Peter McCullough, 20, remembers well his freshman orientation program at Wyoming Catholic College: 21 days of backpacking and trekking through the majestic wilderness in the Landers, Wyo., area.
Since then, the Washington state native has served as a leader with the college’s ongoing Outdoor Adventure Programs. Part of his duties include taking care of the college’s equipment center, which offers the latest outdoor supplies for students to check out for use in the great outdoors.
“It’s been fantastic,” McCullough says. “As a leader I am in charge of putting trips together and planning where we are going.”
McCullough has been impressed with the school’s dedication to fostering a love for the outdoors that goes beyond freshman orientation. Throughout the academic year, the school offers several four-day weekends where students are encouraged to go on planned outings.
This could include horseback riding, camping or rock climbing in the fall. It might be a ski trip in the Wyoming backcountry in the winter or fly fishing on a mountain stream in the cool of spring.
When the Wyoming Catholic College Class of 2011 receives their diplomas next year, the new graduates will have spent a lot of time together in the great outdoors. This first graduating class have backpacked together, climbed mountain faces and pitched tents in some of the West’s most scenic country.
Wyoming Catholic College opened its doors to 34 students in 2007. It was the vision of then-Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Cheyenne to establish the first Catholic college in Wyoming. With its classical liberal arts curriculum, which follows the Great Books program, combined with hands-on outdoor experiences, the college hopes to educate the whole person in three dimensions: mind, body and spirit.
Matt McGee, the director of the outdoor program, says that the college’s commitment to the outdoors is truly unique.
“The strong Catholic education, the great books academic with the outdoor leadership training makes for a really strong, integrated curriculum for our students. In particular, our outdoor programs provide an opportunity for us to bring students out of their comfort zones and face some challenges and learn their strengths as they go through that process,” McGee notes.
He adds that the wilderness provides a natural setting for students to step up and become leaders among their peers.
“The challenges of the wilderness environment provide a rich opportunity to develop their leadership skills both in terms of being able to work with small groups to accomplish their goals and a chance to practice basic leadership skills. It is a rich environment for students to test their skills.”
McGee has been impressed with the camaraderie and sense of community that the students form on the college’s outings. One of his favorite stories: A small group of freshmen helped one of their own as she struggled up a mountain peak. The student had asthma, and the group stopped their hike to help her. They decided that the best thing to do would be to lighten her backpack load. One by one, her fellow hikers took some of the contents out of her pack and added it to their own. The student was able to continue on to reach the summit.
“The bonds that the students form in experiences like these are very, very strong. The chance to work together and help each other is indicative of the program. It is not about the individual reaching the summit, but about the group,” explains McGee.
McCullough says that an equally important part of the college’s outdoor outings is the spiritual element. If a trip requires the students to be away on a Sunday, the college arranges for a priest to go with the group for Mass and the sacraments.
Father James Walling, a chaplain at Wyoming Catholic, got his first taste of outdoor adventure in the fall of 2009. The Father of Mercy priest carried his 50-pound backpack just like the rest of the students for the three-week freshman orientation.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Father Walling says. “The heavy backpack was pretty challenging, but everyone helped each other through it.”
Father Walling was impressed with the reverence the students showed on the trip, where Masses were celebrated in some majestic locations. Armed with just a simple Mass kit, Father Walling celebrated the Eucharist on a large rock at the peak of a mountain.
McCullough says it’s hard not to see the beauty of the faith in the midst of God’s creation. He said that the chaplains do such a good job of drawing this connection.
“I always was trying to relate a spiritual message to the experience of the day,” explains Father Walling. “If we were crossing a river, I tried to tie in the journey of the Israelites. Or if we were traveling up the side of a mountain, I would point out the importance of the Transfiguration.”
McGee says that it’s this combination of the spiritual, physical and the intellectual that makes Wyoming Catholic College a valuable experience for students.
“We look to these students to be leaders when they graduate, whether that is in their professional career or in their communities or even in their local parish. We see the outdoor program as being a real asset in the formational experience of our students.”
Eddie O’Neill writes
from Green Bay, Wisconsin.