years. In France you can usually take a year off, but not two. Since mission length is two years, many of our youth, like this young man, have to choose between studies and mission. Sometimes, they leave in December and come back two years later. Here, you can’t start when you want : the beginning of the year is September, and that’s it. So they have to wait another year. Maybe in the U.S. it’s fine to stop your studies and get back to them afterwards. In France, it’s not, and it’s very hard to get back in.

Of course, young people can go to BYU to study or register in BYU-pathways. That’s the advice French missionaries often get from their mission president when they ask to leave the mission field earlier. In fact, I suspect that it’s because the U.S. University calendar is so flexible that the mission length isn’t. Like many programs in the Church, it is designed with an American background. But what about the young people who want to study in the universities of their country ? I guess France is not the only one with selective systems. BYU is, indeed, very attractive for many of our youth. For them, often sole members in their schools, BYU is the place to be. As the sole member in my family, in my workplace, in my neighborhood, in about every place I go and everything I do since I converted thirty years ago, I understand the need for belonging. Though, I think that each youth who is leaving for BYU is a loss for our country. Most of the time, they graduate, get married, and settle in the U.S. I’ve rarely seen one come back. 

There are plenty of good things in BYU. I know lots of people who have studied there, and they’re great. I just wish this university wouldn’t be the measure of all things. I also really wish mission length would be more flexible, so that our youth can benefit from the high-quality superior education their country has to offer. In France, like in the U.S., many of our youth are leaving the Church. If we don’t help the faithful ones to study in their country, who will remain?

Photo credit: Amphithéâtre Richelieu, Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV). (Picture from Sébastien Calvet)


  1. “In fact, I suspect that it’s because the U.S. University calendar is so flexible that the mission length isn’t.”
    This is only true of BYU. Other US universities are not flexible. None of my children were interested in BYU. They attend fantastic universities, but leaving to serve a mission is not an option. One is waiting until graduation, one deferred before matriculation with the hope approval for a one-year leave will turn to two, and one isn’t serving at all.
    It’s frustrating, and there are almost no resources or guidance for LDS university students who want to serve but who aren’t at BYU.
    I think it’s a shame, too. There are so many great universities and BYU isn’t for everyone. But it’s very, very difficult to balance a mission.

  2. WayneFrank says:

    I made university visits with a grandson who had been accepted to several very prestigious universities in the eastern part of the US. When he asked the admittance officer about a two-year break for a mission, there was first a long silence, then a sigh, then he said, “Perhaps, but it may prove difficult and if approved will likely add an additional year to his studies.”

  3. Kristine says:

    It’s simply not true that “prestigious universities in the eastern part of the US” do not give students leave to serve missions. I don’t know where these stories come from–maybe uninformed admissions tour guides?

  4. Carolyn says:

    Kristine — I’ll echo that. Most universities and friends I’m familiar with didn’t have much of an issue on the East Coast. They were able to preserve scholarships, take breaks, etc. I think part of it is that the American University model is very much based on semesters, and you can slow down or speed up, pick up or drop off, between semesters without too much of a problem. It’s very common for all sorts of reasons to drop a semester or two to deal with family / health / financial / etc. reasons; your credits are still there when you get back.

  5. Kristine and Carolyn,
    I’m not sure if your comments were directed at me as well, but my comment comes from actual experience. My children’s schools (one on the east coast, though not an ivy) would not give my children 18-24 months of leave to serve missions. One school approves leaves a year at a time, so we’re hoping that child gets another year, but we aren’t sure. Some schools flat out denied deferral/leave. (When I say my children were denied leave, I mean actual school adminstrators denied them. This isn’t based on tour guides.)
    I guess they could’ve just left school, anyway, without official sanction. But then they’d have to reapply for admission, which wasn’t appealing.
    I’m glad others found it easy to coordinate a mission and college but that just hasn’t been our experience. YMMV, I guess.

  6. Kristine says:

    I guess all we have are anecdotes, but I know dozens and dozens of missionaries who have gone to non-BYU schools and not had trouble returning to them after their missions. I would imagine deferral is different than leave–admissions officers at selective schools are probably loathe to reserve spots in a class two or three years out from the current admissions cycle.

