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BUENA VISTA, Va. - Greg Larsen seems like your typical young Mormon: He was born and raised in Utah, served a two-year mission in San Antonio and is married - at 23 - to a woman he met as an undergrad at a Mormon university.

But the campus where he and his wife, Alyssa, met wasn't Brigham Young University. His newly minted degree comes from Southern Virginia University, a fledgling outpost of Mormonism in the heart of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

The 12-year-old university is 97 percent Mormon in an area better known for Baptists and Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, about 40 miles to the south.

Students like Larsen say the school's Mormon culture - even as it officially remains separate from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - was a big draw.

"Especially being away from home, you feel a sense of comfort being around people with the same goals in life and you never felt alone," Larsen said after he received his degree on the picturesque hilltop campus in this town of just 6,300 people.

SVU began as a girl's finishing school in 1867 and became a junior college before a group of Mormons rescued it from financial peril 12 years ago. Since then, it has grown from 76 students to 700, and in early May graduated 129 students.

SVU President Rodney K. Smith told graduates in black caps and gowns that the ceremony marked the end of "the 12th year of our existence as a liberal-arts college in an LDS environment."

In some ways, an independent religious school is not unusual; Catholics and Evangelicals have been running them for years. But SVU is unique for its location - Buena Vista sits at the northern tip of the Bible Belt and 2,000 miles east of the center of the Mormon universe in Utah - and its independence from a church that prides itself on tightly centralized organization.

Even its name gives no hint of its overwhelmingly Mormon identity.

Comparisons between SVU and the much larger BYU come easily. Some SVU students transferred from Brigham Young, or chose between the two schools. Mormon officials wish the school success even as it remains separate from the church's official Church Educational System.

"It's very much an independent institution but sponsored by members of the church rather than the church itself," said Elder Rolfe Kerr, commissioner of church education.

The Virginia campus has gained accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education and hopes to graduate 1,000 students within five years. Those goals can sometimes be complicated by the unique tenets of the faith most of the students follow.

Forty students returned to campus at the beginning of the spring semester after completing a two-year Mormon mission. Administrators acknowledge it is sometimes a challenge to get them to return.

Likewise, the Mormon emphasis on marriage - which they consider eternal when sealed in an LDS temple - can affect the school's graduation totals. This year, more than a quarter - 49 - of graduating seniors are already married, and the class included 12 married couples.

"It does sometimes affect completion and we consider both of these things a blessing in students' lives, marriage and graduation," said SVU Provost Paul Edwards. "And when you have a sophomore marry a senior, we sometimes end up with . . . marriage for both, graduation for one, and we've missed out on a graduation."

Rising sophomore Leila Schultz of Honeoye, N.Y., said she's praying about whether to go on a mission, but she's sure she's not ready to think about marriage. "I'm just taking my time," she said.

But Mark Simpson, who traveled from Caldwell, Idaho, to see his daughter graduate, had a different view. He gazed approvingly at his daughter, 22-year-old Cassie Hughes, her husband and fellow graduate, Dave Hughes, 25, and their 6-month-old daughter, Madison, held firmly in her mother's arms.

"I accomplished a lot of my goals," said Simpson. "I got everything I wanted."

Whether they're thinking of marriage or mission, the church is a core part of students' lives, with many attending student wards, or congregations, in this small town. They meet in traditional family home evening groups on Monday nights, and some members take religion classes at a nearby church-owned institute.

Jana Chapman, a graduating senior who transferred from BYU, wanted to have the choice to study different musical instruments as well as computer science. At SVU, she was the sole student in a computer science class, and frequently saw faculty at church. She recalled once hearing professors praying for her and other students.

"That's really neat," she said, "that I can be in school where my professors are asking God to help me to do well on my exams."

Southern Virginia University

* LOCATION: Buena Vista, Va.

* ENROLLMENT: 700 students

* PHILOSOPHY: SVU provides liberal educations based on LDS Church principles. Paul Edwards, executive vice president and provost, puts it this way: "To help [students] become leader-servants by providing the finest undergraduate education available in letters, arts, and sciences. . . . The great leaders of our day will be thoughtful observers of human nature and of the human condition. They will be gifted writers and orators. They will be adept at quantitative reasoning. They will be able to think critically and analyze complex information from a variety of perspectives and be able to draw from a broad foundation of knowledge. And as they make consequential decisions, they will act on sound principles."

* TUITION: $16,500


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