An expedition into college life; Wyoming Catholic school sends freshmen on a 21-day hike into the wilderness

Young women on one of Wyoming Catholic College's Catholic Outdoor Retreat freshmen expeditions survey the countryside together in August. (Photos courtesy of Wyoming Catholic College)

At a small four-year college in rural Wyoming, entering freshman earn their first three credits deep in the woods, miles away from any classroom, textbook or computer. Their introduction to college is through a 21-day backpacking expedition in the wilderness.

Every freshman who enters Wyoming Catholic College is put through a grueling three-week hike that focuses on mind, body and soul. Students are graded on tasks as varied as their ability to put up a tent and how well they motivate one another. As freshman Dane Hagestad puts it, "It's essentially one of the most difficult courses that WCC offers."

The expedition is considered a graded three-credit course but the technical skills aren't the sole objective.

"At the end of four years, I can care less if the student knows how to set up a tent or knows how to kayak or knows how to rock climb," said Thomas Zimmer, director of the Outdoor Leadership Program and assistant professor at the college. "What I care is that what they learn on that rock-climbing experience ... and that they take that to their future vocation."

"We believe when we throw in real leadership experiences, which the outdoors becomes a classroom for, that they're going to be the best at their vocation," he added. "The outdoor classroom cannot be replicated anywhere else in today's modern society."

Situated on the southeastern edge of the Wind River Range, the college's campus is spread across Lander, the mountain town Wyoming Catholic College calls home. The college owns a variety of properties, including a downtown campus center, a church and a 600-acre ranch where students can learn how to ride horses.

Since its inception in 2005, the college's goal has always been to offer an education that "embraces the Western culture and what made and what makes Wyoming unique. But first and foremost is the [focus on] mind, body and spirit," according to Rob Meeker, assistant director of the Outdoor Leadership Program.

"The ultimate goal, not only at WCC but outdoor education in general, is to use the outdoors as a classroom for people to learn about themselves, to grow in leadership, grow in communication and grow in what we call tolerance for adversity which is dealing with the roadblocks in your life," said Zimmer.

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