Wyoming Catholic College is marking its 10th anniversary this school year — a milestone that reflects the appeal of the school’s distinctive combination of a Great Books curriculum and strong formation in the Catholic faith with outdoors learning, according to current and former school officials.
“These 10 years have kind of validated us in the world’s eyes and given us a standing among colleges in the country that have some similar programs to ours,” said Glenn Arbery, the college’s president.
Wyoming Catholic College, whose official founding is Aug. 25, 2007 (date of opening with the first students), is one of the newest additions to the small group of faithfully Catholic colleges in the United States. It is perhaps most similar to Thomas Aquinas College in California; both schools have a Great Books program. But Wyoming Catholic stands out for its near-total ban on campus cellphone use among students and its heavy emphasis on the outdoors as a place to nurture the virtues, grow in faith and better appreciate the timeless wisdom of the classics of Western literature.
“The Wyoming part is very important to what we do. We couldn’t do what we’re doing anywhere else,” Arbery said. The first thing students encounter as they arrive at the Lander-based facility is God’s beautiful creation: All freshmen spend 21 days in an intensive wilderness survival program, where they hone time management and communications skills and bond with their classmates. Students participate in some kind of an outdoor trip — camping in the desert, ice climbing or building snow caves — on average once a semester during their four years at the school.
Isaac Owen, a senior from Oklahoma, said he found the outdoors a place to encounter God. It was in the desert in Utah, he says, that he had a profound sense of God’s love for him.
“What happens with the students when they go up into the mountains is this experience of the beautiful and the sublime that begins to change them and open up their inner horizons,” Arbery said.
The wilderness trips are also opportunities to connect in a deeper way with the texts they study in the classroom. During a trip down a river, Owen recalled, he and his classmates read Huckleberry Finn. Likewise, they brought The Divine Comedy with them on another trip, where they were lowered into a hole in the ice — reminiscent of Dante’s literary account of his descent to hell.
Faith is central to the curriculum. Students study theology every semester. Those studies are deeply integrated with all other areas covered by the Great Books, ranging from philosophy and languages to math and science, according to Arbery.
“We’re sort of finding our feet,” Owen said, when asked about his perspective on the anniversary. “We’re getting more set with who we want to be, what we want to be identified as.”
For Owen, the college’s young age was an advantage, allowing him to leave his own personal imprint on it. He says he focused on integrating the Great Books curriculum with the outdoor trips.
Sofia Horton, a freshman from San Diego, agreed that current students have an opportunity to leave their personal mark on the school, as it moves into the formative years that build upon its founding.
“Students do have a more personal relationship with the school because it’s younger,” she said.
For Horton, the college’s outdoor curriculum was a major draw, offering her something she knew she would not be able to get at any other college that had a similar traditional liberal arts program.
“I was extremely charmed by the outdoor program here,” she said.
In addition to supporting their classical education and faith formation, the outdoors program helps the students learn to become leaders, according to Thomas Zimmer, a professor in leadership and outdoor education. During wilderness trips, each student has an opportunity to be the leader of the day. That teaches natural leaders how to be followers and students who prefer not to lead when to step up — valuable skills for later in life.
Zimmer also sees the anniversary as validation for the college. “It is awesome to have that 10th year,” he said.
Besides connecting students to the real world, the college aims to also connect them to each other by restricting cellphone use. Only the student prefects in the dorms are allowed to have them on campus, according to Zimmer. The absence of cellphones, he said, creates an environment that fosters great conversations among students and their professors. Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, one of the co-founders of Wyoming Catholic, says that the college’s 10-year anniversary confirms that there is a “hunger” among young people for this kind of environment.
In particular, he said young people hunger for an education that stresses the Great Books program free from modern distractions like social media and other technologies.
Bishop Ricken, the former bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming, said the idea for the college was born out of a dinner conversation with Father Robert Cook, a local parish priest, and Robert Carlson, a professor in the humanities. Carlson had been a student of John Senior, an influential Catholic scholar at the University of Kansas who had written about the importance of re-engaging contemporary students with the natural world.
In the course of their conversation, Bishop Ricken voiced his concerns about how the Church was losing its young people. He wanted a way to reach out to them. Inspired by the work of a Newman Center at a local Wyoming college, they decided to launch a summer seminar on Catholic thought, which served as a pilot program for Wyoming Catholic College.
“Just beginning a college is a huge enterprise, as you might imagine, and we started from scratch,” Bishop Ricken said. One of the first steps was an advertisement in the Wyoming Catholic Register seeking land. Bishop Ricken said the founders received 47 responses: Seven wanted to give the college the land it needed; the others were offering it at a discounted price.
“I would say these 10 years have really been a succession of miracles,” the bishop said.
For Joseph Spiering, a graduate who was a member of the first class, the challenge of being part of a new college was part of its appeal.
“Growing up in Wyoming, I was kind of raised as a pioneering spirit. I was raised just outside of Yellowstone. I’ve always appreciated the outdoors. I’ve always helped my dad with a lot of jobs and work that was difficult and challenging, and I really appreciate a good challenge,” Spiering said. “When I heard that this college was opening, I thought that that challenge would be just the right fit for me.” Spiering credits Wyoming with helping him advance in both his personal and his professional life. As the college has matured, so has he: Spiering recently married and is on his second major job out of college, handling communications and government affairs for the Wyoming Contractors Association. “It shaped me professionally because it opened up doors that I never thought would open,” Spiering said.
The college plans to formally celebrate its anniversary at commencement this spring. Though still in the planning stages, the main speaker has already been selected: Joseph Pearce, a prominent Catholic author.
As the college marks its anniversary, it is also looking ahead to its future and is planning its expansion. The college had its largest freshman class and its largest enrollment ever this year (175). And in the near future it hopes to acquire a new classroom building, according to Arbery.
Soon after the college’s launch, Bishop Ricken was re-assigned to the Diocese of Green Bay, but he says he has closely followed the growth. “I’m so impressed at what they’ve been able to get done. It’s really incredible.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.