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High school graduation different this year for many LDS students

Published: Saturday, June 1 2013 11:10 p.m. MDT

Mark Beecher attaches another name tag to a map showing where Westlake High School graduates have been called to serve LDS missions.

Joseph Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For many in Utah’s graduating class of more than 40,000 high school seniors, this is a year unlike any other.

Amid the traditional pomp and ceremony, there are the usual declarations of short- and long-term plans — work, college, military service, marriage. But this year a new declaration is heard with startling frequency: “I’m going on a mission.”

Many young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have already received a letter from church headquarters in Salt Lake City calling them to serve as a full-time missionary and assigning them to one of the church’s 405 missions worldwide, an event once reserved for college-age Mormons.

“It’s electric!” said Mark Beecher, a 27-year veteran teacher and administrator in the LDS Church’s seminary program and currently the principal of the seminary that serves students at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs. “Among our seminary students there’s just this feeling of purpose and destiny being fulfilled. Both the students and the teachers feel like we’re on the front lines of a remarkable moment in church history.”

That “remarkable moment” started last October, when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a reduction in the minimum age requirements for full-time missionary service in the church. Instead of requiring young men to be 19 before they could be called as missionaries, now they can serve as soon as they graduate from high school, provided they are at least 18 years old. Young women can serve at age 19, as opposed to the previous minimum age requirement of 21.

“The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring,” President Monson said in opening the church’s Annual General Conference in April. Earlier this week church officials indicated that nearly 29,000 new missionaries are expected to report for training at one of their Missionary Training Centers during the next several months, pushing the total number of LDS missionaries serving to more than 85,000 this fall — shattering the all-time record for the church by more than 20,000 missionaries.

A big part of that anticipated summer surge will be this year's male high school graduates, eligible to serve at age 18 for the first time. In Utah, where according to the most recent census more than 62 percent of the population is LDS and where at least three counties — Morgan, Rich and Utah — are more than 80 percent Mormon, the impact has been particularly profound. LDS seminary teachers, who interact with the students daily in personal, religiously oriented ways, say the policy change has created a new dynamic in Utah schools, especially among high school seniors.

“In my whole career I’ve probably had three kids who had their mission calls before graduating from high school,” said John Vasas, who has been teaching seminary for seven years, this past year at Woods Cross High School. “This year I have 26 kids who have their mission calls. It’s a whole new world.”

Ben Lomu, principal of the Jordan High School seminary, said it has been that way ever since President Monson’s October announcement.

“It was just a regular school year until October,” Lomu said. “Then the change happened and there was an immediate reaction — especially among our seniors. They were more serious, more anxious to learn. It was like, ‘In a few months I’m going to be teaching this doctrine, so I need to really know it.’”

Megan Ryan, who teaches at the Murray High School seminary, said it became clear to her what was happening among her students when a young man named Josh was teaching part of the lesson one day.

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