LANDER, Wyo. — Administrators and alumni of Wyoming Catholic College have only God to thank for the school’s unlikely survival and success.
The college began teaching students in the fall of 2007, only months before the country entered the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even established Catholic institutions began having trouble luring and maintaining gifts and tuition. Skeptics didn’t give the start-up a lot of hope.
Just more than five years later, graduates have embarked upon successful careers and are pursuing post-graduate degrees. Four have entered religious vocations, and two in this spring’s graduating class plan to join their ranks.
Financially, the college has exceeded expectations, with expenses for 2013 coming in 5% below budget and philanthropic donations at 99% of what was optimistically budgeted.
“This is God’s grace,” said Father Robert Cook, founding president of the college. “It’s not my doing.”
Rick Rollino, vice president of operations and finance, said the college finds itself in the black, with economic prospects only getting better.
In fact, the college is adding a variety of scholarship options and has plans for a new campus on more than 600 acres of donated ranchland south of Lander, a community of just more than 7,000 residents.
The average student comes from a traditional Catholic family and has, on average, five siblings.
“We recognize that a lot of Catholics come from large families that cannot afford tuition, so we are doing a lot of fundraising for presidential scholarships, and donors have responded profoundly,” said Matt Brasmer, vice president for institutional advancement.
Father Cook, who will soon turn 73, plans to retire to Christ in the Desert Benedictine Abbey in New Mexico after spending another year at the college to help orient incoming president Kevin Roberts.
The college enrolled 36 students in 2007, and today it has an enrollment of 117, with a goal of growing to about 400 students.
As the college plans its new campus, classes are taught in downtown buildings. An old VFW hall, bought by the college, serves as a cafeteria, and students live in modular housing on land owned by Lander’s Holy Rosary Parish.
“I was struck by this college from the time it began and have been following its evolution,” said Roberts, who is moving his wife, Michelle, and their four children to Lander from Lafayette, La., to serve as the school’s new president.
“He told us he plans to stay long enough to put all of his children through the college, and his youngest is three,” Father Cook said.
But Roberts said the commitment is longer than that. Asked how long he planned to preside over the college, Roberts said: “The rest of my life.”
Roberts, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas, is the first president and headmaster of John Paul the Great Academy, a coeducational preschool-grade 12 Catholic liberal arts school in Lafayette. The Cardinal Newman Society ranks the academy’s high school among the top 50 in the United States.
Roberts said he and Michelle are “cradle Catholics” and advocates of exactly the kind of classical education Wyoming College was founded to provide.
Featured in National Geographic as an “adventure town,” Lander’s rugged Rocky Mountain terrain is used by the school’s administration as a means of preparing students for rigorous academics.
“You can literally walk or ride a bike from town right into the mountains,” said Wyoming Catholic graduate Benjamin Block.
Freshmen begin with a three-week wilderness adventure, and the college creates additional wilderness opportunities throughout the four-year curriculum.
“Before we bombard these smart students with all of the books and readings they find in our curriculum, it is important to open their hearts with God’s first gift, which is nature,” Roberts said. “We first open their hearts, in a poetic mode of education, and what better place than the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming? We are so excited for the opportunity to live there.”
Students are immersed in the teachings of the Church as well as most of history’s greatest classic literature. A vocations school it is not. Among the rigid requirements for graduation, students must memorize 56 poems.
Each student graduates with the ability to read, write and speak fluently in Latin, which graduates say helps them better understand other languages. Alumni say the school taught them how to learn for the rest of their lives.
“I learned to speak to people and apparently interviewed so well that I was able to land a job that I really wasn’t very well qualified for,” said Peter McCullough, 23, who graduated in 2011 as part of the college’s first graduating class.
McCullough said he makes a high salary working for the federal Justice Department’s civil-rights division. He remains in Lander by choice, as he could take his career to almost any region of the country. He travels the United States investigating allegations of abuse, neglect and wasteful spending in federal bureaucracies.
“The school is very strenuous academically, and that can prepare you for just about anything,” McCullough said. “One day you are talking scientific theory in a classroom, and the next week you’re flying to Washington (state) to climb Mount Rainier. I don’t know of any other college quite like it.”
McCullough and other graduates stress the value of the 8-to-1 faculty-to-student ratio. Of the school’s 16 faculty, 14 have Ph.D.s, and the other two are in the process of finishing their terminal degrees. The college has 28 full-time employees. Administrators and alumni describe it as a “community” and a “family.”
“You will be walking down the street and run into a professor,” McCullough said. “The next thing you know, you, the professor and a few other students are having coffee or dinner and talking about geometry and Aristotelian theory. There is just so much community and support.”
Block is completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, and he said Wyoming Catholic did a great job of preparing him for graduate school.
“Before I began at Wyoming Catholic, I was skeptical of the outdoor program,” Block said. “To me, it sounded like physical education, which, in my opinion, is the least important aspect of an education. I came to learn that the wilderness program teaches you to wonder. As Socrates said, ‘Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.’”
McCullough and Block each said they remain in contact with former fellow students and professors by email and phone.
“It’s the most unique university in the country,” said Wyoming Catholic’s Brasmer. “We form the full person, spiritually, mentally and physically. Our goal is to make a huge impact on the culture and the Church to benefit all of society. We are creating a future of Catholic leaders.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.