Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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Retiring President Reflects on Wyoming Catholic College’s Genesis

After nine years, consisting of planning for and then serving as president of Wyoming Catholic College, Fr. Robert Cook is retiring. Dr. Kevin Roberts will become the College’s second president on June 1. Fr. Cook spoke recently with The Cardinal Newman Society’s Tim Drake about the College’s genesis and his time there.

How long have you been with Wyoming Catholic College?

The idea of the college started in 2004. We opened Wyoming Catholic College in the fall of 2007. I’ve been here for six years, but connected with starting the college for nine years.

How were you selected for the job?

I was pastor of Our Lady of Fatima in Casper. I was selected by default. Then-Bishop of Cheyenne, Bishop David Ricken, Dr. Robert Carlson, and I put on a weeklong program – called the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought – in Casper for the leaders of parishes in Wyoming. We taught them college classes and had discussions. The last night as the Bishop was closing the week, he said, ‘You’ve been happy about what’s happened this week. I want to be known as an education bishop. At this point we don’t have a Catholic college in Wyoming yet.’ People began asking him about the idea and saying that the region needed it. He didn’t realize that he had said the word “yet.” I’m confident that the Holy Spirit said that word. In talking about the summer program, Dr. Carlson said that he would love to start a Catholic liberal arts school, but needed the help of an administrator. He said that if the administrator had a legal background, that would be good, and if he was a priest, that would be better. They both looked at me and the Bishop asked, ‘Would you like to do this?’ I thought it was a providential offer of great import.

Starting a college from scratch is no easy task. How did you do it?

I don’t know. Everything kept coming together. Bishop Ricken, the co-founder of the College said each time we decided to take a step forward, that we had to make sure it works or we wouldn’t be able to go beyond that step. Through the Catholic Register we asked the people of Wyoming to make suggestions of locations for the College. Forty-eight sites were suggested to us, but it was the 49th suggestion, in Lander, that fell together. When I went there to check it out, the local parish said that we could use their hall to feed the students, that we could use an empty school building for classrooms, and grounds where we could put our dorms. Also the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was in Lander, and 23 miles away a junior college was willing to expand their equestrian program to allow our students to do horseback riding. We put together our website, and as soon as it launched, people began applying to be professors. I had 178 applications for our teaching positions. We were able to get very good instructors to come. We had angels who helped us with our finances, and we also attracted good students. I felt like I wasn’t doing much of anything, but just accepting what kept coming to me and allowing it to grow and blossom.

How many students did you start with, and how many do you have today?

When we opened we had 35 students from 23 different states. We were a national school right away. Today, we have 117 students. In total, we’ve had students from 43 different states. We had 31 graduates this year.

Wyoming Catholic College has become widely known for its distinctive outdoor leadership learning component. Was this always a part of the vision for the College?

Yes and no. The initial vision was to take students into the mountains to invigorate their imaginations so they could read better, and so that they could learn the consequences of decisions that they make, because they are immediate in the wilderness. When we engaged NOLS, we realized that we could train these students to be leaders. There’s a problem with teaching leadership. You can’t. Unless you’re a leader, you cannot learn what it means to be a leader. What had been offered to us was the opportunity to take students to the mountains over and over again, where students were leaders for a day. After they were trained, they could do it by themselves. It was a true solution to the problem of teaching leadership.

 Two years ago, we changed from using NOLS to the organization Solid Rock Outdoor Ministry (SROM), located in Laramie. They are a Christian outdoor leadership training school. They handle our freshman three-week trip. The College has a director who takes care of organizing, planning, and arranging trips for the remaining four years. All students are required to take the initial Freshman Wilderness expedition and a week-long winter trip. In addition, they are required as sophomores, juniors, and seniors to go for a minimum of two weeks. If they desire, they can go for four weeks each year.

What have been the highlights for you?

One, of course, has been watching the students grow from being freshmen to mature adults by the time they are seniors who really know how to communicate clearly, think critically, and understand that they are being called by the Lord to take leadership positions during the remainder of their lives. The College has worked better than I thought it would, in such a short time. The College has quickly become known, and has such an excellent reputation across the country. The fact that a college could be kept alive and healthy in the midst of the great recession was a highlight because I thought it providential. Finally, the quality of teaching has been quite amazing. Their abilities, for a startup school, I think are unusual.

What’s been the biggest challenge during your time as president?

The recession. Adding a class each year required new teachers, new personnel, and new dormitories. We did that during a time that was difficult for everyone in the country. Again, people recognized the importance of the school and the need for it, and they came forward to support it even if it required sacrificial giving on their part.

What’s next for Wyoming Catholic College?

One of the great blessings this College received is a new president who will not be just a good president, but a superlative president. There are two things that the College is now talking about – they’re talking about growing it to about 180 students at its present location, and also eventually building the campus for about 400 students in the ranch valley that was given to us. Dr. Roberts is the man to do that, and intends to do that.

Will that growth dramatically change the College or its program of study?

I don’t think so, because it will still be a small enough group of people that we can retain the tremendously strong community ties that students, faculty, and staff have with one another. We decided not to grow more than 400 students in total in order to preserve a true sense of community.

This spring you went from the high point of graduation to the tragic loss of student Christine Allen, who was killed while hiking with her family on their way home after graduation. How would you respond to those who would point out the risks inherent in Wyoming Catholic’s outdoor program?

We spend a lot of time in risk management, and work with students on that through the entire program. It is not possible in life to guard against every accident, but we put a tremendous amount of effort into protecting students as well as they can be. Beyond that, the Lord is still in charge of life and death. Our program surely will continue because its benefits are so obvious and great.

Tell me a bit about your graduates.

We’ve graduated three classes for a total of about 100 graduates. They’ve come from all over the country. We’ve received our greatest number of students from Colorado, California, and New Hampshire. Of our graduates, about 27 percent have gone on to graduate work. The rest have gone into other work or careers. Two of our graduates are currently in religious life; another five are discerning religious life. About nine have gone on to do some sort of missionary work.

Is there anything that distinguishes a Wyoming Catholic graduate?

They are unafraid to engage the world and unafraid to talk to people eye-to-eye and with an open heart. That has been something that many people have commented to me about, is how engaging our students are. They talk to others without any hiding or shying away. I would also say that they all have a real joy with their life and about what their life has brought them so far.

What’s next for you?

I have agreed to stay with the new president for one year and travel with him to meet our benefactors and friends so that we can have a smooth transition. My current thinking is that after that, I may go to the New Mexico Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert.

Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.

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