Northern Wyoming colleges will take a necessary step Thursday to eventually be able to offer baccalaureate or Bachelor of Applied Science degrees in Sheridan and Gillette.
The Northern Wyoming Community College District board of trustees will be asked to approve a resolution to move forward with work on proposed baccalaureate programs offered through Gillette College and Sheridan College.
It’s the first of several steps required to offer the degree programs in Wyoming’s community colleges, something allowed by the state Legislature under a measure adopted in the 2019 general session.
Each college can offer a maximum of two degree programs under the new legislation.
Once the resolution is approved, trustees will be asked in December to approve final recommendations for the baccalaureate of applied science. Then college officials will appear at the February meeting of the Wyoming Community College Commission for permission to move forward on the proposal.
If the commission approves, it will kick off an accreditation process with the Higher Learning Commission, said Gillette College Vice President Janell Oberlander.
Only at that point of a long process would specifics of the four-year degree programs be developed.
“There’s a series of steps we have to go through and although we did data research in the spring to point us in the direction of where our students would like us to go and where our industry partners want us to go, we’re still at the very, very initial step,” said Estella Castillo-Garrison, vice president of academic affairs in the district.
“It’s a lot of work,” she told the Gillette College Advisory Board on Wednesday. “Basically, we would be a four-year degree granting institution, which is pretty big. And it impacts and it touches every aspect of our colleges in the services, for example. So there’s a lot of work that will go into that.
“This is kind of the initial step and we’re saying, ‘Yes, we as an institution and as a district will be moving forward with our community for the applied baccalaureate.’”
Once those approvals are in place, “we’ll start developing those programs, our faculty will work on curriculum, our assisting student service will start figuring out how we’re going to be moving forward and then we will be working side-by-side with our accrediting body,” Castillo-Garrison said.
The district wants to be careful that the community understands there is a long process to complete before four-year degree programs could be in place and offered in northeast Wyoming.
“There’s a lot of work, a lot of great work, and it’s a very exciting time for our district and for our state and for our community. We’re thrilled,” she said.
Later, Castillo-Garrison identified the two baccalaureate programs officials hope to eventually gain approval of. The programs stood out during surveys of students and surveys and conversations with focus groups last spring, she said. They include:
That’s what college officials are working on now and hope to develop and gain approval of in the process.
“Obviously, when you’re talking about a four-year degree, it’s looking at things in a different way, looking at our assessments in a different way, our evaluation of faculty in a different way, how we serve students or advising in a different way,” Castillo-Garrison said. “There’s a lot that goes into it that and we’re really excited about this next step.”
After a few days of warmer temperatures, Mother Nature sent a reminder Wednesday afternoon and evening that it’s winter.
Gillette and Campbell County received about an inch of snow overnight, but it was the slush and black ice that came with a cool-down that made motorists take their time. Many heeded the advice of local officials to not rush anywhere and, if you didn’t have to leave, stay home.
There were seven crashes reported in Campbell County and Gillette associated with the slick roads, including a pair of rollovers on Wyoming Highway 59.
One happened in Wright when slick road conditions caused a 30-year-old man driving a white GMC Sierra to lose control of his vehicle. He ran off the road and rolled over, but was able to climb out of the vehicle with no injuries. No tickets were issued, Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Elijah Ellis said.
The other Highway 59 crash was 10 miles south of Wright and there were no injuries or tickets, he said.
The good news is that the wintry weather is expected to clear out in time for the weekend.
The high Thursday is only expected to be around 30 degrees and overcast, but Friday through Sunday is expected to bring back the sunshine with temperatures reaching the low- to mid-40s, according to the National Weather Service out of Rapid City, South Dakota.
There is a chance of colder temperatures to come back and for a potential storm to hit the area next week, but it remains too early to tell, said Alzina Foscato, National Weather Service meteorologist.
The U.S. Department of Energy wants to research the extraction of rare earth elements in the western part of the country, and Campbell County could be the place where that research will be done.
The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources hopes to partner with the DOE and its National Energy Technology Laboratory to do that research here, and it needs the support of local governments.
The Gillette City Council will consider a commitment letter in support of the project at a special meeting Thursday afternoon, while Campbell County Commissioners will do the same at the end of their Public Health meeting Thursday night.
Scott Quillinan, director of research at the School of Energy Resources, said UW has been studying the coal seams in the Powder River Basin to measure the concentration of rare earth elements. There’s reason to continue that research, he said, because PRB coal has rare earth potential.
“The next step is looking at if we can extract those rare earth elements from the coal economically,” he said.
Rare earth elements have many uses, from batteries and magnets to lights and wind turbines. But they are not mined domestically.
If it ends up being economically feasible to mine rare earth elements from Powder River Basin coal, Quillinan said it could be a “value-added product that comes along with coal mining.”
“This is a great opportunity that would diversify our economy tremendously,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development. “This is exactly what we need to be doing.”
The highest concentration of the rare earth elements is often in the parts of the coal seam that isn’t used for burning, Quillinan said.
“A lot of that is scraped off and put back in the pit,” he said. “If they’re mining it anyway, this could be a no-brainer.”
Commissioner Mark Christensen said professors and researchers aren’t going to want to come to an area if there’s no research being done there.
“This is our opportunity to get our foot in the door with researchers and have a real lab in Campbell County,” he said.
The National Energy Technology Laboratory would run a small lab in Campbell County, he said. Gillette has a chance to “build that relationship” while it is here, with the hopes that it will “spin off into other things.”
“They want to know the local government’s going to buy in,” said Commission Chairman Rusty Bell.
The county and city would each need to commit to $187,500 over three years, Christensen said. UW has committed to $375,000 over that same time frame. These dollars would be used as matching funds for the project.
