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Southern Virginia University: Latter-day Saint values and the 'genius of small'

Southern Virginia University is thriving with its LDS environment, academics, new accreditation

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Professor Mark Taylor directs one of the SVU choirs. Forty percent of students sing in the school's choir program.

Lindsey Morgan,

BUENA VISTA, Va. — Parker Bird came to Southern Virginia University with high hopes but few concrete expectations.

"I wasn't really what you'd call a strong student when I came here," said the Columbus, Ohio, native, a recently returned LDS missionary from the California San Fernando Mission. "I was OK, I guess, but I want to go into dentistry, and my advisers at (the previous college he attended) didn't give me a lot of encouragement. They didn't seem to think that a student like me could qualify for dental school."

Feeling kind of lost in the shuffle of a large university, Bird transferred to SVU because he heard the school has an outstanding pre-med training program. Plus he liked the idea of a small student body, intimate classes and lots of opportunities for participation in extracurricular activities.

In April 2012, Bird graduated from SVU on the Provost's List (a semester grade point average at or above 3.5) with a bachelor's degree in business management. He is also a licensed EMT, has participated in school-sponsored medical service projects in Ghana and has his eye on prestigious dental schools like Northwestern in Chicago. Along the way he found time to participate as captain of the SVU lacrosse team, sing in school choirs and meet and become engaged to fellow Class of 2012 graduate Bethany Johnson of Highland, Utah, whom he will marry in August.

"SVU was the right place for me," Bird said during the school's annual awards banquet. "I was able to enjoy a strong, faith-affirming LDS environment with great professors who were willing to spend extra time with me and academic advisers who knew me and cared about me."

Southern Virginia University is the only privately owned liberal arts college in America that is specifically oriented to the standards, policies, practices and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although not directly affiliated with the church, it caters to LDS students (93 percent of its 800 students during the most recent academic year were Mormons) and requires all students to sign and abide by a strict honor code similar to the honor code for students at BYU, BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii.

The school is located near the rough-hewn slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the small (population: 6,650) southwestern Virginia town of Buena Vista. Visitors should know that locals pronounce the town's name "Byoona" Vista instead of the standard Spanish pronunciation of "Bwena" Vista because, according to some townsfolk, "that's the way Robert E. Lee pronounced it."

No matter how you say it, however, the Spanish translation of the name still applies: beautiful view. From the top of University Hill, where the college campus is located, one can look in any direction and see landscape thick with tall, green trees and gently rolling hills nestling quaint, picturesque communities and homes. Even University Hill itself is a beautiful view, dominated as it is by Main Hall, a handsome structure built in the 1890s as a grand resort hotel but transformed into what was then called Southern Seminary after the turn of the century.

"How can you not be swept up in the beauty of this place?" said Dr. Richard G. Whitehead, vice president of institutional advancement and, until June 1, acting president of the university before the arrival of new SVU president, Elder Paul K. Sybrowsky, who was released last October as a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"You've got the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Shenandoah Valley nearby," Whitehead said, leaning back in his chair in his Main Hall office. "It's like a floral display here in October, and spring is every bit as beautiful. Every day when I walk around the campus I see cardinals flying, squirrels running up trees, deer grazing in the field. It's amazing."

As beautiful as the Southern Virginia campus is, however, Whitehead says there are other elements that contribute to the university environment.

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