The air was dry and hot as friends and family made their way into the Pronghorn Center on Friday night for the 2021 Gillette College Commencement.
The half-filled bleachers surrounded rows of empty black folding chairs that awaited the 2021 graduating class.
Eventually, a soft drum beat ushered the graduates into the building while a livestream showed their entrance on the large screen that hung above the stage.
Loud applause broke out as the Pronghorn powder blue gowns with gold sashes began filing onto the carpeted hardwood of the Pronghorn Center. Parents, siblings, friends and loved ones waved and cheered while holding out their smartphones to film the graduates.
A year after having to forgo in-person commencement, the graduating students of the class of 2021 got to experience a traditional ceremony that included walking the stage, something the class of 2020 missed out on.
Or had to wait for.
Gillette College hosted an online commencement last September for those who earned degrees and certificates in the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters that was met with lukewarm response from some graduates who could only walk across the stage in their imaginations.
But some of those 2020 graduates made up for it this year, as the college allowed conferred graduates from spring, summer and fall 2020 to participate in Friday’s ceremony.
“We have come together to celebrate each of you as you are recognized for your educational accomplishments and obtaining your degree,” said Gillette College Vice President Janell Oberlander to the caps and gowns in front of her. “Especially during these challenging times, you have succeeded in this achievement and deserve to be celebrated.”
Northern Wyoming Community College District President Walter Tribley welcomed the 2021 President’s Award winner, Kindall Seamands, before the degrees were handed out.
“As a former Pronghorn women’s basketball athlete, she easily could have given up on her academics here at Gillette,” he said. “But instead, she utilized her drive to engage in other activities on campus.”
Seamands accepted the award and spoke to her class with poise. As a freshman, she came to Gillette College to play basketball. But when sports were unexpectedly canceled after her lone college basketball season, she decided to stick around for one last year.
While much of the first year of her college life was spent inside the Pronghorn Center as a student athlete, her most meaningful moment on that hardwood court may have come Friday. Not wearing a basketball jersey, but a graduation gown.
“College is what you make of it and enhanced by the people you meet,” she told the crowd, before thanking those who helped her along the way, including her roommates, “for the tough love, Walmart trips and spicy chicken sandwiches.”
Lighting a fire
The commencement address was given by Jen Crouse, the district’s vice president of student affairs. She told of the most formative years of her life, beginning and ending with the smell of blueberry muffins.
It was her first smell of those muffins as a kindergartner when she learned the hard way that she was, as a fellow kindergartner put it, too poor for school breakfast.
Then again as an adult, when after overcoming a life-threatening car crash as a teenager that left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she began her first day of post-college work as a social worker.
Arriving to work her first day, she opened her car door to the smell of blueberry muffins wafting through the air. That familiar smell, and the knowledge of how much she overcame, told Crouse she was where she needed to be in life, and the fire that started in her as a child helped her make it there.
“I challenge you to find your inner fire when things get tough,” Crouse said to the crowd. “And believe me, they will.”
In all, more than 100 Gillette College graduates walked across the stage Friday night.
Throughout the world, the past year was marked by the impact of COVID-19.
As a minor wrinkle in the grand scheme, but a major blow locally, the college had its sports program cut last summer in the middle of the pandemic.
The decision had major implications for Seamands and other student athletes who had to decide if they wanted to stay at Gillette College without sports or start over at another college to try and extend their playing days.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” Seamands said about sports being cut. “When you get that call, you don’t believe it at all … then it finally hits you but it’s like, where do I go now?”
But she decided to stick it out and is now on her way to the University of Wyoming to finish the academic stretch of her college career.
Basketball is what brought her to Gillette College, but it was everything else the school had to offer that convinced her to stay.
“I had a lot of encouragement to come back here and I’m glad I did,” she said.
After the last graduate’s name was called, confetti fell and they all eventually made their way out of the arena. On the outside steps, tables with wrapped blueberry muffins lined each side of the walkway, an on-the-nose reminder to be on the lookout for those reassuring signs in life.
For many of the graduates entering the workforce and heading toward a new future, it served as a reminder that despite the challenges of the past year, walking out of the Pronghorn Center as Gillette College graduates was right where they needed to be.
Less than two weeks removed from announcing the winners of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize, the Integrated Test Center is at the center of another large, high-profile carbon capture project.
Gov. Mark Gordon announced Friday afternoon that the ITC, attached to the Dry Fork Station coal-fired power plant about 10 miles north of Gillette, will host one of two large U.S. Department of Energy CO2 capture research projects.
The DOE has awarded $99 million to a pair of projects to continue their research into Phase III of the federal Demonstration of Large-Scale Pilot Carbon Capture Technologies program.
One of those Phase III projects is from a group called Membrane Technology and Research (MTR), which was awarded $51.7 million. Along with other non-federal financial backing, the project will bring more than $64 million in research money to Wyoming and Campbell County, Gordon said in a press release announcing the funding awards.
“I am delighted that Membrane Technology and Research has been selected to move forward in this process, and that Wyoming has been chosen to host this important demonstration of cutting edge carbon capture technology,” Gordon said in the release. “This is exactly the type of research that was envisioned when the ITC was developed and Wyoming will continue to support these efforts.”
