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UW/Casper College Partnership Enters New Era with New Building
When the University of Wyoming opened its first outreach program in Casper in the summer of 1976, Renee Woodward remembers setting up makeshift offices in an empty classroom at Casper College’s old Administration Building.
Working as chief secretary under Pete Simpson, the first director of UW’s program in Casper, Woodward helped arrange office equipment and dividers so the small staff could begin enrolling students in three degree programs: humanities/fine arts, social science and mathematics. She recalls the excitement of the first class of about 60 -- most of them site-bound, nontraditional students -- and the welcome Casper College employees extended to her as a UW staff member.
Today, Woodward serves as manager of UW-Casper, helping oversee an operation with about 800 students in 17 undergraduate and 12 graduate major programs. Along with the 39 other full-time UW faculty and staff members in Casper, she works in a new home: the Casper College Student Union/University of Wyoming (UU) Building, a $32 million facility funded jointly by the two institutions.
“Over the years, we’ve had many different visions of what the university could do here, and this is the ultimate: a gorgeous building, all very comfortable, in a great location,” Woodward says. “This will help UW’s visibility on this campus -- the Casper College students have to walk right past our office when they go from the lower campus to the upper campus.”
UW Outreach School Associate Dean and UW-Casper Director Brent Pickett says the new building literally cements UW’s partnership with Casper College.
“In so many ways, they are an exceptional partner with the university,” he says. “Collaborating in this new facility that is located at the heart of the CC campus is just one aspect of that partnership.”
Woodward, the only current UW-Casper employee who has been there from the start, has seen her own job duties evolve over the years, along with the growth in the university’s offerings. After moving up through all of UW’s clerical classifications to her current position as program manager, she works directly with Pickett and oversees budgets, all student services, class scheduling and facilities management.
Those functions now are contained in the new UU facility, a 95,000-square-foot, four-story structure with two atriums. UW offices and classrooms are on the upper two floors.
“There’s no denying that we are both stronger institutions because of this partnership,” Casper College President Walter Nolte says. “Many students enroll at Casper College specifically because of the partnership, knowing that they can earn their UW bachelor’s degree after they earn their CC associate’s degree. And the cooperation between our institutions is one reason that Casper College sends more students to UW than any other college.”
An Evolving Partnership
Woodward observes that the UW/Casper College partnership now is “the best it’s ever been,” in no small measure because of the commitment of Nolte and other Casper College leaders. She says that hasn’t always been the case, noting that when UW’s program first opened in Casper, “there was this political atmosphere within Casper that Casper College needed to become a four-year institution.”
In fact, two years after UW’s offices opened on the Casper College campus, they moved off campus. “We still cooperated, but it was more like two separate entities instead of that strong partnership,” Woodward recalls.
Things changed in 1987, when UW and CC leaders “decided that it was best to join forces,” Woodward says. A new cooperative agreement was signed, and some UW functions moved back on the CC campus -- though UW also began using a building it acquired on North Poplar Street in Casper (that facility now has been vacated with the opening of the new on-campus facility).
“Since then, we have gone through several revisions of the cooperative agreement -- just building upon what was created here to make it a stronger partnership,” Woodward says.
Changing Students’ Lives
Starting with the first graduating class of three in 1977, more than 3,200 people have earned degrees from UW in Casper. Woodward has worked directly with most of them, and she says seeing their success is by far the most enjoyable part of the job.
“Sometimes students walk in, and they are at the lowest place they can be in their lives. They’re searching for something to help them crawl out of the hole they’re in,” she says. “We’re able to take those people and nurture them through degree programs, get them in touch with the right people, and watch them grow. I’m the first one to cry when they walk across the stage at commencement. We’ve made such a difference in so many lives up here.”
One of those former students, Elizabeth Davis, says Woodward, Pickett and others with UW and Casper College “went way out of their way to help me” after she decided to return to college at the age of 26 in 2008 -- and had a baby in 2009. She earned an associate’s degree in addictionology and then a bachelor’s degree in social work, with minors in statistics and psychology, in 2013. She now is a social worker in Casper with Lifenet, an agency that works with troubled families in conjunction with the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
“There were so many people who really made a huge impact on my life,” Davis says of her time at Casper College and UW-Casper. “If a four-year degree weren’t available in Casper … I don’t know that there ever would have been a right time for me to pick up and move to Laramie. And online-only wouldn’t have worked for me. I like to be in a classroom setting with an instructor and classmates.”
The average age of UW-Casper students is 29, and about 70 percent are women -- many with children in the local school system and/or a spouse or partner who has a job in the area. Because most students are nontraditional, many of them attending part time, the vast majority are not eligible for the Hathaway Scholarship Program. UW-Casper officials have worked with local corporations, foundations and individuals to create alternative scholarship opportunities.
Meeting Community Needs
While growth generally has been steady for UW-Casper, Woodward notes that enrollment has fluctuated over the years. The condition of Casper’s economy affects the numbers, and temporary bumps result when degree programs are implemented in response to specific community needs.
For example, when there was a shortage of special education teachers in the Natrona County School District, UW worked with Casper College and the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services to offer a degree program for local K-12 teachers to earn special ed degrees and certification. That program achieved its objective in two years and was then suspended. A similar effort was undertaken for an English as a Second Language education program.
UW and Casper College are studying other potential collaborations. A proposal before the Wyoming State Legislature seeks $727,000 in ongoing funding for new clinical sciences faculty and staff in the medical laboratory technician program in Casper so that students there can earn bachelor’s degrees in clinical laboratory sciences. That initiative stems from UW’s collaborative efforts with Casper College and the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, part of the university’s goal to further extend academic programs across the state.
“We believe there are tremendous opportunities to work with local partners across Wyoming to further develop access to higher education for the people of the state and beyond,” says Maggi Murdock, interim UW provost who was instrumental in developing UW’s programs in Casper as the longtime dean of the UW/CC Center and the UW Outreach School. “Our experience in Casper provides a wonderful example of how we can achieve great things by working collaboratively.”
‘I Have Dreamed About This Moment’
Woodward says she’s delighted with the recent decision by the UW Board of Trustees, supported by Casper College officials, to change the name of UW’s Casper branch from the UW/Casper College Center (UW/CC) to the University of Wyoming at Casper (UW-Casper).
“That takes away a lot of the confusion,” she says. “There are still a lot of people who don’t realize UW is here in Casper. Staying in the public eye is something we have to work on all the time.”
Likewise, she says with a laugh, some people on the main UW campus in Laramie sometimes forget about their colleagues in Casper. She has “worked extra hard” to stay in contact with faculty and staff in Laramie, and has traveled regularly to maintain communication. “Sometimes, you just have to invite yourself to the dance,” she says.
After 40 years of employment with UW -- 37 of those in Casper -- Woodward says she’s in no hurry to retire. She plans to step down in two years, giving her plenty of time to enjoy the new facilities.
“I could retire at any time now, but I want to make sure that we’re in here, settled,” she says. “I have dreamed about this moment for a long time. It’s been a good ride. I just hope the program continues to grow, and I think it will as we continue working to forge partnerships.”
Renee Woodward, program manager for the University of Wyoming at Casper, decorates the UW-Casper entry for the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo Parade in Casper in 2010. Woodward, who has been part of UW’s program in Casper since it began in 1976, says keeping UW in the public eye is an important part of her job. (UW Photo)