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The New West: Whitman College uses American West as ultimate ‘life’ classroom

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Phil Brick is the kind of college professor I wish I had known during my formative years of matriculation; his 21 students, now partaking in Whitman College’s seventh iteration of Semester in the West, are the bright, conscientious young minds America needs.

Worth noting just as much is that Semester in the West, in which many Whitman attendees from Montana have participated, is truly a landmark achievement in place-based education.

Earlier this autumn, I spent two weeks on the road with “Westies,” as they are called, camping out every night on an arc through three states. The provocative conversations we had still stay with me. They cause me to reflect. The places we explored together continue to visit me in my dreams.

To get at the heart of what the West is, it’s essential to first grasp the region’s natural history, to separate mythology from reality, to consider the urban-rural divide, to probe why some states are red versus blue, and to open one’s eyes.

Whitman is a small liberal arts college located in Walla Walla, Washington. Semester in the West, which happens every other year, was founded by Phil Brick and Don Snow, chair of the college’s environmental studies department. They had a novel, unprecedented and ambitious mission: to push students out of their comfort zones by roughing it, to set them on a course of nomadic discovery spanning 8,000 miles over 100 days and to make ground-truthing the “issues.”

Westies are encouraged, thanks to Brick’s insistent and gentle mentoring, to look the real West in the eye, and to not accept anything at face value.

Semester in the West is a bold counterpoint to Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which are portrayed by some as the great equalizers in American education, ostensibly making the benefits of digital remote learning available and affordable for all.

Brick has devised a truly ingenious model for making his classroom mobile. He pulls a tricked-out, converted horse trailer behind a pickup that has a satellite dish to enable remote access to the Internet for student research.

A few years ago, Brick and I got to talking. I suggested setting out eastward beyond the mountains onto the high plains of the interior pressing toward the 100th Meridian where “The West” geographically is said to begin.

Brick extended an invitation for me to serve as co-leader on this year’s journey and so, in early September, this was our route: We began with a couple of days at Ted Turner’s 113,000-acre flagship ranch near Bozeman—the Flying D—where Turner’s vision for bison and rewilding his western properties was born.

Then we floated down the White Cliffs section of the Upper Missouri River holding Lewis and Clark’s journal entries in one hand and the 185-year-old aquatints of painter Karl Bodmer as visual reference points in the other. We dropped down to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, and camped at the base of Bear Butte, one of the most sacred sites for plains tribes.

We then spent three days in the company of Lakota friends Ben Sherman and his ethnobotanist brother, Richard Sherman, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Shermans escorted Westies on a memorable tour of the southern Badlands being managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meeting President Tom Short Bull at Oglala Lakota College, having lunch with the great granddaughter of Nicholas Black Elk, Betty O’Rourke, and paying a solemn, wrenching visit to Wounded Knee.

From there, we headed to Gillette, the capital of American coal country in the Powder River Basin, and met with the city’s Mayor Louise Carter-King and Dave Olson, a geologist at Alpha Coal’s Eagle Butte Mine.

In my final stretch with the Westies, we reached Jackson Hole. The difference between Teton County, Wyoming—the wealthiest per capita county in America—and Shannon County in South Dakota on Pine Ridge—one of the poorest in America, could not have been brought into starker contrast.

Tooling around the Tetons, the Westies met with Brad Mead, older brother of Wyoming Governor Matt Mead at the historic Hansen Ranch up Spring Gulch.

It’s a shame all Americans can’t embark upon Semester in the West, a program unlike any other in the country.

Alums of Semesters in the West will tell you that it changed their lives, woke them up, caused them to appreciate their place of privilege and sparked a desire to give back the rest of their days.

Trust me, they are Millennials bound for casting ripples of positive meaning in the world.

Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He is author the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. EBS publishes Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the print version of the paper, under a partnership arrangement with the Wyoming online journal We encourage you to check out The Bullseye.

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