Institute of Highest Learning

“Institute of Highest Learning,” New Era, Sept. 1993, 20

Institute of Highest Learning

There are some grand traditions at Texas A&M. But for these LDS students, attending institute is the grandest of all.

Tough decisions in college? Here’s how some LDS students at Texas A&M University are handling them.

Rick Daniel was a hot item as a high school senior. Universities like Miami, Stanford, BYU, and Texas A&M wanted him to play football for them. It was an exciting time. He could seemingly play anywhere he wanted. Even though he was quickly approaching mission age, a mission was the last thing on his mind.

When Rick accepted A&M’s offer, his dad tracked down the address of the LDS Institute of Religion so Rick could find it when he got to school. But when Rick saw the institute schedule, he couldn’t fit a class in—or at least at the time he didn’t want to try to fit one in. So Brother Tom McMullin, the institute director, met with him one-on-one each week to study the Book of Mormon. “The spiritual growth I experienced from it was well worth my time,” Rick says. “I really matured spiritually.” By his sophomore year, he was ready to make time in his schedule for a regular institute class.

Rick didn’t quite know how much his testimony had grown until one day while he was sitting in institute class. “I had this overwhelming feeling that it was time to go on a mission,” he said. The knot in his stomach told him it wasn’t going to be that easy—he still had to tell his coach.

“I was so nervous,” Rick says. “I didn’t know what he would say.” So Rick carefully explained to his coach what a mission is and that he would like to go on one. Before Rick could even squirm, the coach said, “Will you come back?”

“That broke the tension right there,” Rick says. “I said, ‘Of course. I’d want to come right back here, and would ya’ll keep my scholarship?’ He said, ‘Sure, without a doubt.’ It was great. Since then everything has been falling into place.”

Rick is now serving in the California Anaheim Mission, the same city where he played against Stanford in the Pigskin Preview just last year.

Just Showed Up

Sandy Billings wanted to have fun—not get drunk. Bonfire was coming up, and it was famous, among other things, for the drinking it attracted. The Aggies build and burn a humongous bonfire before the game against their greatest rival, the University of Texas in Austin. It’s a time of major partying.

Sandy, a nonmember, wanted to celebrate also. But she needed to find some friends who would not be drinking. Then someone told her the LDS institute was having an activity without alcohol.

“I just showed up for the party,” says Sandy, who had investigated the Church some during her senior year of high school. “It was a lot of fun. I got a warm welcome and a warm feeling too.” For the next school year she attended the “fun” institute activities. And during this time she found out something she had never known before—that years ago her mother had been baptized a Mormon as a young woman in Chile.

The following summer Sandy was baptized. Now you see her at institute all the time.

A Constant Reminder

Monica May wasn’t exactly active in the Church during high school, but the summer before she went to college she decided to make church a regular part of her life. She missed the gospel.

Once at college she wasn’t perfect with her goal, but by the end of her first semester, she looked forward to church as well as her institute class.

Monica had always known the gospel principles. But “I didn’t see the importance of them until I came to institute,” she says. “It’s really opened my eyes. My testimony has grown, and institute has increased my desire to work at living the gospel.”

It was during this realization that Monica’s blossoming testimony was put to the test. It seemed she had found the perfect man. He was a handsome engineering student; he wanted to marry her; her parents thought he was great. But there was one major drawback—he was not a member of the Church.

During this same time, Monica had also developed a strong friendship with Chad May, who had returned from his mission in Taiwan and seemed quite serious about her.

Confused about what she should do, Monica turned to prayer and what she was learning in institute for answers.

One evening, the answer finally came. After watching part of a rec league basketball game Chad was playing in, Monica slipped out of the gym to go on a date with the other guy. But on the way, she says, “I got this terrible feeling in my stomach. I’d had this kind of prompting before, not acted on it, and regretted it. So this time I listened.” She never dated the engineering student again. And less than a year later, Monica and Chad were married in the Dallas Temple.

“Institute provided a constant reminder of my standards,” Monica says. “Without it I wouldn’t have known which way I should be going.”

A Way of Life

Going away to college and making mature decisions isn’t easy. There are lifetime decisions to be made and many exciting moments awaiting you—just ask Rick, Sandy, or Monica. They have first-hand experience. They also know that trials can shake your testimony if you don’t have moral as well as spiritual support. Thanks to their participation in institute they had that support.

But isn’t institute just seminary for college kids? Sort of—but it’s a whole lot more. It can be the secret to your college success.

Institute activity quickly becomes more than just a once- or twice-a-week religion class; it can become a way of life. It has for Heather Kennedy. On Monday nights, she meets with her student ward family home evening group at the institute building. On Tuesday evenings, she attends her Book of Mormon class. On Wednesdays, she sings in the institute choir and then studies at the building. On Thursdays, she has Book of Mormon again. After class she goes country dancing with a group of institute friends. On Fridays, she goes to the “sandwich seminar” and has lunch while a guest speaker discusses the gospel. And on weekends, there is always something going on. “It’s amazing how much easier college life is with institute,” Heather says. “It’s nice to be here because the Spirit is here, even if you’re just here to relax or study. Believe it or not, it seems the more time you spend here, the more time there is to study. Everything seems easier with institute.”

