Thousands of them walk around campus, trying to blend in with the students who have been here for years. Their numbers are growing each semester and reached an all-time high this fall.
Returned missionaries now represent 63 percent of the students enrolled on the BYU campus, as opposed to 46 percent in 2012, before the missionary-age-change announcement by the LDS Church, according to a 2015 recent press release from BYU University Communications.
BYU Women’s Services and Resources offers a series of post-mission transition workshops each semester to help returned female missionaries better adjust spiritually, academically and emotionally.
Many returned Mormon missionaries experience some sort of “culture shock” when coming back to school after teaching the gospel every day. Some struggle with the reality of being a student as they try to find new purpose.
“The mission is simple because you have one purpose, and everything we do on the mission is encompassed to that one purpose,” said Kyle Starr, a BYU student who returned from his mission to Brazil about two months ago. “But at home you have to focus on many different things and they’re all about you and your life.”
In a recent last workshop, BYU Women’s Services and Resources invited returned missionaries Nicole Dowd, Kimberly Sagers and Melba Latu to share their experience and advice.
Latu, assistant to the Associate Dean of Students, has been back from her mission for 10 years and said it’s useful to apply the same principles learned on the mission to life.
“Seek to build a relationship with Heavenly Father and serve others as much as possible,” she said. “But most of all, don’t become obsessed with finding a purpose. Learn how to trust Heavenly Father.”
For returned missionaries who feel like they are not changing people’s lives, Dowd advised them to “do things they love.”
“Learn how to balance everything,” Dowd said. “You can’t give 100 percent at school, church and home. But give each thing a little bit of purpose.”
As part of the culture shock between the mission experience and the home experience, some returned missionaries can face even more challenges as they try to relate to family and friends.
Kaitlin Cook, a sophomore from Syracuse, Utah, studying communication disorders, said she had “really high expectations” for herself when she came home from her mission to Reno, Nevada in December 2014.
“I was determined to keep the missionary schedule and habits,” Cook said. “As I became accustomed to a new routine, I fell hard on my face. Storms and winds of life completely threw me for a loop. I realized I wasn’t a missionary any more and I would have to work twice as hard to have the Holy Ghost in my life the way I wanted.”
Sagers said the gossip and drama and other pieces of the mission scene are irrelevant at home, and it can be hard to transition and know what to discuss. “Everything that was funny on the mission is not the case at home.”
But Sagers said returned missionaries can’t forget about their mission and not speak about it. “Like anything important in your life, you want to talk about it,” Sagers said. “Talking about my mission experience with my family helped me transition (from the mission).”
Missionaries can sometimes experience loneliness after being separated from a companion, and some have a hard time filling the gap. The workshop speakers told returned missionaries to take time to rediscover who they are as an individual.
“Spend time with family and friends to get used to (being) social and be yourself again,” Dowd said. “Give people time to adjust to who you are now.”
Starr said rooming with recently returned missionaries has helped him feel like he was not alone in the transition. He and his roommates talk about their missions and support each other.
“When you are on your mission, you are kind of famous,” Starr said. “Everybody knows who you are. You’re wearing a white shirt and tie and everybody notices you. But here at BYU, everybody is a RM or member, and it’s weird to not be unique, to not stand out.”
Starr said his biggest support in transitioning was his family. He said his parents asked many questions about his mission, which made the transition easier. “It kind of allowed the mission to come home,” Starr said. “With their questions and interest I got to bring part of the mission home. We kept the mission vibe around.”
Starr said it also helped him to focus on the fundamentals, such as praying, reading the scriptures and serving others. “I try to magnify my callings at church to continue to have those spiritual experiences and spiritually grow,” he said.
One of the biggest challenge for missionaries is to keep living the standards after exiting the mission bubble and experiencing life’s temptations.
“Having a consistent remembrance of the things that happened on your mission can help,” Starr said. “I keep in touch with the people from my mission and ask myself ‘Are you still doing the things that you asked your investigator to do?'”
Cook said it’s still an ongoing battle to keep up her goals. She said she’s learned life lessons both from her mission and from being home.
“I’ve made sure to pick a day out of the week to attend the temple or to move around my schedule to make sure I’m getting in scripture study,” Cook said.