Great books in the great outdoors
To say there’s something unique about Wyoming Catholic College may be a bit of an understatement.
Founded 10 years ago, this faithful Catholic college is turning hearts and minds to Lander, Wyo. — literally the middle of “God’s Country” — on the southeast edge of the majestic Wind River Mountain Range.
“There has been a lot of excitement about Wyoming Catholic College,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “It’s an absolutely wonderful institution which has focused on the classical approach to higher education.”
Wyoming Catholic College’s objective is to offer a world-class, traditional liberal arts education in a holistic way: mind, body and spirit. The college’s approach is truly unique. All freshmen begin their studies by going on a three-week leadership camping trip.
“Learning leadership in the outdoors is ideal,” said Anthony Vercio, a WCC senior from Virginia. “In the back country, the consequences of your decisions can be seen so much more clearly. You really get to know yourself — your strengths and weaknesses.”
While some colleges offer voluntary three-to eight-day camping trips, no other U.S. college has a mandatory 21-day camping trip for freshmen, which incorporates leadership training as well as Catholic spirituality.
In August, the college welcomed its largest-ever freshman class of 58 students, bringing its student body to 150 students. Each of those freshmen will complete four camping trips in their first year. Upper-class students are required to go on at least two weeklong camping trips per year. The spiritual aspect of these trips sets WCC apart.
“We get to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God in relationship with other people,” Vercio explained. “It transformed the way I looked at the world.”
Every WCC freshman is also required to take a one-year course in horsemanship — learning to ride and care for horses.
Vercio said working with horses is a great lesson in humility. “It’s sometimes difficult to work with a horse,” he said. “You learn how to lead others to do what you would like. You have to learn to work with them with understanding.”
WCC’s curriculum builds on itself over four years. The classes are chronologically organized as well as integrated among themselves. All students read the Great Books of Western Civilization. They take classes in history, imaginative literature, writing, reasoning, oratory, Latin, art history, music, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, spirituality, outdoor leadership, and horsemanship.
“We integrate everything we do,” said Dr. Kevin Roberts, a member of Legatus’ Denver Chapter who has served as WCC president since 2013. “Every student takes the same set of classes, so they can have the same foundation for great conversations. This is what we call the ‘cultivation of wonderment.’”
Judy Barrett, a WCC board member and a member of Legatus’ Napa Valley Chapter, sees real value in this kind of education.
“Many people don’t understand the value of a liberal arts program,” said Barrett. “Somewhere along the way we became results-oriented as a country. But many employers don’t want someone who comes from a specific background. They want someone who has the capacity to think. A liberal arts program prepares students for everything.”
“The reality is that a student who gets a strong liberal arts degree tends to do better as their career progresses,” he said. “They have thinking and communication skills, which aren’t common. It usually pays off.”
WCC is unmistakably Catholic with a predominance of Benedictine and Carmelite spirituality. There are daily opportunities for Mass, Confession and Eucharistic adoration. Non-Catholic students are invited to take part in the spiritual formation available on campus.
“We take theology classes all four years here,” said Laura Kaiser, a senior from California. “So you see a development within yourself each year. Each year that passes, you move on to another level of the spiritual life.”
All WCC faculty make a public profession of the faith and oath of fidelity at the beginning of each academic year. Non-Catholic faculty make a pledge of respect to the Catholic Church and her teaching authority.
Established in 2005, WCC opened its doors to 34 freshmen in 2007. The school is on a roll with its largest class ever this fall and, despite its relatively small size, WCC is drawing interest from across the country.
“One of the things that excites me is that WCC is developing a national reputation,” Barrett explained. “Students come from everywhere — and it has been this way since the beginning.”
The college’s graduates have taken diverse career paths. The most common has been teaching in Catholic or charter schools. Some have gone on to work in Catholic/Christian ministries, enrolled in graduate school or entered the religious life. Others have started businesses.
“We have one student who is getting a Masters in engineering,” said Roberts. “One is going to law school. One graduate is the press secretary for the lone member of Congress from Wyoming.”
WCC’s campus is in downtown Lander, a west-central Wyoming city of 7,500. Although its campus isn’t considered permanent, Roberts says the college will stay in Lander instead of moving (as originally planned) outside the city to Broken Anvil Ranch, a 600-acre property owned by the college.
The school is moving toward full accreditation. One year ago, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) granted WCC “candidacy” status, which means the college’s credits are now accepted at other colleges and graduate school programs.
Candidacy status also qualified WCC to receive federal grants and student loans. However, because of the political climate, WCC’s board decided unanimously to forego all federal funds.
“Even student loans carry some strings for participating colleges, and there is real concern that regulators have been trying to push policies regarding sexual activity and transgender students that conflict with Catholic teaching,” Reilly explained. “So if a Catholic college can do well without federal aid, it’s a great way to safeguard Catholic identity.”
Roberts said WCC will never compromise its Catholic identity.
“One thing is for sure, we will never sign anything that will cause us to go against our beliefs,” he said.
In its 10th year of operation, Wyoming Catholic College continues to form students as bold and joyful witnesses in the public square.
“If you’re looking to be pushed to grow in mind, body and spirit, this is the place to be,” Kaiser said. “WCC pushes you outside your comfort zone. You are allowed to grow more than you ever thought possible — and this growth is towards God.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.