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Utah institute, neighboring school look to the future

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OREM, Utah — Jack Christianson remembers when the Orem LDS Institute of Religion was off in the distance.Once on the outskirts of campus, the institute building's location on College Drive has become enveloped by the expanding school that will soon be known as Utah Valley University."It's made it very interesting," said Christianson, the former institute director who is now the executive director for the Center for Engaged Learning at Utah Valley State College. "It's one of the few institutes that's not across the street."But the school isn't the only thing growing around the institute.There is a genuine sense of excitement on the Orem campus as UVSC is in the final stages of its ascension to university status. That enthusiasm has spread to the halls of the Orem institute, where students are embracing the change and faculty members are working to assist the transition as well as elevate their own programs. While the two entities understand the importance of maintaining separation, a positive relationship exists that benefits both institutions and enhances the college experience for LDS students in a valley defined by its religious demographics.While Orem has long been home to one of the largest LDS institute programs, UVSC students who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now witnessing the evolution of their academic institution."It's a unique experience for all of us involved, both at the institute and the college," Christianson said. "Very few people get to go through that. How often does a college become a university? It's just been an exciting time to see the growth."On July 1, the dedication of the school's digital learning center will signal the change to Utah Valley University. The term being used around campus is "UV-phoria." Matthew Wood, a UVSC student from Highland, said the school has been effective at getting the campus "caught up" in the process."Everybody's growing in so many aspects," said Wood, who serves as the fellowship co-chairman for the Latter-day Saint Student Association, an official campus club. "You're growing (at institute) spiritually. You're growing educationally down on campus."According to current Orem institute director Richard Robins, the move to university status has not only created a sense of anticipation but also instilled confidence in students."There's an energy and an excitement that now we're in the big leagues," Robins said. "There's an excitement among the kids that their education isn't going to be somehow inferior to another school."While UVSC makes the transition, the institute program is undergoing its own changes to address the evolving needs of students. Robins and his staff established a committee that evaluated the situation and drafted a proposal on how to support the transition while strengthening the institute program.One area the institute is working to address is the change in student demographics. The addition of more four-year and graduate degree programs at the school will mean fewer transfers and more students staying for longer durations. The institute therefore plans to incorporate more upper-division classes.Anticipating an increase in both international and married students, the institute established LDSSA committees to address their situations. While there are programs already in place for married students, the institute will create more classes and plan more social activities for married couples."You still need that, because you're still a young adult," said Brindy Bennett, a member of the married student committee from Woodbridge, Va.Another item on the institute's agenda is contributing to the atmosphere around the university — or, in other words, school spirit."The students know that we're very UVU," Robins said.Randy Lunt, who is the institute's associate director, said it's important for those involved with the program to identify themselves as Wolverines."We don't want to feel like we are an isolated island over here," Lunt said. "We want to feel like this is our home."Lunt said that when he came to the Orem institute 10 years ago after serving as a mission president in Pennsylvania, there was still the perception that UVSC was a "tech school." But Lunt has no doubt that it's ready to become a university."The academic preparation and quality and seriousness of our students just gets better and better and better every year," he said. "I think that is reflected in the quality of young people that we have coming to institute."Institute faculty members know there must be separation between their program and the soon-to-be university. School president William Sederburg emphasizes that UVSC, which has an enrollment nearing 24,000, is a state school with a "secular mission."But that doesn't preclude the institutions from developing a strong working relationship — and by all accounts, that's exactly what exists."I don't know that it could really be any better," Lunt said.Sederburg, who is not LDS, calls it a "strong collaboration.""We certainly are very supportive of the institute being successful," said Sederburg, who added that the school is supportive of a number of religious entities in addition to the LDS institute, such as the Catholic Newman Center and the Lutheran Campus Ministries."It's certainly a healthy thing for our students to be involved in," Sederburg said. "I am very proud with the way we have done the relationship."Sederburg, continuing a tradition started by former president Kerry Romesburg, spoke at the institute's weekly devotional earlier this year. The president, who is Lutheran, updated students on campus issues and provided an inspirational message. Those who attended appreciated the gesture."That was huge, especially where he's not a member of our church, but he was willing to come and talk to us," said Brittney Christian, a student from Mapleton who serves as the LDSSA service co-director.Having students involved at the institute often translates into campus involvement, Sederburg said. The institutions therefore make an effort to avoid scheduling conflicts. According to LDSSA president Steve Miller, the administration is receptive and allows students to have a voice."They really do care about what the students want," Miller said.Considering the demographics of Utah Valley, which also features church-owned Brigham Young University and a predominant LDS community, Orem has become a viable destination for prospective LDS students, a place where they can participate in activities and wards with significant church membership numbers."They can come here and have those great experiences," Robins said.From an LDS student perspective, the environment helps define their college life. Colby Manscill, a student from Orem who is the institute's audio/visual co-director, used the analogy of the armies of Helaman to describe the strength and unity of the institute.Leslie Fonbunna, a student from Alpine who serves as LDSSA vice president, said the atmosphere encourages LDS standards."It's cool to be good," she said. "That's something that the institute creates."Having worked for both institutions, Christianson understands the dynamics."One of the main reasons so many students come to UVU is so that they can have that great institute experience along with academics," he said. "We're not oblivious to the fact that many people around the country want to send their students to this valley."Sederburg acknowledged that the Orem institute plays a role in attracting students to UVSC."LDS folks throughout the country might have a son or daughter who might want to come to UVSC," Sederburg said. "Having a strong institute is certainly helpful."On the Friday before general conference, about 50 prospective LDS students and their parents visited the institute building as part of a campus tour. Though they came from places like Indiana, Oregon, Florida, Nevada, Washington and California, institute instructor Karen Hepworth began her remarks by saying "welcome home."For thousands of LDS students from around the state, country and world, the Orem institute has become home. And as the neighboring academic institution continues its progression, a solid relationship between the two entities is proving beneficial."There's such a mutual respect," Christianson said. "I think it's important to maintain a bridge because the institute is so large and plays such a major role in the lives of so many students."