Wyoming Catholic College, a liberal arts school of some 200 students in small town Wyoming, announced a new president last week: Kyle Washut, a theologian who has spent most of his career at the college.
While the appointment might not have made headlines, Wyoming Catholic College is an unusual place — a small school with a unique vision for Catholic education.
Founded in 2005, Wyoming Catholic has built its liberal arts program largely in the vision of the “integrated humanities” — an effort to combine a primary source “classical” curriculum with time in the outdoors, and with music, poetry, stargazing, and dancing.
The college occupies of the main street of Lander, Wyoming — and Washut told The Pillar that space is part of its unique approach to Catholic education.
Washut himself is a unique figure in Catholic education. He earned an associate’s degree at a Wyoming community college, and has worked in missile silos and coal mines. While he earned a licentiate from the International Theological Institute — and is now completing a doctorate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake — Washut insists he is an “accidental academic.”
So what is Wyoming Catholic College? Does it matter in the life of the Church? Where is it going?
The school’s new president spoke with The Pillar at length.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For readers unfamiliar with Wyoming Catholic College, what is your mission, and what about it makes your college unique?
Wyoming Catholic College was founded as a four-year integrated liberal arts education, which already is pretty unique out of the range of Catholic schools that are out there.
Here at Wyoming, everyone takes the same course of studies, with no electives. That’s certainly one of the unique marks.
We’re in the Cardinal Newman guide as one of the faithful Catholic schools, and that’s also an important point.
But I think the thing that is most unique about Wyoming Catholic College is that we are deeply aware that Catholic education comes from a tradition that began with the Desert Fathers and the monastic tradition — that's where the Catholic school tradition first emerges.
What we’re trying to do in Catholic education is to reclaim that notion of turning into the wilderness for an encounter with Christ that transforms you, which then leads into careful scholastic study and training and communication of that.
First, a kind of rootedness in this experience of the natural world that gives rise to delight, and that's mediated through poetry, as a transformative experience where Christian education begins.
In that sense, we're taking education seriously as a spiritual work of mercy — as beginning with a healing experience of Christ and flowing into the other faculties of the person.
Of course, that sounds very beautiful, but please help me to break it down. I know that the outdoors education is very important at Wyoming — is it fair to summarize Wyoming Catholic College as a great books program with camping? Is that that sum of it?
[Laughs] Well, I think there is something true about that. There’s something importantly true about that.
I think about something that John Senior said, who is well-known as a director of the short-run Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. He used to teach here in Wyoming in a program, together with Ron McArthur, the founding president of Thomas Aquinas College.
Senior used to say to McArthur that the crisis in Christian education is not just a crisis in reason. It is true that there is a crisis in reason — a crisis in society’s conviction that we can know the truth, or communicate the truth, or have certainty about truth.
But there’s something before that in Christian education. Namely, that an encounter with the truth involves a kind of encounter of the whole person —- a kind of experience and love of reality that needs to come before a kind of careful reflection on it.
That’s true in life. Right? You encounter something, you know it, you love it, and then you think about it.
So our students experience that very practically from the beginning, because they come here as freshmen, and then we send them out into the mountains for a three-week backpacking trip.
They’re out there, on that three-week backpacking trip, learning the skills to be in nature, but also learning to slow down and take note of the world around them.
There's a chaplain in every group, so they're having daily Mass. There's confession. They take a 24-hour day where they just sit in silence out there in the mountains. They have time for prayer every day.
In the third week, they get a point on the map, and we say: “Hey, the bus is picking you up there.”
In smaller groups, they navigate their own way out of the mountains. So when they come back to our campus, the first thing we do is to start reflecting on that experience.
We say: “All right, you had this really intense experience. We want you to think about — within that intense experience — what were the moments of just utter delight that you had out there?”
Was it the sunset? Was it a late night conversation? Was it looking up at the stars? Was it just feeling dry after the rain stopped? Those are great things.