“The local money speaks really loudly with DOE, because a lot of times they want to do projects but can’t find communities that want them,” Christensen said. “They want a local entity to take some initiative and show some commitment.”
There were tears all around with the Terrell family when Wyoming National Guard Army Spc. Hunter Terrell returned home to Gillette on Wednesday.
The 19-year-old arrived at Gillette-Campbell County Airport at about noon, just before a snowstorm rolled into the area.
“It feels good,” he said getting off the plane. “I love the weather, the familiar sights. It’s nice. It’s nice to see grass, hills and trees. They don’t really have that in Afghanistan.”
Terrell, a Class of 2017 graduate of Campbell County High School, had been away from his family and deployed for a year. He spent three months either in basic training or traveling halfway across the world, and nine months in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The first hug was for his mother, Natasha Terrell.
“Hundreds of soldiers come home every day, but he’s my baby, my firstborn,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of him.”
He then hugged his dad, Mike Terrell, and grandparents, Lori and Scott Gilbertson, who drove to Gillette from Wright.
“We have been praying for him for months, and his unit,” Lori said.
Hunter smiled and, while glad to see his family, the soldier still had a self-imposed mission to accomplish.
His siblings were in school and unaware their big brother would be home that day. He had visits to make to Sage Valley Junior High School and Thunder Basin High.
“Operation Surprise the Siblings” was on.
Mission’s a go
At Sage Valley, 12-year-old Kalissa Terrell was on her school laptop during an algebra class when Hunter came in through a door at the back of the room.
She turned around, saw her brother there, then leaped from her desk to give him a big hug and, overcome with emotion, Kalissa buried her face into his uniform.
“Holy cow, you’re tall!” Hunter told his sister before asking, “how’s school been?”
Few words came out of her mouth, just tears of joy.
“I felt total surprised,” she said after the initial shock.
About an hour later, Barek Terrell, 14, was learning about the cell membrane in Bree Arzy-Mitchell’s biology class when he heard a knock on a door by his seat.
“I did not know what was happening when they knocked on the door, and then my whole class was like, ‘What was that?’” he said. “I opened the door and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my brother is here!’”
“How has school been?” the cheeky veteran said.
Barek paused, then said, “Aw, I miss you,” before hugging his older brother.
“I missed these kiddos,” Hunter said, adding that while he expected his sister to cry, Barek teared up as well. Then Barek interrupted his brother.
“Your mustache is gross,” he said, already back in little-brother mode.
“You nerd,” Hunter replied. “You’re jealous.”
Kalissa and Barek knew their older sibling had returned to the United States and was at Fort Bliss, Texas, but had no idea when he was scheduled to come back to Gillette in time for the holidays, Natasha Terrell said.
“I knew Kalissa was going to bawl,” Natasha said. “She bawled when he left.”
As for Barek’s reaction, everyone was surprised.
“Barek is shy. I definitely didn’t think he was going to cry,” she said. “It just tells you how much they mean to each other and how close they are.”
A difficult journey
Hunter left for basic training about a year ago and in January 2019 was sent to Afghanistan where he worked as an aviation electrician with a medical evacuation group helping fix helicopters, or “the birds in the air,” as he put it.
He enjoyed serving, but said he also missed his family.
“You’re away from them just as much as they’re away from you,” Hunter said. “People talk about the sacrifice soldiers make, but families make big sacrifices too.
“I’m not married, I don’t have any dependents, but I’m really grateful for all the wives that leased us their husbands to go overseas.”
He and his fellow soldiers received care packages from strangers and organizations in the United States. During the holidays he got Christmas cards as well.
“(They) made me feel very cared for,” he said.
At the homefront, his family was praying and hoping for Hunter’s safety and are proud of him, but he left a void.
“I missed him a lot,” Barek said. “I missed his jokes the most, just him being goofy around the house.”
The family communicated with each other through Facebook Messenger at all times of the day when everyone could find time.
Natasha and Mike received monthly emails and phone calls from support groups to see if they needed anything. She also has met moms of other deployed soldiers and has invited them to become friends on Facebook so she can help answer any questions or address concerns they may have.
“There are no phones at basic and it’s so hard for these moms,” Natasha said. “My hope is maybe this story will inspire and encourage other families in that they can reach out.”
Continuing a tradition
Hunter comes from a long line of veterans, including his dad, who served in the Army; his great-uncle, who died in World War II; and a great-uncle who recently retired as a colonial in the Idaho National Guard.
“I was inspired to join the military,” Hunter said. “My dad served in the Army, grandpa, uncle and all men on dad’s side served. It’s a tradition at this point.”
It also sounded fun to shake things up before college and see a little bit of the world, he said.
Hunter’s family had to sign him up because he skipped a grade. He was only 17, “but that’s what he wanted to do,” Natasha said.
Hunter struggled a little in high school, but after he finished basic training he had developed “a sense of an identity,” she said.
“He takes it very seriously,” Natasha said.
A soldier’s plans
A typical National Guard enlistment period is for eight years, but Hunter could serve as little as three years, according to the National Guard.
Aside from monthly weekend drills and an annual two-week training, he can pursue what he wants to. He will remain in Gillette until January, when he will join his 18-year-old brother, Gage, at the Frontier School of the Bible in La Grange.
Hunter finished a semester while deployed, but has not declared a major yet.
Because Hunter decided to attend a non-accredited school, he may be redeployed at some point if an emergency arises overseas or in Wyoming.
“It was a hard decision for him,” his mother said. “He could have gone to UW or Gillette College. He really wants to go to this Bible college knowing that if he is called to be deployed he would go.
“It’s kind of scary for me as a mom” that he was choosing to allow himself to be redeployed, but he wanted to go to the school, she said.