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Yes, there is definitely a difference between taking leave (after one has enrolled and attended at least 1 semester) and deferring enrollment. Deferral drives admissions folks and administrators nuts because it really messes with their enrolling class numbers. This wasn’t a problem when the age for beginning a mission was, for males, 19. That ensured they would attend for at least that first year and then request a leave (almost always granted – and I’m on the East Coast with all those schools, as well). For women, they would take leave later, often after graduation. But now males are beginning at 18, fresh out of high school. BYU is happy to facilitate this, but other schools really don’t like it. They want that slot for someone else, someone they know will show up in the Fall. Of course, they don’t have to go at 18 – they can wait until they get that first year in college out of the way.

  8. I didn’t have any issues re-enrolling in my East Coast (Ivy) school after my mission, but I did have to go through a perfunctory re-application (by fax from Argentina!).

    However, I wasn’t included in housing draws, so I was dumped as a sophomore in a freshman dorm with leftover juniors, and all my friends and colleagues had either graduated or were seniors when I returned. (A friend on the football team, with lots of acquaintances and contact, got housing with folks he already knew.) I had to start almost from zero socially. Since then, I’ve realized that there were more people who took leave for other reasons — though at the time I felt pretty alone and anomalous in that respect.

    I also did forfeited the last years of my National Merit Scholarship, which could only be held in abeyance for one year.

  9. your food allergy says:

    Changing the mission length to one year makes a lot of sense. It would simplify a number of issues as noted above related to education, obligatory military service, health. People are taking a “gap year” from college quite frequently now and the system deals with it well. Two year gaps, not as well.

  10. Well, I wish we had known about all these universities that are flexible with missions! I wonder if there’s a database out there somewhere? I’m glad others have had an easier time.
    A Turtle Named Mack, our experience was the opposite: one child granted deferment before starting; but another child denied leave after matriculation. Both from competitive/selective (though not Ivy) schools.

  11. Carolyn says:

    To be clear Alice, I absolutely believe your story and can easily imagine schools that said heck no. But I think OP’s point that overall the U.S. system (even aside from BYU) seems to accommodate gaps better than Europe is a fair one.

  12. J. Mansfield says:

    I knew a man (my sister’s father-in-law) who at age 28 was a divorced father and recently remarried when he was called on a mission to Fiji by the church in 1952. Once upon a time the calling of mature men to such service was normal, but two master problems are tough stuff, and the church hit on the idea of calling only barely-adult men without wives, children, good jobs, or much experience as a good-enough way of carrying out the church’s responsibility to the world. If 20 year olds (European or otherwise) are now already enmeshed in a system of education and career that they can’t step away from, then the solution is obvious: It is time to start calling 14 year olds on missions.

  13. Away from the mothership. says:

    This reminds me of the experience of one of my mission roommates in France during the 80’s. He was a Naval Cadet and left the mission a few months early to start his junior year. He needed special permission from the Commandant to leave and needed to return on their schedule. Sometimes it feels the Church was more agile in the past.

  14. I didn’t know there was the same problem in at least some universities in the States. It’s good to know. Here, in France, there is some diversity too. Public universities that are not in tension (that are not or not severely-selective selective) can let you leave, but it’s unofficial. Young men left, not knowing if they’ll be able to get back to college. Sure, they are beautiful stories of miracles. But there’s also a lot of failure stories – the stories never told in Church talks.

    I didn’t talk about it but there still are many countries with mandatory military service.

    A flexible mission length would make so much more sense. It would be so much more equal too : I don’t minimize the faith and sacrifice of young men from Utah, but things are not equal. Utahns get consideration in their communities, credits for their studies ; in Europe, young men look -at the best- strange in the eyes of their peers, teachers and employers, and their studies’ path is long and difficult.

  15. J. Mansfield says:

    It’s too bad we don’t have some young men in our day completing their undergraduate education first, like David O. McKay and Gordon Hinckley did a century ago, and then leaving for missions after graduation. Harold B. Lee sort of did that too, and Joseph Fielding Smith was set apart for his mission a month before he turned 23. Ezra Taft Benson is the only church president who served a mission and then went on to complete a college degree.

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