Vai's View: Some of best, brightest LDS students gather for weekend of fun, edification

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 1:15 p.m. MDT

Young single adults from Penn, Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Bryn Mawr College recently gathered for a YSA weekend conference.

Last Friday night, between our 6 and 11 p.m. broadcast, I drove the 15 minutes from my television station to west Philadelphia to an LDS chapel near the University of Pennsylvania campus to speak to a small group of young single adults from Penn, Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Bryn Mawr College, who were gathered for a YSA weekend conference.

These are among the best and brightest LDS kids in the world. They're the kind who scored north of 2,000 on the SAT, got a perfect 800 on the math, spent time during high school overseas in a study abroad program, won state and finished top 10 in national business competitions, were valedictorians and student body presidents. They're accomplished, adventurous, highly motivated and chose the Ivy League over church schools.

The Penn LDS Student Association hosted and organized the conference, even taking visitors into their apartments to alleviate the cost. Penn nursing student Liz Harbuck, a sophomore from Salt Lake City who was one of the organizers, hosted girls in her apartment with air mattresses. Penn sophomore Victor Salcedo had four strangers squeezed into his tiny flat.

I was their keynote speaker in what was a very informal gathering of roughly 40 students — small enough for us to all fit into the Relief Society room. I showed a short video of my work that they seemed to enjoy, then told them my life story of immigrating from Tonga, boxing, BYU, mission, marriage, family, my careers in the NFL and broadcasting and service in the Church. I concluded by quoting Doctrine and Covenants 115: 6, "And that the gathering together upon the land of Zion, and upon her stakes, may be for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from the wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth."

I encouraged them to stay close to the Church, as its stakes worldwide are to be "a defense, and a refuge from the storm, and from the wrath when it shall be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth." I suggested to kids much smarter than I, that "wrath … poured out without mixture upon the whole earth" must mean that Satan's "wrath" will be unleashed, undiluted, heavily concentrated and at full strength.

Our stakes will serve as a safe haven, but as they obtain their education, serve missions, find spouses, start families and embark on careers, they will be expected as Isaiah wrote to "enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitation: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes." I viewed their little conference as a refuge and a defense from the storms, but also a preparation to "strengthen thy stakes."

My remarks were followed by fun activities, games and a viewing of "Hunger Games" at a local theater. On Saturday, they went to see two first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon in the Penn Library, then went on a sightseeing trip to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and religious sites in Philly, and of course consumed a few cheese steaks before they adjourned.

Most of them are undergraduates but a handful were grad students. They gather annually for the same reasons our youth gather for youth conference, EFY, and for the same reason we have stake and general conference — to be edified, instructed and strengthened in each other's company and testimony.

I love their spunk and their optimism. I love how idealistic and faithful they are. I love their goodness but also admire their immense intelligence because it isn't something that comes naturally to me as it did with my siblings (who have graduate degrees) and my children (who all got into BYU without football scholarships).

They come from various backgrounds, experiences and family life — and I learned you can't make even simple assumptions about them. For instance, Penn sophomore Blake Ellison grew up in Salt Lake City, graduating from Hillcrest High. Lifelong LDS with pioneer heritage, right? Nope. Blake was raised by his single mother as an only child and actually joined the church while in Philly at Penn.

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