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Who wants to go to school on Saturday?
The answer, it turns out, is hundreds of Wyoming residents. And counting.
Launched jointly in 2009 by the University of Wyoming, the UW Foundation and the Wyoming Humanities Council (WHC) to connect UW professors with lifelong learners in Jackson Hole, WY, Saturday University has outgrown its humble roots and begun sprouting in multiple counties across the Cowboy State.
"I've had people call me up and say, ‘You're doing this over there. Why aren't you doing it over here?" says Paul V.M. Flesher, the university's coordinator for Saturday University. "I continue to have conversations about other places, because there's interest from people all around the state. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Two months after debuting in Gillette -- Sheridan is the next expansion city, with the first session scheduled for February 2013 -- Saturday University returns to its breeding ground of Jackson next month. The summer term, which will feature presentations by UW professors William Missouri Downs, Benjamin S. Rashford and Kent Drummond, begins at 8:30 a.m. June 2 at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Saturday University is free and open to the public.
"This is all about getting our best faculty out into the state to give people outside of Laramie a sense of what happens on our campus," says Flesher, the director of UW's Religious Studies Program. "It's intellectually stimulating, in ways that a university should be, and I think that's why people like it and keep coming back."
Even on Saturdays.
From the beginning, Saturday University has attracted eager and inquisitive crowds of people who have gladly sacrificed parts of their weekends to learn from UW faculty members. Audiences regularly reach into the triple digits in Jackson.
"It has been rewarding to watch this program continue to grow, and we're excited about being able to bring Saturday University to more places in Wyoming in the future," says Marcia Wolter Britton, executive director of the WHC, the state's only non-profit public humanities organization.
"The WHC's mission to explore and enrich the human experience -- our lives, our communities and our world -- is brought to life through Saturday University programs that encourage personal reflection, key partnerships with engaged communities and exposure to a growing global society," she adds. "This program provides us with wonderful opportunities to foster relationships between academia and the general public and to build an informed citizenry through conversation and critical thinking."
For UW, Saturday University has done more than strengthen outreach efforts in a state where the next town is typically hours away. In Jackson, especially, Flesher says the program has helped the university forge meaningful relationships.
"I've had a couple people say, ‘I've lived in Jackson for 10 years but I didn't know anything about the university. And, through this, I have discovered there's a big, exciting, intellectual institution there,'" he says. "We're introducing ourselves to people who don't know us, and that's really exciting."
The response also has been overwhelmingly positive in Gillette, the hub of the state's energy industry.
Federal Mineral Royalties -- largely generated through oil, gas and coal extraction in Campbell County -- fund the Hathaway Scholarship Program, which rewards eligible Wyoming students with scholarship money to attend UW or one of the state's community colleges. In addition, severance and ad valorem tax revenues, also produced from work in Campbell County, contribute significantly to general operation and capital construction projects at the university.
"Somebody in Gillette said to me in March, ‘I never quite understood what we were supporting but if this is what we're supporting, I think it's a good thing,'" Flesher says.
Saturday University's first full academic year in Gillette begins this fall. Sessions are scheduled for Nov. 3 and Jan. 26 and April 6, 2013. Sessions for the 2012-13 academic year in Jackson are Oct. 6, March 2 and June 8.
Saturday University is also supported by Central Wyoming College-Jackson, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Teton County Library Foundation, Gillette College, the Campbell County Library and Sheridan College.
UW President Tom Buchanan is another strong advocate of the program. The university provides its airplane for faculty who are presenting at Saturday University, a perk that makes it more likely for professors to accept an invitation to travel inside the state, particularly during the winter months.
"It's just a terrific program -- for us, for the university and for the state," Wolter Britton says.