A Place to Find Answers

For Morris Overstreet II, the LDS institute is a place to find answers to his gospel questions. He had only been a member of the Church for a year when he became concerned about being the only black member at the institute. “I wanted to know when and if the gospel was ever going to reach the black community,” Morris says. “Having grown up in a black community, I know they need it.” So Morris talked with Brother McMullin about his worry. “He helped me realize that just by being involved in the Church, I will have a great influence with the blacks around me. It’s made me realize I need to be doing the right things so that I can be an influence.” Morris leaves on a mission this year.

A Little Closer to Home

Institute has made missionary work easier for Kimberly Pace. She had been trying to get her nonmember stepsister, Missy Shirley, to go to church with her ever since junior high. But with no success.

When Kimberly arrived at A&M, she enrolled at the institute. “I really liked it here,” she says, “and it really seemed to me institute would be something Missy would like too. So I invited her.”

The invitation couldn’t have come at a better time. Missy had been looking for a religious extracurricular activity. “My main goal was to learn,” Missy says. A lot of the religious groups she had visited were mainly social groups, or if they had lessons, the teachings were vague. But when Kimberly told Missy about institute, “It sounded like a pretty well-rounded activity,” Missy says. Institute had meaningful lessons as well as social events.

Missy ended up going to institute classes and activities with Kimberly for the rest of the semester, and over Christmas break she even asked if she could return. “Institute is a little closer to home in my heart than some of the other places I visited,” Missy says.

But Missy isn’t the only one to gain from her institute activity. Her interest “has kept me going,” Kimberly says. “I wouldn’t have gone this much without her. And when I worry about her it brings me closer to God.”

Feeling Safe

For Shelley Gray, institute reassured her she could find Mormon friends at a non-LDS school. She didn’t know anyone when she came to Texas from Midvale, Utah. “But because I knew the institute was here, I felt safe,” she says.

And she was right. The first time she went to institute, everyone rushed to make friends with her. “If you make the first effort, you’ll just get sucked in,” she says. “We really stick together. There’s a lot of group dating, and there are tons of neat people here.”

All this is happening at the LDS Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. You find Heather singing “The Spirit of God” with her class there. Sandy sits at the table in the library reading her Book of Mormon before class. In a small office, Morris frantically types a paper on a computer. In the hallway on a map showing all the missionary locations, Rick’s name is pinned to Anaheim. In the institute kitchen, Monica washes some dishes she and her husband used for their lunch, while Kimberly makes herself a snack from the stocked refrigerator. Shelley puts away her pool cue in the game room so she won’t bother someone else doing their calculus on the chalkboard. And on cool days, you might even find Missy and others playing volleyball on the court outside.

But what’s even better is that no matter how big or small it is, wherever there’s an institute, LDS students like those at A&M are building strong testimonies, sharing the gospel, and finding friends who share their own beliefs. As Brother McMullin says, “All we do here—the socials, the fun, the service projects, the private discussions, the classes—is to help each student grow closer to the Savior.”

And that’s the secret to true success, not only in college, but also in life.

For information about institutes of religion in the United States and Canada contact your bishop or stake president. In England, write David Cook, British Isles area director, 751 Warwick Rd., Solihull, Birmingham, West Midlands, England, B91 3DQ, or call 021-711-2244. In the Pacific area, write John Jeffrey, Pacific area director, P.O. Box 350, Carlingford 2118, N.S.W., Australia, or call 02-873-0478.

Why Attend Institute

Texas A&M students give you their top five reasons:

  1. At college, you are away from parents. Support from institute classes and friends makes it easier to do what’s right.

  2. You gain a deeper understanding of the scriptures. You learn how to apply them to your daily life.

  3. Institute classes help carry the spiritual high of Sunday through the whole week. This helps you keep your priorities in order.

  4. It’s easy to get lost in the big university crowd. But at institute, you are always among friends.

  5. You need a strong testimony of your own to withstand challenges and to share with your friends. You can develop that testimony at institute.

Photography by Richard M. Romney

Chad and Monica May were married in the temple after the Spirit prompted her to stop dating a nonmember. She credits institute for a constant reminder of proper direction.

Jenny Olsen: “As long as you have institute, you can have a solid religious experience as part of your college education.”

Heather Kennedy: “It’s nice to be here because the Spirit is here. With institute, wherever you go you will find family.”

Cadets Chris Voss and John Holt say, “If you’re not in institute, you’re missing out.”

Darla Marburger picked A&M so she’d have a strong institute program plus lots of missionary opportunities.