LANDER, Wyo. — What difference can a Catholic college imbued with a Western spirit and fidelity to Christ and his Church do for the New Evangelization?
Wyoming Catholic College has a simple answer: It wants to take the reins and lead.
Wyoming Catholic is embarking on a new chapter since its founding in 2007 as a four-year co-educational liberal arts school located amid the rugged beauty of the Rocky Mountains. With the retirement of co-founding president Father Robert Cook, Kevin Roberts now guides the future of Wyoming Catholic and must make the decisions that must not only grow the college, but fulfill its mission to educate disciples of Christ and leaders for the Church. Roberts has a background in education, both at the K-12 level and the university level. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Texas at Austin, co-founded and led John Paul the Great Academy in Louisiana, and is currently writing a biography of Archbishop John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States.
The Register spoke with Roberts about his vision for the coming years and asked him why he believes Wyoming Catholic College is the most unique Catholic college in America, and a leader for the New Evangelization.
What are your goals for Wyoming Catholic? Where do you see your goals as president?
The first goal is to travel — and do as many things as I can to promote the college and let people know what makes us distinctive. The second goal flows from that. That is to increase our enrollment. We were given a 668-acre ranch just south of Lander, and we will build a campus there in time, but in the interim, we need to grow the campus from its current enrollment of 112 students to 200 students, and that is going to take us a few years.
But the third and final goal is to really position the college in the New Evangelization.
What are Wyoming Catholic’s core strengths? What sets it apart?
The identity that is robustly Catholic is certainly a way we would characterize Wyoming Catholic College. But it’s when we couple that with our Outdoor Leadership Program that I think it is very safe to say Wyoming Catholic is absolutely one of a kind.
With three graduating classes under our belt, we can point to a clear and profound track record of our graduates going out and being leaders in the Church.
Why is the Outdoor Leadership Program so essential in forming students to be leaders?
As you know, leadership cannot be taught. Leadership is learned through experience and making mistakes. I know that from my long experience in the Boy Scouts, which I had to end recently. But it was absolutely vital for me in my leadership experience.
At Wyoming Catholic College, we follow the same mindset, so that a freshman, who has been on campus a total of over 72 hours, after getting some first aid and wilderness training, goes out onto an expedition with eight of his or her peers. Each one of them is selected as a leader for the day. They actually plan their route, they plan their re-provisioning, and they handle the entire day and its decisions. There is the safety net of older leaders on that trip, but that young person is making the decisions for that day.
They get back from that three-week trip and start working with horses, which, of course, is a required course for freshmen. They also have to take an additional four outdoor trips a year for the remainder of those four years. What happens is not just the gaining of further outdoor skills, and the further enrichment of this great community, but, most importantly, the students are honing these leadership skills.
But you have to have the academics, and, for us, you also have to have that physical formation.
On academics, what do you believe sets Wyoming Catholic apart?
This is resoundingly important — I could not emphasize it enough — our curriculum is completely integrated. So every student who ever attends Wyoming Catholic College will take exactly the same set of courses as the other students. There are no electives, and the reason for this is twofold: that is a true liberal arts curriculum. We learn from the masters of history, particularly the masters of Western civilization and the Church. And the second thing is the students are talking about the same thing, they’re asking the same questions and trying to answer the same questions. That characteristic academically set us apart.
What’s the spiritual and sacramental life of the college like?
The sacramental life is very robust at the college. We have two full-time chaplains. We offer holy Mass twice a day every day of the week. Saturday and Sunday is a little different. Confession is heard twice a day, Eucharistic adoration is every weekday, and we even do some components of the Divine Office, depending upon the day. We do celebrate holy Mass in both forms: the ordinary and extraordinary forms. We have a number of students who are partial to one or the other. But one of the neat things about the spiritual life of Wyoming Catholic College is that students appreciate the beauty of each form of the Mass.
The spiritual life is available wherever they go — any sacrament they are looking for is available almost at any time. The second thing is that the quality of liturgical music in all of our Masses elevates their souls to a place they have not been before.
Wyoming Catholic got some national attention over its cellphone and Internet policy. As many Catholics know, Benedict XVI praised the digital environment and social media. Even Pope Francis is on Twitter. So, clearly, it is a good thing. But what is Wyoming Catholic’s reason or philosophy behind limiting that access for students?
First of all, our cellphone and Internet policies are not incongruous with the clear encouragement of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis for Catholics to be engaged in a “culture of encounter” — to use Francis’ words — including in social media.
But the most important part of the policy for us is not social media. Our students do have controlled Internet access in which they may choose to be on Facebook a reasonable amount of time. They may even have Twitter accounts. The college institutionally does. I’m a big social-media guy; I’m engaged with all these things.
The point is: What we are trying to emphasize, with the cellphone policy, is one-on-one, in-person, face-to-face relationships without the distraction of technology. So what we are trying to do is enrich what we and other peer schools would call “the great conversation” by not sitting in the coffee shop or living room or the dining hall and always checking what’s on our cellphones. The result is a campus culture that every single visitor says is the most human, joyful place they have ever been.
Just for fun: You get to keep your cellphone, right?
[Laughing] I get asked that question all the time. Yes, I do. I use it mainly for business. I think I’m very good, particularly when I get home, at putting it away. Students and faculty know that if they want to reach me after hours to call me on my home phone.
Where is Wyoming Catholic now in the accreditation process?
We are now pre-accredited with the American Academy of Liberal Education, and had it not been for that organization’s decision to pull out of the U.S. Department of Education system, we would be in great shape for accreditation with them.
So when [the academy] made that decision — which was entirely out of our control; it had nothing to do with us — we realized that we needed to seek accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission.
The best-case scenario is that we will be pre-accredited with HLC one year from now, and that will make the transition for our graduates onto graduate schools much easier. Although I will say that has not been a huge issue, because of the academic reputation of our college.
Can you tell me more about how you see Wyoming Catholic’s role in the New Evangelization?
Students who finish at Wyoming Catholic College, I would say, are far better prepared early in their career to step into leadership roles at parishes, schools and companies. We have students who have started businesses and Catholic businesses that will support Church efforts and Church apostolates.
Our students are extremely articulate — both in written and oral forms — and I think that is one of the key components of the New Evangelization, which is not only writing and speaking well, but also in very savvy ways.
The third and final point is that I actually think it is very appropriate that a small Catholic school in Wyoming would be leading the New Evangelization, because of the Western culture of working hard, playing hard, knowing your books, being a great neighbor and understanding how to do a number of things in the outdoors. These are all ways that are very appealing to people. Ultimately, the New Evangelization is about finding ways to engage our brothers and sisters in Christ in a conversation.
Ultimately, what is the vision of Wyoming Catholic? What do you want your students to carry away after four years of this education?
We want our students to be well-formed, engaged Roman Catholics — what I would call intentional disciples. We want them to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is so profound that it draws others to the faith — not simply because of their love of Christ, but also because they are very well-balanced, normal people who are models for other folks.
That is the mission of Wyoming Catholic College. If we do that, and we’re doing it now, then anything we do in the future really is secondary, because colleges and schools are people before they are buildings. That is the single most important thing we need to do.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.