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Instead of spending time on their phones, Wyoming Catholic College stu­dents ride horses, among other activ­ities. Grace Pfeifer | Courtesy

An instructor holding a fore­boding plastic bag greets Wyoming Catholic College freshmen. 

“Put your phone in,” the instructor says, indi­cating the open Ziplock. 

After parting with their most-loved appendage, the stu­dents embark on a three week camping trip through the Wind River Range — or the more rugged Teton Moun­tains — ,which they nav­igate using old-fash­ioned paper maps and the stars. 

Even stu­dents who manage to sneak their phone on the trip don’t get an oppor­tunity to use them. 

“That is the first detox phase,” said Glen Arbery, pres­ident of Wyoming Catholic College. “If stu­dents took their phone, it wouldn’t work up there. That is their intro­duction to class­mates and our tech­nology policy. By the time they get back down they have been weaned.” 

Wyoming Catholic College is located in rural Lander, Wyoming. Home to only 185 stu­dents in a town of only 7,000 people in south­western Wyoming, it is already dis­con­nected from the fast-paced, modern world. But the college is even more unique — and dis­con­nected — in its tech­nology policy; its stu­dents must leave their phones at home and consent to Wifi-free dormitories. 

Stu­dents are allowed to bring laptops, and can use them with Wifi in the library, and each dorm has a phone that stu­dents may freely access. But oth­erwise, Wyoming Catholic creates an envi­ronment where stu­dents are intensely present only to the people, places, and ideas that exist directly and phys­i­cally before them. 

This tech­nology policy has under­girded Wyoming Catholic’s ped­agogy since its inception, according to Arbery. In 2005, when founders of the college first delin­eated the policy, there was no such thing as a smart­phone, a touch-screen laptop, or an iPad.

Arbery said that the decision to remove cell phones from stu­dents was made to improve the college community. 

“It seemed like flip phones and texting have a simply observable effect on people,” Arbery said. “As soon as texting became common, our sense of place changed. That is, the philo­sophical element — the way you are present — is degraded by being expected to answer texts or a ringing phone.” 

Arbery added  that the influx of new and even more com­pre­hensive hand-held tech­nologies over the last fifteen years has reaf­firmed the college’s decision. Arbery has closely fol­lowed the neu­ro­logical effects that smart­phones and screens have on the human brain, and now “we are so happy that we made the decision when we did.” 

“We wanted to reestablish a sense of being present with the people you’re lit­erally around even if they’re not who you prefer to be with,” Arbery said. 

Grace Pfifer ’21, sought out Wyoming Catholic College for its unique position, and was con­vinced to attend after she was caught out in a thun­der­storm while riding horseback up a mountain during a vis­i­tation week. The horses spooked and raced wildly down the mountain and back to the shelter of their barn. 

“It was one of the most ter­ri­fying expe­ri­ences, but also I had never felt so alive in one single hap­pening,” Pfifier recalled. “I was feeling every­thing with my whole body and all my emo­tions, and plus it had been a good week of reading inter­esting and engaging things, and of poetry expanding our imag­i­na­tions. I just thought, ‘I want to go some­where I can feel alive.”’ 

Pfifer said that attending Wyoming Catholic College was exactly what she antic­i­pated, and that the tech­nology policy largely facil­i­tated her deep and con­stant inter­action with real people and real life. 

“It just seems like there was such a cre­ativity that can often be stifled by using a phone too much,” Pfifer said. “It felt like people were so cre­ative with their time. It was typical on week­nights or weekends the guys would come over with their guitars and we would all sit around and sing, and look at the stars —  the stars were always really gor­geous — and drink coffee.” 

Pfifer trans­ferred to Hillsdale College after her sophomore year at Wyoming Catholic because she felt the desire to test her faith and prin­ciples in an envi­ronment where not everyone thought exactly like her. However, Pfifer said she retained the sense of cre­ativity and presence that the no-tech policy fostered.

“It did feel weird coming to Hillsdale,” Pfifer said. “There was that feeling of lack of cre­ativity and lack of energy to do more. I felt freedom from this, but then not really an ability to connect right away with all the people around me because I felt like I was coming from such a dif­ferent walk of life.” 

Recent Wyoming Catholic graduate and current admis­sions officer for the college, Eliz­abeth Meluch empha­sized that the pro­fessors and faculty at the college are by no means puri­tanical luddites. 

“We like to think we are not doing it out of fear but rather love of some­thing else,” Meluch said.

The school uses tech­nology where it sees fit, and replaces it where it is unnec­essary. For example, Wyoming Catholic uses Google drive for doc­ument sharing, Google photos to share mem­ories, and, of course, has plenty of tele­phones for each student to call home. 

“Cer­tainly, the joke is on tech, because we can get what it is offering without getting so hooked on it,” Meluch said. “We want you to be able to call your mom here.” 

The admin­is­tration is not stoic about the policy to its stu­dents, either. Glenn Arbery is cur­rently teaching a class on the origins of modernity and its con­nection with tech­nology that includes sophis­ti­cated argu­ments about the advan­tages of technology. 

On the flip side, assigned reading for all stu­dents at the college includes things like Cal New­port’s “Deep Work,” and Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” The latter is an expansive text in which Carr explores how the internet has changed the human mind and human expe­rience. Carr’s explo­ration stems from his own per­sonal feeling that 10 years of tech­nology have made it harder to think and read deeply. He explains it evocatively: 

“Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” 

In order to educate a gen­er­ation of scuba divers rather than Jet Skiers, Wyoming Catholic focuses student’s learning, reading, and infor­mation gath­ering on real things. Their mode of learning is reading great books and having direct encounters with the natural world. A big com­ponent of their edu­cation is learning outdoor sur­vival skills, like old-fash­ioned paper map-reading, stargazing, and horsemanship. 

Arbery empha­sized that stu­dents come to know things through their senses and imag­i­na­tions. They are actually pre­sented with the natural world, and thus are able to under­stand what they are reading in terms of that expe­rience in the natural world. 

“Every­thing they’re learning is not already mediated to them through tech­nology,” Arbery said. “We want to get them out of the virtual, man-made world as much as pos­sible and to give them the direct expe­rience of what we call God’s first book, the ‘Book of Nature.’” 

Maluch already did not have much of a “soft-spot” for tech­nology when she first arrived at Wyoming Catholic College in 2014. But she said it is amazing to watch as tech­nology imme­di­ately loses its asphyx­i­ating stran­glehold on stu­dents — even those who enter the college truly addicted. 

“You see stu­dents glued to their phones during the whole six hour bus ride up to the moun­tains,” Meluch said. “When the two weeks are over and we pull them out again, they laugh at them, they pull them out and think, “I don’t need this.” 

Undoubtedly, dis­con­necting from the fast-paced Jet Ski’s of the digital world to descend into the silent murk of the earthly depths is not easy. 

“To feel that dis­con­nected-ness can feel sort of frightful,” Pfifer said. “But you have to push past it. It takes a grit to say no to it and realize there will be a greater good that comes out of it.”