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A recent study published by the Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) found that women who serve as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experience improved educational, personal, and professional outcomes.
“The findings will be of interest to educators, employers, and those who work with young women as they consider their future goals and aspirations,” said Susan Madsen, the UWLP founding director.
The study, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU), analyzed student data from their institution in Provo, Utah, examining the impact of missionary service gap time. BYU is uniquely situated to provide insights into gap time in Utah as a private university sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where a high proportion of enrolled students choose to serve missions.
In October 2012, the Church changed its missionary policy to allow women to begin missions at age 19 rather than the previous age of 21. Subsequently, an upsurge of female students chose to serve missions. Report authors used administrative data from students who enrolled within the five years before this change and tracked their data through 2020 to see how many graduated within eight years.
The study sample consisted of female students who enrolled at BYU before the mission policy change between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2012. It included 17,402 women, 29.1% of whom took gap time to serve a full-time mission.
The study reported that missionary gap time included three areas of benefit to female students: educational, professional, and personal.
Educational: Women who took missionary gap time were 33% more likely to switch to a major with higher earning potential than women who did not take gap time. Missionary gap time appeared to help women learn about their preferences and abilities and increase their confidence. It also showed empowerment to choose a college major that suits her better or opens new opportunities in the future. Some women who returned to college after missionary gap time received higher grades and took more credits, likely due to increased maturity and work ethic.
Professional: Women often switched to majors with higher earning potential following missionary service, which may better prepare them to secure financial stability later in life and benefit their long-term career trajectory.
Personal: Upon returning from missionary service, women noted benefits that included increased interpersonal relationship skills, courage, confidence, personal awareness, maturity, independence, and an increased ability to overcome challenges.
“We found that 96% of the women who took gap time for missions returned to college after their time away,” said Maggie Marchant, one of two report authors and assistant librarian at the BYU Harold B. Lee Library. “Returning to school following gap time increases the chances of academic success, which in turn influences employment opportunities and future income.”
The study showed that although missionary gap time can result in both positive and negative outcomes, there are actions that female students, their families, and university personnel can take to minimize the drawbacks and capitalize on the gains of gap experiences.
These include: 1) Young adult women should weigh the potential costs and benefits that may come educationally, professionally, and personally. 2) Before women start and complete gap-time experiences, they can make firm commitments to return to school. 3) Family and university advisors can augment personal commitments by encouraging women to return to school and support them in the process. 4) Scholarships and grants can be provided to students returning from gap time. 5) Flexible academic options such as a rolling application system or multiple deadlines throughout the year can be made available.
“The study showed that gap time experiences have the potential to change a person’s life trajectory and boost their understanding of themselves and the world,” said Jocelyn S. Wikle, a report author and assistant professor for the BYU School of Family Life. “Our study findings and recommendations will help individuals, families, and higher education institutions understand the impact of gap experiences and offer appropriate support to Utah students as they face decisions about embarking on gap-time experiences.”
To read the full report with references, click here. For more information about the Utah Women and Leadership Project, visit www.usu.edu/uwlp.