PROVO, Utah — Mikaela Merrill was in the middle of her fall semester at Brigham Young University when she abruptly altered her college plans and signed up for a Mormon mission.
Now, she's studying around the clock to learn the proper intonation of Mandarin and is just weeks away of fulfilling her dream of serving as an overseas missionary.
Merrill is among thousands who have taken advantage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries: from 21 to 19 for women; and from 19 to 18 for men. She is part of the first wave of younger missionaries at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
Church leaders and outside scholars believe it could be a landmark moment that leads to many more women serving missions. Rather than having to leave at age 21 — when many women are about to start careers or perhaps are contemplating marriage and starting families — Mormon women can now serve missions shortly after high school.
Applications for new missions are up two-fold since the surprise Oct. 6 announcement, and the reaction from women has been overwhelming. About half of all new applications to go on missions have been from women, the church says; previously, only 15 percent of missionaries were women.
"It's a great blessing for a woman to be able to go a little earlier," said Merrill, a 19-year-old from Castle Rock, Colo., who completed her application within two weeks of the church's announcement. "It gives us a lot more the options to go with schooling and stuff. I'm really grateful for the change."
For many Mormons, these missions are considered rites of passage, broadening their perspective on the world, strengthening their faith and helping prepare some of them for future leadership roles within the church. Young Mormon men are expected, but not required to serve missions. Historically, women have faced far less pressure to serve. Men serve two years while women go for 18 months.
The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, already has sent ripples across Mormon culture, affecting college enrollments, how university athletic coaches recruit and likely how young people date, marry and start families. The effects are most pronounced in Utah, home to 1.9 million members and the church's worldwide headquarters.
Elder David Evans, executive director of the Mormon church's Missionary Department, told The Associated Press that the move is aimed primarily at giving young church members more options to fit a mission in with other plans for college, military and marriage. That, in turn, will allow the church to expand its reach by having more missionaries.
"This is self-empowering to them," Evans said. "They now get to choose when they serve."
It should also prevent disillusionment among young members, especially those who begin college at non-Mormon schools and stray from the church's beliefs, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership and missionary numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.
Keeping young people in the church has been a growing concern for many religions, including the LDS. Many religious scholars refer to this as the 'Internet problem,' a reference to young people's faith being shaken upon finding information online that challenges church doctrine or that highlights controversial parts of church history, such as polygamy.
In making the announcement in Salt Lake City, church apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said, "The Lord is hastening this work, and he needs more and more willing missionaries."
There are expected to be about 90,000 missionaries worldwide by end of 2013, up from 58,600 currently, Martinich said. Long term, the change should lead to increased membership for a church that reported having 14.4 million members worldwide as of January 2012. Missionaries convert about five people per mission, Martinich said.
Colleges are expecting to get a double whammy in the next year or so: losing missionaries already planning to go along with the new, younger missionaries. For example, Utah State University is estimating losing 1,900 students and $9.5 million over the next two years.
College sports coaches have been forced to reassess their rosters due to the rule change, too. Some recent BYU football signees have decided to go on missions straight out of high school, rather than playing a season and coming back after the two-year absence, as many did before.
Armand Mauss, a retired professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University, said the lower age limit is part of a movement in the church to enhance the importance and visibility of women.
"There is a sincere effort by this group of new and emerging male church leaders, from apostles on down, to do everything possible and feasible to do to show how much they value the contributions of women in the church short of actually giving them the priesthood," Mauss said. He thinks the church will eventually lower the minimum age for women to 18.
Johanna Adams, a 22-year-old from Fruit Heights, Utah, headed on a mission to Taiwan, said she's expecting many more women to serve missions thanks to the flexibility.
"When you are 21, you are almost kind of set in your path," she said. "This gives you an option a little bit sooner."
Though women hold many leadership positions in the church, only men are allowed to be priests. A group of Mormon women have launched a new movement to shed light on what they perceive as gender inequality, urging women to wear pants to church last month. They now are organizing a letter-writing campaign to ask the church to let women lead opening and closing prayers at the church's general conferences.
Evans says the new rule will allow more women to undergo the life-changing and deeply spiritual experience of a mission, which will make them better wives, mothers and church leaders. It will also allow women to have a more normal social experience and not be worried about a mission interfering with starting a family. Missionaries are not allowed to date while serving, but Evans said upon return, "They'll know what they are looking for. I think they are going to find each other easier and better. I think it's going to have a very positive effect on future families of the church."
Amber Whiteley of St. Louis wanted to serve a mission but was married when she turned 21. In Mormon culture, missions have historically been viewed as secondary options for women who weren't married by 21, said Whiteley, who is part of a group of Mormon women advocating for more gender equality in the church.
"It's nice that it's not a second thought now," said Whiteley, a 22-year-old with a baby daughter. "It's nice to know that my daughter will be able to aspire to be a missionary first."