And so they identify it. And the first writing assignment is to write about that experience. And in that context, they’re going to memorize some poems, and they’re going to work on telling some stories, while they’re writing about their moments of delight, they’re learning to communicate it.
[Editor’s note: Washut told The Pillar that WCC has made accommodations and exceptions for those students with physical disabilities who have applied to the college.]
The goal is that as they learn to communicate this moment of delight, they begin to connect to it — that it wasn’t a delight just 'cause it felt good — it wasn’t some kind of superficial joy — but that, instead, their delight tapped into a kind of spiritual rejoicing, a sign that we are more than just our bodies.
And that realization — that this kind of delight in the body points to something beyond the body — is the beginning of wonder, amazement that God’s made this for me.
That quest — that wonder — gives rise to the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church.
From there arise questions: Is there a truth? Can I know it? What's the nature of reality? Who is God? How has he revealed himself?
And so there is a progression — “Experience, delight, wonder, wisdom,” as Father Francis Bethel recently put it.
That progression is basically the motto we try to adopt for the three-week trip.
But we don’t stop there. We do a week-long winter camping trip in Grand Teton National Park in their freshman year, again, trying to go back to the same thing.
And then we'll do a semester-long horsemanship experience, and then for one week of each semester, for the rest of their time at Wyoming Catholic, they’re going to go out and do some kind of outdoor experience, whether it's rock climbing, slot canyoneering, more backpacking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, more work with horses, etc.
It seems to me that this encounter with reality is also manifested in the location of your campus. Wyoming Catholic is an ‘urban campus’ in a sense, because it occupies the buildings of the main strip of Lander, Wyoming.
While Lander is fairly remote, the college is integrated into the town, rather than separated on a hill or a closed campus or something like that.
Is that part of what you’re talking about as well?
You know, when Catherine Doherty talks about the hermit tradition — the desert tradition — she makes a comment about the hermitage, which she calls the poustinia. She says the hermitage really only has three walls — that the fourth wall is open, so that the poustinia is integrated into the world around it.
And it seems to me that at Wyoming Catholic College, we’re inviting people out into the wilderness in some senses. We’re inviting them out for this kind of immersive encounter with reality.
But our encounter is not a kind of cloistered encounter. It's an encounter that opens up onto the community that we find ourselves in.
Lander itself is remote, and a little bit difficult to get to. But we are constantly going back and forth with the community here. Our students are walking up and down Main Street all day.
We have a coffee shop on Main Street — it's like the living room of the college — where people are coming in and meeting students, and students are talking with each other, and it's this place for encounter.
We really want to be integrated in Lander, so that the college is a contemplative retreat, but one that sort of opens out into evangelization,
I mean something of a Transfiguration moment, right? They go up onto the mountain and they have this encounter with Christ, but then you've gotta go back onto the plane. You've gotta go back and engage.
So there are various images we can use, but this sort of integration with the town is part of that rootedness in reality that we're going for. Absolutely.
Much of what you’re talking about is drawn from the writing of John Senior, who developed the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, along with Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick.
But it seems to me there is a critical difference between their program at KU, and yours at Wyoming Catholic — while many of their students did not come from religious backgrounds, most of your students come from practicing Catholic families. How does that change the project?
Yes, the reality is that the vast majority of our students come already devout Catholics. Nevertheless, it is the case that we remain fundamentally convinced that, with what we offer, someone can come and encounter this, and be transformed.
But because of our remoteness, and the difficulty of getting to us, people drawn to this and enrolling here are going to be self-selecting, that’s just part of the reality.
With that said, there is a way in which all of us need to be further transformed — further converted to Christ. And I think that even if one is raised in a devout Catholic family, there remains a need to be given an opportunity for a deeper encounter, and called to daily conversion again.
There were people from devout Christian families who fled out to become desert fathers, because there was a radical encounter with Christ which transformed them.
And I think we see that as being really part of what we're trying to offer.
