As LDS students prepare for the beginning of Southern Virginia College's third year as a miniature Brigham Young University, things are looking good for the one-time female seminary that was purchased by a group of LDS businessmen in 1996.
In fact, the transition has been so smooth that administrators at the college already see Southern Virginia as the pattern for a network of universities around the world that promote LDS values."If we can find out what the model looks like that doesn't need tithing funds, then it can be replicated in other places," said Southern Virginia President David W. Ferrel, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Fifth Quorum of the Seventy and a former LDS mission president.
Ferrel, who was recruited to Southern Virginia by the group that purchased the once struggling college, spoke about the school's successful transition during an education conference in Provo last week. Although the college caters to LDS students, Ferrel made it clear that Southern Virginia is not affiliated with the LDS Church.
Already Southern Virginia has been offered a chance to buy a small college in northern California, and groups of wealthy LDS Church members in Southern California and Texas have asked Ferrel to help operate LDS-oriented colleges there. But Ferrel said the group that owns Southern Virginia has eschewed those offers in favor of concentrating on its campus in Buena Vista, Va., and looking at international poss-i-bil-ities.
"To me, places like Mexico City and Sao Paulo (Brazil) are more interesting because schools there would be places where the LDS young people could come together, then go on missions and get married and stay" in their homelands, Ferrel said.
When international students attend LDS Church-owned schools like BYU, Ricks College or BYU-Hawaii, they often end up getting married and putting down roots in their adopted countries. This creates a dearth of LDS leaders in the nations they vacated, Ferrel said.
Southern Virginia already has a working partnership with a university in China, with an eye toward possibly establishing a school there. In addition, school founders have pondered the possibility of schools in places like Japan, Great Britain and Africa.
That's pretty heady stuff for a school that less than three years ago was about to close its doors forever. But since the LDS group took over the 131-year-old college, the positive response has exceeded nearly everyone's expectations.
In less than three years, Southern Virginia got out of debt and raised nearly $19 million. Its enrollment went from 74 the first year to an expected 300 when classes begin Aug. 31. It has plans to remodel and expand its campus, and hopes to accommodate as many as 1,200 students within a few years. After that, the sky's the limit.
"We have enough land to support 5,000 or 6,000 students here eventually," Ferrel said.
Currently, approximately 10 percent of the school's student body list Utah as their home state. More than 30 percent come from Virginia.
"It's seriously the greatest academic experience of my life," said Kindee Nielsen, a senior from Salem, UtahCounty, who also attended BYU and Ricks. "I think because BYU is so big, you get lost in the numbers."
Elaine Hatch, a member of Southern Virginia College's Board of Trustees and wife of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, compares the current state of the school to that of BYU a century ago.
"We all feel like this is a school that is going to go," Hatch said. "If you look at a map of BYU in the beginning, they are almost iden-ti-cal."
Southern Virginia is following the pattern set by BYU in more ways than one. Although the school had just 200 students last year, it boasts of 22 LDS temple marriages - meaning that nearly a quarter of the studentbody met spouses and married during the school year.
The school seems well on its way to succeeding where at least a half-dozen similar attempts have failed. Although Southern Virginia receives no official LDS Church support, leaders have been supportive of the concept and have provided encouragement, Ferrel said.
Ferrel knows that operating a university grounded in religious principles is not an easy task at the dawn of the 21st century. BYU, although now more than 100 years old, still struggles to find the balance between religious orthodoxy and academic freedom.
But Southern Virginia hopes its small size and policy of not granting tenure to professors will preclude academic freedom battles. The college already has figured out successful ways to target LDS students (purchasing their names from national scholastic testing firms) and potential donors (including a flier with nationwide mailings done by Deseret Book to LDS homes).
But perhaps the most exciting thing for Ferrel is the future, when he believes Southern Virginia can help others establish "gathering places" for LDS students. In fact, he and others envision a day when LDS-oriented universities will dot the globe.
"It's not our aim to keep this to ourselves," he said.