LANDER – Wyoming’s second four–year college had an exciting weekend recently when it welcomed 54 new freshmen back to ground level after they spent three weeks bonding in the towering nearby mountains.
Wyoming Catholic College, entering its 15th year of existence since its incorporation in 2005, welcomed its 13th freshmen class during convocation and matriculation ceremonies Aug. 25-26.
The Catholic school is unusual in many ways. One of the most distinctive is its outdoor program. Each fall, all the incoming freshmen go on a 21-day wilderness expedition in the mountains. This year the freshman women went into the Wind River Mountains near Lander and the men traveled into the Teton Mountain Range outside of Jackson.
Another unusual aspect is that all the students take the same liberal arts-based curriculum through their four years at WCC. The program is based on the “Great Books” — a collection of books considered to be classic literature — and on Catholic Theology.
A third unique aspect of the college is its horsemanship program. All students are required to learn to ride and it is an integral part of their learning.
The student body now has 179 students who come from all over the country. Enrollment should surpass 200 students within a few years, with an ultimate goal of no more than 400.
There are 19 faculty members, with Dr. Kyle Washut of Casper serving as the acting dean. The school contributes about $4 million a year to the Lander area economy, according to Paul McCown, the controller. The school uses buildings all over Lander for its housing and activities. The main location is in downtown Lander, where it leases three large two-story buildings. It also uses a classroom building that formerly housed students of Central Wyoming College. A former Legion Hall has been re-named Frassati Hall, and serves as a dining room and student union.
Most religious activities are at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, but the College also has its own small chapel inside the Baldwin Building at 306 Main Street.
The idea of a four-year Catholic college in Wyoming was first conceived by former Wyoming Bishop David Ricken, now of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He mentioned the idea during a summer program on Casper Mountain in the early 2000s called the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought.
Bishop Ricken was joined by Casper College Professor Dr. Robert Carlson and Casper priest Fr. Bob Cook in figuring out how to bring the school to reality. They, along with a committee that included Ray Hunkins of Cheyenne, entertained 49 different statewide proposals for where to locate the college before settling on Lander, Wheatland, and Cody. The final choice was Lander, partially because a ranch was donated to the effort by Francine Mortenson in memory of her late husband Chris. Chris Mortenson had been a prominent real estate developer in San Diego and had purchased their Lander ranch from Johnny and Jeanne Lee some years earlier.
The Lander community also raised $300,000 in donations, which a group called the Cornerstone Committee gave to the school with no strings attached. The local Knights of Columbus donated $100,000 of that total.
In 2007, the school had hired a small faculty and enrolled its first class of 35 students. It took just two years from its first public mention to when students were taking classes. On May 14, 2011, history was made when 30 of those original students received the first diplomas from Wyoming Catholic College. Wyoming could honestly say it now had two four-year college campus programs.
Folks at the college are not shy about referring to some amazing coincidences (miracles?) or at least, answered prayers, which have occurred along its amazing journey to reality.
The school does not participate in any federal student loan programs and refuses to be beholden to anything from the federal government. It survives on student tuition and a large national base of donors. Without any alumni or even an established donor base to draw upon, the college succeeded because of thousands of people believing in the need for such an institution.
By 2011, with the help of millions of dollars in donations from more than 10,000 families across the country, the college achieved its goal of providing graduates with a high-quality education.
Fr. Cook, the first president of the college, liked to point out that although the first name of the college is Wyoming, it was truly a national college with students from 37 different states by 2011.
Although just about everything involving WCC is conservative in nature, what it provides for its students is a “liberal, classical education” based on the Great Books.
Current president Dr. Glenn Arbery says that all students take the same courses.
“Our mission is to form the whole person, physically, mentally, and spiritually. We want our students to take away as much as they can carry of the great wealth of the tradition of Western civilization. We need young people confident in their faith and capable of independent thought, and we know that each of them will have the ability to think clearly and to speak effectively. They will be leaders out in the greater world,” he says.
The college received its full accreditation last fall. From day one, perhaps the most interesting things about the college, among many unique aspects, has been the outdoor leadership program.
WCC originally teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander to provide an outdoor education course for incoming freshmen that educates them on the outdoors, teaches them leadership plus bonds them together as they continue their studies for four years. In recent years, the school had enough faculty and graduates that it now provides its own leaders for these expeditions.
It is easy to write a column about the nuts and bolts of the college but the key thing anyone discovers when involved with WCC is the quality of the students.
My wife Nancy and I know these are the finest young people. Incredibly smart and pure of heart, they are almost impossibly optimistic. When you deal with these future leaders, you know the future is in good hands.
As a disclaimer I should point out that I was on the original local committee that helped get the college started.
This is a true Wyoming success story. This is the story of how a miracle can occur out on the frontier, even in pessimistic times.
President Arbery reminds that the college is always looking for donors and this would be a wonderful time to give. The college web site is www.wyomingcatholic.edu and its mailing address is Box 750, Lander WY 82520.
Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books. His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.