You know, we have a technology policy by which we ask the students to give up their cell phones. They check them in, they don't have them while they're here. We don't have wireless internet in the dormitories. There's a kind of a break —- even if you’re from a devoutly Catholic family.
Perhaps you've been tuned in, you've been locked into internet debates about Catholicism or internet apologetics, or you're constantly concerned about what's happening all over the world. And because of that, you’re not thinking about the reality right in front of you — there’s a way in which it becomes sort of an abstraction.
And so even for devout Catholics, to be able to come and make it real and intense, and have a kind of lay novitiate in a kind of radical way, is important.
It’s also true that because many of our students come to us already as practicing Catholics, we’re able to do things that the IHP could only dream of being able to do. We’re able to have our technology policy, we’re able to integrate daly Mass, and a life of faith, in ways the IHP couldn’t do, because of the backgrounds of the students.
I’m impressed that the IHP’s curriculum was not only great books, or good books and poetry, but also waltzing and stargazing, and folk music, and other elements of culture. Is that a factor in your life in Lander?
John Senior describes two aspects of fundamental education: gymnastic education and poetic, or musical, education.
And he says that the gymnastic education includes things like horseback riding and stargazing, dancing and singing. Just learning to be in your body, as an image of God, and expressing yourself in these ways that are fundamental parts of human culture. And so we really build that in.
And of course, Wyoming is an amazing place for stargazing. We have horsemanship, and we do dances. In fact, we have several dances a year.
At our patronal feast, for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, we have a ball with just waltzing and formal ballroom dances.
At our other dances, we have country dances and folk and swing dances, and various other things as well.
We had an Easter celebration on Divine Mercy Sunday, this last April, where we went to the park and we had live music, with the students playing violins, and we did country contra dances.
And I thought: “Yeah, this is the restoration of culture, a real human encounter of friendship.” And rekindling this sort of fundamental human culture is really important, and also just fun.
You have had the chance to see many students spend four years at Wyoming. What transformation do you see affected over the course of a student's tenure at Wyoming Catholic College? What sort of man and woman do you produce?
One thing is that you end up seeing students become profoundly comfortable in their own skin.
They're able to really be who they are, partly because the community is so small. They’re able to form friendships and be able to be authentically themselves. They’re not trying to fit into the crowd. At this point, on our 200-person campus, they’re able to really know everyone and be themselves.
Just being able to be yourself for four years is an incredible experience. Being able to be yourself for four years when you have Christian mentorship, and you're learning to think and read more carefully, is extraordinary.
You know, it's a fairly intense academic program here. They're reading all of the major mysteries of faith, especially under the teaching of the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas. They're studying Latin, they're doing advanced mathematics. There's talking about how faith and science relate to each other.
Because of all that, there's a precision of thought that really emerges as well, a kind of careful scrutiny, and an ability to read incisively — to see what's at stake in an argument, and to judge arguments.
But there’s also an ability to communicate in a loving, effective way. All of our students, when they're seniors, give this 30-minute oration — standing before the whole school, and the community gathered to listen to them, and these are amazingly articulate, thoughtful, passionate young men and women.
But underlying all of that — they're not just brash apologists, they're not purely abstract thinkers — but they embody this really kind of earthy goodness.
Tolkien would say that sort of a Shire-like quality, right? They know the good of a hobbit-like life.
And so while they're really articulate and really intelligent, there's a kind of groundedness and appreciation for the simple goods of community and family as well.
The vast majority of our students are forming amazing Catholic families, or discerning religious vocations, many of them are going into teaching.
And I think they're trying to bring that sort of full encounter with Christ into reality in their own ways, right?
Sort of the way Hopkins will say in the poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”
“for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.”
I think our students really distinctively manifest that, because they've radically encountered Christ in reality in a distinct way.
Let me ask about the way you fit into that.
There is a perception right now that classical or liberal education is elitist and for the wealthy.
