College graduation is a time to celebrate accomplishment; it’s a milestone in life filled with excitement and maybe a dose of uncertainty. There are more than 20 million students enrolled in higher education in the United States. On Friday, 14 of those students graduated from the Jackson campus of Central Wyoming College. They earned degrees in nursing, culinary arts, health science, secondary education and computer technology. The degrees are as diverse as the student body, said Susan Durfee, director of Central Wyoming College’s Jackson campus.
“Quite a few students are those that have been in the area, perhaps who’ve been working in the hospitality industry or in the outdoor field and decided they wanted a longer-term career,” she said. “They returned to school and they’re in their mid-20s, mid-30s, even 40s or 50s.”
Greg Van Gilder has a bachelor’s in geology and has been working at the airport for more than a decade. He returned to school for an associate’s in nursing in the hopes of more financial stability and a more meaningful career. “I’ve loved every job I’ve had in this town, but I feel like at the end of the day, it’s putting money in my bank account. This job will be challenging. I’m looking forward to days where I feel like I really helped somebody.”
Others, like 20-year-old Said Jimenez, are just starting out. “I’m from immigrant parents, both from Mexico. They came here in 1999.” Jiminez is the first in his family to graduate college.
Central Wyoming College’s main campus is in Riverton with outreach centers in Jackson, Lander, Dubois and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Traditionally, community colleges are busy when the economy isn’t doing well and not as busy when the economy is strong.
Durfee hopes the pandemic is a potential opportunity for CWC and its students. “It gives an opportunity to say, what do I want? What is important? Maybe I’ll take that math class, or that English class. It might make the difference in my future life.”
Whitney Matson, a graduate from the nursing program, feels empowered with her new degree and skills. “I’m just really happy that this is a choice that I made a few years ago, because what I’ve seen over the last couple months is that our needs in our health care system are changing, and I feel more adaptable and flexible, that I could potentially be of service in a way that I hadn’t previously anticipated. And that’s a nice feeling to have right now.”
Jackson’s CWC campus opened in 1979 and since then, it has woven itself into the fabric of the town. Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith attended Central Wyoming College and majored in criminal justice, along with several local police officers, and local bankers have received their associates in accounting or business.
Matson chose CWC because of its community connection. “I really wanted to be in Jackson and I had a strong connection to St. John’s and having the majority of the clinical experiences there helps me feel like that would be the right experience.”
Like most schools in the United States, classes went online when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. CWC ensured that every student had access to a computer and internet. Faculty had to scramble to get students the clinical hours and clinical experiences without going to the hospital.
It’s a tough time to graduate. Even the graduation ceremony was different this year with a car parade from the rodeo grounds and around town to the Center for the Arts, which houses CWC’s Jackson campus. Even amid uncertain times, culinary arts graduate Jimenez is optimistic about his future. “It could take me to another country or it could take me to another state in the U.S. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me and I’m willing to put the first step if the opportunity comes in the door.”