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Joseph Smith Academy enlivens history

NAUVOO, Ill. — History comes alive for students in BYU's Semester at Nauvoo as they stroll the streets where the Prophet Joseph Smith lived and taught.

"American history and literature, Church history and the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith all come together to give a complete picture of historic Nauvoo," said Emily Felt, a BYU sophomore from St. Anthony, Idaho.

She is one of a number of students enrolled in the program that is now gaining momentum as Church activities in this city increase.

From the beginning a variety of courses has been offered in Nauvoo. Each semester has included courses in U.S. history, American literature and LDS Church history as core classes. In addition, elective courses in humanities, art, math, human development, Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Mormon, pioneer life skills, teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, men and women of Nauvoo, music (University Chorale), etc., have been offered, depending upon the qualifications of faculty and the interests of the students.

Also from the beginning, as an important part of the learning experience of the students, the program has included an eight- or nine-day field study of Church history sites in New York and Ohio; a three-day experience in Missouri and Winter Quarters (near present-day Omaha, Neb.); a visit to Hannibal, Mo., (Mark Twain's boyhood home) and Springfield, Ill., (Abraham Lincoln country); and visits to the sites in and around Nauvoo important to Church history. All of what has gone on before has laid a foundation for the current program.

Housing for the program was made possible following the 1998 purchase by the Church of the Catholic monastery and the adjacent St. Mary's Academy building from the Sisters of St. Benedict, located across the street from the Nauvoo Temple block. The sisters still occupy the monastery and will for the next year or so until a new facility is built in another location in northeastern Illinois.

The acquisition of the academy was timely for the BYU program. Increased demand for missionary housing limited housing for students after the winter semester of 1998. That year, the academy was purchased by the Church, and BYU was given permission to offer both fall and winter semester programs in the facility. Larry Dahl of the BYU faculty and his wife, Roberta, were asked to move to Nauvoo and direct the program for the next few years.

The facility, re-named the Joseph Smith Academy, is now not only home to the BYU semester program, but also houses offices for Nauvoo Restoration Inc., and the Nauvoo Stake Family History Center. The Joseph Smith Academy boasts a 600-seat auditorium (used for community functions as well as Church and BYU functions), a full-service kitchen/cafeteria operated by BYU Food Services, dorms for about 120 students, faculty apartments, a full-size gymnasium, exercise room, classrooms, office, faculty office complex, library, study hall, computer labs, recreation room and student lounges. It is an old building, but one that is loved and well used by those who occupy it.

The first semester in the Joseph Smith Academy was conducted in winter semester 2000, with 41 students, about the same number of students attending the previous six winter semesters. The current semester is the first time a fall semester has been offered. Currently enrolled are 103 students, 87 young women and 16 young men, with six of the young men and three of the young women being returned missionaries. Students range from freshmen to seniors and come from all over the United States. About one-third of the students are BYU students; several are Ricks College graduates.

"The BYU Semester at Nauvoo is a rather intense educational experience with regular academic expectations coupled with an abundance of service, educational, and cultural 'hands on' learning activities," said Brother Dahl. "To be happy and successful here, students must come with a healthy degree of self-discipline in scheduling their time (study time, bedtime, social time, service time), and with seriousness of purpose academically and spiritually. For students who have not been away from home before, and perhaps have not experienced the academic rigor expected of university students, homesickness and some academic discouragement can dampen the spirit and enthusiasm that should attend such an opportunity."

Congeniality — a pleasant, cooperative, "easy-to-be-entreated" approach to life—is also a prime consideration. Living together, eating together, attending classes together, traveling together, having activities together, worshipping together, for four months sometimes requires an extra dose of compassion and unselfishness.

The BYU Semester at Nauvoo program began six years ago as a pilot program under the auspices of BYU Travel Study. Dr. Milton V. Backman, emeritus professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, while serving a short-term mission in Nauvoo, conceived the idea of having a semester program here. With the support of BYU Travel Study, the administrators of Religious Education at BYU, and the Managers of Nauvoo Restoration Inc., the first semester was held in Nauvoo during winter semester 1994, with Dr. Backman as the director. For the next five years, each winter semester, the program operated, with faculty and students living in the homes on the Nauvoo "flats," homes which housed the senior missionary couples during the busy tourist season, but which were available during the winter months. Classes were held in the LDS Visitors Center.

Faculty members during those years included retired professors in various fields and some retired professors who were serving missions in Nauvoo.

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