Your background strikes me as interesting because it defies those things. You're a college president who started at community college and you worked out in the world, you’ve had a relatively broad and interesting set of experiences.
How does that inform your judgments about where the college is, and where she should be going?
I've always said I'm kind of an accidental academic.
I grew up in Wyoming, my dad was the police chief in my hometown. We were pretty fundamentally rooted, in my mom's family, in ranch life, there were a lot of ranchers in our family.
In some ways, I am a very typical Wyoming boy, on the more blue collar side of things.
I was blessed to meet some amazing mentors, the founders of the college, Dr. Bob Carlson, Fr. Bob Cook, Bishop David Ricken, all of whom were able to direct me from Casper College to go to Thomas Aquinas College.
But I never thought of myself as pursuing a career in academia — that was never really intended.
I went to study theology at the ITI in Austria, because again, good mentors encouraged me to do that. And because they said that if I wanted to work at Wyoming Catholic College, I should probably have an academic degree.
But in some ways, from the beginning, Wyoming Catholic College has always been intended for the student who has the zeal to take up its ethos. We're not principally trying to make elite educators. We have brilliant students that do come here and we love them, and we're proud of them when they go on to graduate school.
But what we're really looking for is students who are capable of encountering reality. And that encounter with reality requires a kind of humility, which is opposed to a kind of elite status, in some sense.
We have a financial aid program where we're capping student debt. We want to meet the need of any student capable of coming here, so that they come out with less debt than you get when you buy a car, because this education is a common good.
We see this work, this college, as a work of mercy.
In fact, education is a work of mercy, as opposed to a sort of specialized pursuit. The Church calls it a spiritual work of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are always a little bit harder to understand than the corporal works of mercy.
If you feed the hungry, that's really clear, right? But the spiritual works of mercy are also ways of extending Christ's love to real concrete needs of the human person. Now, they're the spiritual needs of the human person, so they're less obvious.
But the Church has been sending missionaries all over the world for centuries to do Christian education, because that's a Christian work of mercy.
Obviously you can't save someone by education alone, Cardinal Newman is very clear on that. But education is a way of extending the work of salvation. And because of that, it's something that's good for everybody, and it will be good for the universal Church and for society as a whole, to see more people who've received Christian education in that mode.
That's really what we're going for. We're working for a kind of common good of the Church, the extension of Christ's power into our learning, into the way we think, into the way we communicate, into the way we think about mathematics, and the way we think about literature, and the way we think about science and the modern world.
And that is just good for anyone. That's not an elite good, that's just a Christian good.
If there are Christians who are willing to take four years to do this incredibly intense thing, we want to share that.
And if there are people who just want to come visit and share it a little bit, or come on a week-long outdoor trip with us, or just listen to our lectures and just get a taste of it, that's also good.
As much of this as you can do is good, and we wanna share it as broadly as possible.
That's a very long way of saying our program's not an elite academic program, though we really want talented students. Our program is challenging, but it's challenging in the way the Gospel is challenging.
When the college was founded, it was named Wyoming Catholic College - the founders chose to connect it concretely to a place, to the local Church and community of Wyoming. I’m sure you’ve thought about what it means that this college has a connection to this particular part of America. But how does that play out?
The college was founded by the bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, by Fr. Robert Cook, who was a priest of Cheyenne, and by Dr. Robert Carlson.
Fr. Cook subsequently went on and is now a hermit in New Mexico, in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. He's living in a little adobe hut in the middle of the new Mexican desert.
But from the beginning, Fr. Cook always had these Benedictine monastic tendencies, and Bishop David Ricken always had these very strong pastoral hopes for the college.
And so, sort of from its founding, the college was sort of doubly-rooted in the goal of a monastic contemplative experience and a kind of pastoral service to the local Church.
Being in a small town like Lander means that we're very closely involved with the local parish, which is the Catholic center of town.
