In spring 2003, a facebook had nothing to do with the internet, the Iraq war had only just begun, “Uggs” was just a funny sound, and Mischa Barton’s biggest role had involved vomiting on Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” Clearly, there have been a lot of changes since then. Six Harvard students missed all of these, though, when they left after freshman year for two-year-long missions for the Mormon Church.
Leverett blockmates Luke A. Langford ’06-’08, Spencer R. Paulson ’06-’08, Matthew E. Vandenberg ’06-’08, Samuel W. Strike ’06-’08, Darren R. Baker ’06-’08, and David R. Porter ’06-’08—son of Dunster House Masters Roger B. Porter and Anne R. Porter—spent the past two years scattered across the globe, working to bring the uninitiated into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They worked in Chile, Switzerland, Russia, the United States, Argentina, and South Korea, but all of their missions shared one common rule: limited contact with the rest of the world.
CHANGE CAN BE GOOD
Cut off from television and newspapers and limited to letters, weekly e-mails and two phone calls a year, they spent two years focused on spreading the gospel of their church. They went to bed at 10:30 p.m. every night, lived with other missionaries, and spent most waking hours working in some capacity for the church.
They were part of a 50,000-strong missionary program that sends 19-year-old guys and 21-year-old girls to posts around the world. The church doesn’t place missionaries based on their language skills or even their preferences; instead, they make decisions about where to send their missionaries by “acting under the influence of the Spirit,” according to church literature.
That means that Langford, fluent in Spanish from an early age, was sent to Russia, while Vandenberg, who had only taken Spanish A, “Beginning Spanish,” went to Chile. And though Mormonism doesn’t require anyone to complete a mission, it can be “a bit of an expectation” for men, says Strike. Two years is a lot to ask of anyone, but these five blockmates say they were happy to give it in service to their church.
Now they’re back at Harvard and struggling to catch up on everything they missed while they were away. Once-inseparable groups of friends have grown apart, and formerly quiet freshmen are now hard-partying seniors.
For the roommates of Leverett D-41, sometimes it’s hard not to feel a little overshadowed by all that their friends have achieved in the past two years. Strike, who spent the past two years in Salt Lake City, joined the Glee Club freshman year with his roommate, who is now the group’s president.
“My [freshman year] roommate’s a senior, working on his thesis, and getting ready to graduate. And I’m taking Ec 10,” says Vandenberg, a government concentrator thinking about law school.
And there are a “million other little differences” that they have to adjust to, says Langford, a chemistry concentrator from Oregon. The roommates were amused to discover the popularity of thefacebook.com, the explosion of iPods, and the relative ubiquity of wireless networking.
“It’s actually kind of fun discovering the things that are different,” says Vandenberg. “You stumble across something, and you run and find one of the other roommates, and you’re like ‘Did that really happen?’”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Less fun can be the transition from a life surrounded by other Mormons to a world where many students don’t share the same values. At a twenty-first birthday party a few weeks ago, Langford struggled with the question of how best to respond to behavior he doesn’t condone.
“I spent two years actively trying to convince people not to do these things,” says Langford. “And then to come to an environment where the moral standard seems to be hooking up, and drinking is everywhere...it’s a little hard to get back into that.”
Living with other Mormons can make this transition a little easier. Trading Beirut for Bible study means that they can focus on other challenges, like completing their first problem sets in years and trying to remember chemistry they haven’t thought about since high school.
“It’s nice to have a safe space,” says Vandenberg, where “someone’s...not gonna bring a girl over and do something maybe we’re not comfortable with, or have a party and bring out a keg.”
Despite the challenges of re-adjusting to life at Harvard, they all consider their missions an invaluable experience. Instead of taking classes, they spent time working with members of their respective host communities, trying to help them change their lives.
Strike helped a former gang member pull his life together, Langford helped a lifelong smoker quit, Vandenberg worked with the family of a Colombian refugee, and Porter mentored the children of substance abusers. Not everyone was receptive to their attempts, but, Strike says, “the best thing was seeing people use the gospel of Jesus Christ to change their lives.”
“There are some things that just can’t be taught in a classroom,” says Porter, “even at one of the world’s finest universities.”
Langford agrees. “It’s one thing to sit here and talk in an IOP forum about alcohol or abortion,” he says. “But to see people who’ve lived it for their lives, for better or for worse—that’s a different kind of learning.”
While the roommates learned a lot, they also saw their missions as a way to give back. Though they did little traditional community service, they see spreading the message of their church as even more important than working in soup kitchens or building houses.
“The perspective is that what you’re teaching really is helping them, too,” says Vandenberg. “I know that Jesus Christ came to the earth and died for our sins, and if we can follow his teachings we’ll be able to live with our families and with God forever.”
Now that they’re back at Harvard, though, it’s time for these students to focus on themselves again. They’re looking forward to seeing friends, eating peanut butter, changing the HUDS menus, reading textbooks—and getting to stay up past 10:30 p.m.