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The first wave of younger Mormon sister missionaries are back and filling Utah's college classrooms.

Their presence is especially strong at Brigham Young University, where an early look at fall semester enrollment shows just shy of two in five women on campus have served a mission.

That's an uptick of nine percentage points since the fall of 2012, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first lowered the earliest starting age for missions.

"We see it as a positive thing," BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead said. "It may open up new ideas of things they want to look into that maybe they hadn't thought of before."

Starting in January 2013, young men no longer had to wait until they turned 19, but could serve right out of high school at 18 years old. For women, the starting age was lowered from 21 to 19 years old.

Many Utah universities and colleges noticed a drop in enrollment after the announcement.

After the change, half the applications to join the faith's proselytizing force came from women. All able LDS men are expected to serve a mission, and many said the announcement could up the expectation for LDS women to serve.

Meredith DeMordaunt, a 22-year-old political science major at the university, went on her mission to Vancouver, Canada as a 21-year-old, right after the change was announced. She says the younger minimum age makes it more acceptable for women to serve as missionaries now.

Before the age change, "People would look at you and say, 'You're a cute girl, why aren't you staying and getting married?' It was assumed you're only on a mission 'cause you can't get married," DeMordaunt said. "And that's not true."

She adds: "Girls are excited to go on missions now."

Hollingshead said the numbers of returned male and female missionaries on campus have increased at about the same rate. In fall 2012, 79 percent of male students had served an LDS mission. That number increased to 87 percent this fall. For BYU women, 10 percent had served a mission when school started in 2012. This fall, that number jumped to 19 percent.

"This changes the narrative for young Mormon women in pretty fundamental ways," LDS scholar Joanna Brooks told The Salt Lake Tribune after the October 2012 announcement. "It uncouples church service from the expectation of marriage and motherhood and teaches young women they should take responsibility for knowing their faith."

It's still early to determine how many women returning from missions are going straight to school. Public colleges and universities will have a better idea in coming weeks, when the statewide system of higher education releases enrollment figures.

But in Utah, where college women trail further behind men than in any other state, some higher education officials said they worry that Utah women won't come back to college after their missions.

Compared to their counterparts nationwide, Utah women start college at about the same rate. But fewer end up graduating from four-year programs. Instead, several pursue two-year degrees, and others drop out to get married, start a family, or for other reasons.

Susan Madsen, who heads the Women in Higher Education Network from Utah Valley University, said she hopes women will put the discipline they learn on their missions directly into their coursework.

"You learn how to set goals. You learn how to accomplish goals," she said. "Hopefully, these sisters will want to continue learning, continue growing and hop back in."

That's the case for DeMordaunt. The junior said the year and a half on her mission taught her how to structure her time and set her sights on important things like faith and graduation. But she is overwhelmed by the thought of packing into the next few semesters her capstone course, law school applications and graduation.

She is considering applying for an internship with the U.S. State Department in China.

"I thought I had all this time, but I don't because I'm graduating in a year and a half," she said. "When you go on a mission, it's almost like pausing your life."

Advancing the pause earlier in women's college careers has made it "much easier to go on missions," DeMordaunt said.

For others like her, Madsen said, it's up to parents to pay for the first few semesters to make sure their daughters go straight from "sister" to student.

"If parents do that, " she said, "then we will get most women to college right after their mission."

After the age change, several Utah colleges reported a dip in enrollment, but they expect the numbers to climb again once the first batch of younger male missionaries return in January.

The University of Utah is no exception, said Mary Parker, associate vice president of enrollment management. A preliminary look at this semester's enrollment shows the number of students has dipped about 1.7 percent from last year.

"We know that the mission age had some impact with that," she said.

Last year, about 400 students deferred enrolling, but that could have been related to military or other absences, Parker said. The school does not explicitly track whether students have served a mission.

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