The parish has allowed us to have several small residence halls built on the parish property. Our students frequently go to Mass at the parish Mass, we schedule the class schedule to facilitate students' ability to either attend the parish Mass or the chaplaincy Mass during the day.
Our students are involved in volunteer work with the parish. St. Stephens Indian Mission, on the Wind River Reservation, is right outside of Lander, and our students and faculty help with the catechesis on Sundays out there.
We try to invite priests of the Diocese of Cheyenne to come out and serve as outdoor chaplains for us.
We want to keep looking at other options, to fulfill that mission as we go forward.
And, you know, I mentioned that Easter party we had — well, that happened at City Park.
People from the community were there, and they wanted to join us for dancing, we welcomed them in.
Our lectures are available to the community. And again, our students are walking up and down Main Street engaging with the community as we go.
We don't have a program in the sense of sending thousands of missionaries doing some executed program, but rather we aim to transform these students with this incredibly authentic education, rooted in the Christian tradition, and they're just gonna bear fruit in virtue of that transformation.
And we're going to leave the door open to that fruit bearing even while they're here. We're not closing that fourth wall of the hermitage, so to speak.
I visited Wyoming Catholic College last year, and I noticed that there was very little discussion of politics among the students and the faculty — no one tried to engage me about the 2024 election, which was, in my experience, kind of unusual.
Is it by design that secular politics are not a principle point of discussion? Or was it just an accident of things that I happened to notice?
I think in fact, it is just a certain consequence of the retreat moment, right?
Namely, our students are not online with any kind of regularity. They're not on their phones, so they're not constantly bombarded by the news of the day.
By all means, we want our students to be able to engage with political life when they leave — as is fitting of good, responsible Catholic citizenship.
But when we study America and the political principles here, we're gonna go back and read John Locke or Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle. Or when we're studying America, we're going to read the “Federalist Papers,” and we're going to read “Moby Dick,” and we're going to read Alexis de Tocqueville, and then try to look for those fundamental foundational principles that are important for the student to grasp.
And then hopefully with their time in the wilderness, and their reflecting on what it means to be a leader, they know that there's a kind of prudential judgment [that] is necessary when they're applying the teaching of the Church, and the American political tradition, to the modern political situation. That’s a question of prudence, and we want our students to be capable of that prudential judgment, and they don't get that by characterizing fundamentally Catholic identity or intellectual identity as a partisan political issue.
How does it work financially to run a college for 200 kids?
We are a radically mendicant college.
Part of being committed to education as a work of mercy means that you're also dependent on the works of mercy of people who can be generous.
We fixed tuition so that if all of our students were able to pay the full tuition, we would basically cover the operating cost of the college. And that works because we’re not building buildings, and because we have faculty and staff willing to make many sacrifices.
It works because there is a commitment to running this as a work of mercy.
But as it turns out, most of our students are not able to pay the full tuition, room, and board cost because they're from large Catholic families, and lots of blue collar families.
We're utterly reliant on donors to make up for that — donors to come in and provide scholarship funding and donations because they realize this is a kind of public good for the Church. This is gonna ultimately redound to the good of society as a whole.
And so that's where we are — a radically mendicant model of education.
You have now roughly 200 hundred students. How big can you get while maintaining that model? Do you hope Wyoming will reach 1,000 students?
We are always going to be intentionally small.
To say that we're at 200 doesn't mean that somehow we're failing at admissions goals. Our real hope is to peak somewhere between 350 to 400 students — but we want that growth to be slow and gradual and deliberate.
The reason we choose that number, around 350, is that studies have shown, that if you're a bellhop at a hotel, you can remember roughly 300 faces and have a relationship to roughly 300 guests. And so for every 300 guests, you need an additional bellhop.
The community here is an instrument of the education, right? The conversations, the friendships between the faculty, the faculty and the students, and the students themselves, those are what put the education forward.