CarbonBuilt, a research team from the University of California-Los Angeles, was one of two teams of scientists that tested their CO2 capture and reuse technologies at the ITC last summer. On April 19, CarbonBuilt was announced as one of two XPrize winners, with each getting a $7.5 million award.
While the XPrize was the first tenant to sign on to do research at the ITC when it was conceived in 2014, it only has scratched the surface of the facility’s potential for being at ground zero of developing solutions to a global CO2 emissions problem, said Jason Begger, managing director for the ITC.
The MTR project will be much larger than what the XPrize teams brought to Wyoming. With two large and five small test bays, the ITC can scale with the size of projects. MTR will operate in the large test bay and use about 10 megawatts worth of flue gas from the power plant, according to the release.
The facility began in 2014 with a $15 million appropriation from the Wyoming Legislature. With access of up to about 20MW of emissions, the ITC is one of a few research facilities that can use large amounts of flue gas.
What it means for the ITC
Attracting large, high-profile research projects to the ITC doesn’t do much for the Powder River Basin’s coal industry, but it does position Gillette and Campbell County to help the area realize a goal of becoming a hub for carbon research, said Rob Godby, an energy economist with the University of Wyoming.
The announcement of the MTR research project “definitely vindicates the ITC as a useful research location, because they’re doing the research there because of the commercial flue. It’s hard to find a CO2 stream with that (volume).”
It’s one of two places in the nation that can give researchers access to large amounts of flue gas from a power plant. The other is the National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, Alabama.
A project of MTR’s size on the heels of the XPrize, along with other research already committed to the ITC, helps solidify the facility as an asset that can help spur more research around it, Godby said.
“For that reason, it could in the future lead to spin-offs in additional research,” he said.
“The bottom line is, the ITC was built to develop this sort of research,” he said. “There are only two places in the country to do this at scale. If research is going to be done, Gillette could be at the center of it.”
Thunder Basin High School senior Danielle Jones, 17, will represent the state of Wyoming at the 2021 National Youth Science Camp. Gov. Mark Gordon selected Jones from applicants across the state.
Jones, who goes by Dani to most of her friends, is a self-professed science nerd.
She’s taken numerous science courses while at TBHS: Biology 1, Chemistry 1, Physics, AP Physics and Forensic Science, though she said that last one was “just for fun.”
She’s the co-president of the Thunder Basin High School Science Club, and she said her participation the club is likely a big reason for her selection.
“The application specifically mentioned having previously shown a competency within the scientific field,” Jones said. “This year especially our team has done really well. We won the state Wyoming Academic Challenge, we won state Science Bowl, we won regional National Ocean Science Olympiad and we won state science Olympiad. We’re going to nationals for three of those competitions.”
Like those competitions, Jones’s month-long National Youth Science Camp experience will be virtual this year instead of tucked away in the mountains of West Virginia, the camp’s traditional home. That came as no surprise to Jones.
“I definitely was really sad even before I applied,” she said. “I knew that it was going to be virtual, and I was really sad about that because this opportunity also has backpacking and just being outdoors a lot, which I really love.”
But she’s keeping an optimistic outlook.
“I think it will still be an amazing experience,” Jones said. “One nice thing about it being online is that I’ll still be able to work throughout that month, and they have the weekends off this time. We can really go out and do things and enjoy our summer in our own way because we’re not able to be present at the camp. I think it will still be an enriching experience, maybe not the full potential it would have had beforehand, but still an amazing opportunity.”
The camp will require her to participate in at least four hours of online activities each night from 4 to 8 p.m. The sessions will include “world-class lectures, directed studies and seminars with prestigious and up and coming STEM professionals who are making a difference in their fields of study and changing the world for good,” according to the camp’s website.
The rest, Jones said, is shrouded in secrecy because the camp wants to surprise students to make sure they stay engaged. As a result, no detailed schedule for the camp exists.
Jones is looking forward to it, she said. She loves science activities and sharing those experiences with like-minded students.
“I knew that it would be a really good group of kids and a good place to meet people,” Jones said. “Even though it’s online, I know they want to have opportunities for kids to reach out to their fellow peers, and I’ll be able to learn things. On their website, it says that 50% of all students that go there say that it helped them with their career choices, and I think that that would be a great opportunity to help me figure out what I want to do with my life.”
She doesn’t fully know yet what she wants to do with her life after high school. She’s attending the University of Wyoming, and right now, she’s set to study environmental science and minor in physics. But that’s subject to change, she said.
“I definitely want to go into a STEM field,” she said.
She knows that’s where her interests lie, but she’s not yet ready to say for certain to which area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics she’ll dedicate her life.
Jones doesn’t know exactly when her love of science began, but she remembers encouragement from her junior high school science teacher.
“He pulled me aside one time and said, ‘You’re going to do great things,’” Jones said.
That encouragement stuck with her.
In the spirit of a true scientist, she encourages other students to be willing to push beyond their comfort zones, to persevere in the face of adversity.
“You have to be willing to fail a lot in order to make anything, to do anything, because I’ve been in Science Club for a really long time and this year things finally started to kick into gear,” Jones said.