Again, it's not sort of an abstract project you can do, you know, it's a concrete group of relationships and friendships, and we're relatively convinced that kind of friendship and that kind of community can only exist between so many people. And so we’re really not seeing ourselves as much bigger than 400, ever.
Even the fact that we want our students to work with a particular horse, and have a relationship with that horse — that’s a factor.
In the next few years, we can see ourselves growing from 200 to 250, and then going up from there.
I think that in some ways the model we can think of is a Benedictine monastery.
The Benedictine monastery itself was for a small group of committed monks, and it flowered into the various cultural rejuvenations that happened around it in the community, or on the outside, with pilgrimages to it and the rest. We're thinking of that as the model for Wyoming Catholic College — an intense group in community, which is the instrument of education for a small group of young men and women, which bears fruit in various outreaches and cultural overflows into Lander, and then the wider Church at large.
There is a swath of people who are familiar with Wyoming Catholic College because a fictional version of the college is the setting for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer-prize finalist play written by Will Arbery, who is the son of Glenn Arbery, WCC’s outgoing president.
Do you see the college in the play? Is there something true about WCC there?
Yeah, I think that there is, there is something true about that.
In some ways, the play was inspired by Will’s experience with our students’ conversations. But, you know, he was also drawing on characters from further back in his experience of Catholic conservative culture.
The characters represented there were not solely Wyoming Catholic college student characters by any stretch.
But they're kind of an amalgamation of various trends and movements within the Catholic, generally conservative, tradition.
Certainly just the explicit sort of intense focus on politics — and on Trump — highlights that there's a way in which he's trying to put some of the character of Wyoming Catholic College into conversation with things that do not principally dominate the conversation at Wyoming Catholic College.
You walk into the lunchroom and you're not going to principally see people debating Trump, sitting around the campfire or at the lunch table.
That being said, to the extent that “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” was an accurate capture of ranges of position and characters in the general Catholic conservative landscape, then, yeah, there are reflections of our students there, right? They're part of that, to the extent that Will takes certain artistic licenses, and tries to make certain points.
You know, he's a creative person trying to give his own insight into a distinctive culture that he's trying to reimagine for his audience.
Finally, if a pastor or a school principal wants to take something from the culture of Wyoming Catholic College in their own ecclesial environment, where should they start?
Well, we have some concrete things that are programmatic of us — Let me hit those first. Maybe it feels a little commercially, but I think they are some real help.
We have an outreach program, COR, Catholic Outdoor Renewal, and we do week-long wilderness experiences, very often with a chaplain, for youth groups, for high schools, for seminaries, for colleges, for groups of young men and women, father and son trips, mother and daughter trips. And they're amazing. They're terrific.
We'd love to make those available to Catholic parishes, Catholic schools. I think we can do really great, great things with that.
Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music, with Paul Jernberg, is based here in Lander, Wyoming.
Paul is our composer-in-residence and he's actively composing music and doing sacred music workshops, for ways of carrying on the tradition of sacred music, but in the vernacular, in a way that's coming out of the broader Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, to make reverent, beautiful liturgies that are of particular concern for the Church today. And they do music director training.
So that might sound like a commercial, but I think they're real helps and real goods.
But there are other things that we do here, because we’re convinced that they’re good.
The more you can learn a poem in your CCD program — memorize a poem altogether and recite it, and just take in the sound and have that be part of the way you are forming Christian imagination.
It is really important to go out stargazing with the youth group, and just look at the stars, which I realize in some urban centers is very hard. But if you can do that, it's amazing. You can teach your youth group to waltz, for that matter.
Also, for anyone, weekend retreats where you commit to a digital detox, to giving up your cell phone and staying off the internet — I think these kind of moments are tastes of encountering this culture … of encountering the real birthright of Catholic Christians in the heritage that we have, and learning to see, again, learning to celebrate again, learning to be in community again.
And if people would like us to come do a workshop with their Catholic school teachers or something, we would also be glad to do that. This good we have is meant to be shared and be taken up in as little pieces as people can.