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The World Needs More Cowboys – And So Does Wyoming (Northwest Counties)

January 8, 2020

By Micaela Myers

Principals, entrepreneurs, volunteers, teachers, company presidents, professors. All are community leaders, and all have one thing in common—a degree from the University of Wyoming. Not only does the university serve the students of the state, but the university’s graduates serve the state’s communities.

This year, UW launched “The World Needs More Cowboys – and So Does Wyoming” featuring in-state advertising, profiles and videos of alumni from across the state coupled with celebratory events for community members and future students ( Meet 11 alumni who play key roles in their counties and state.


Also see:  Northeast Counties  |  Southeast Counties  |  Southwest Counties


woman standing in a large empty room
Aura Newlin at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center

 Aura Newlin, Park County

To say Aura Newlin has an interesting Wyoming story is an understatement. The UW alumna, now a Northwest College assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, is a fourth-generation Wyomingite and a fourth-generation Japanese American whose family was incarcerated for three years at Heart Mountain. But their Wyoming story began long before that.

Her grandmother’s side of the family emigrated from Japan to Wyoming in the early 1900s to work on the railroads. After living in Wyoming for 30 years, they retired to Hollywood, Calif., and opened a grocery store called the Wyoming Market. Not long after, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering people of Japanese descent into prison camps. The family was forced from their home and sent back to Wyoming—this time to be confined behind barbed wire and under the watch of armed guards at Heart Mountain, located between Powell and Cody.

Her grandfather’s side of the family also came from Japan to work in Wyoming, but they were not imprisoned, as they were not on the coast. However, the Union Pacific Railroad fired its Japanese workers at that time.

After growing up in Riverton, Newlin completed her bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology at UW in 2003 and went on to get a master’s degree in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, where she also completed her Ph.D. coursework. She is now resuming her Ph.D. research through Case Western while continuing her role as a faculty member at Northwest College.

She believes it’s important for future generations to learn about Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. Since 2013, Newlin has served on the board of directors of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. The foundation works to educate the public about the WWII Japanese American incarceration experience, to preserve and memorialize the Heart Mountain confinement site, and to highlight this history’s relevance to the preservation of liberty and civil rights for all Americans today.

Newlin also serves on the board of directors of the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts and as a participating member of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium. She regularly speaks and presents throughout the country.

UW prepared her well for both her career and her role in the community, Newlin says: “Because of the flexibility and responsiveness of my professors and mentors at UW, I was able to push the envelope and pursue creative endeavors as an undergraduate. Those experiences helped develop my self-confidence, sense of adventure and intrinsic motivation. All of those qualities are central to my career and community life now.”

She recommends UW to potential students for a variety of reasons, including its size, location and affordability: “It is big enough to have a university feel and university opportunities. It is small enough to develop close relationships with your professors and develop a strong sense of place. The location is great. Laramie is an awesome town, and the proximity to Vedauwoo, Happy Jack and the Snowy Range was a really important aspect of my undergraduate experience.”

Newlin notes that the Hathaway Scholarship Program helps cover tuition at UW and community colleges and that she developed lifelong friendships at the university. While she was at UW, USA Today named her as one of the nation’s top 20 undergraduates. She was also inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honors society, recognized as UW’s top female graduate and granted the first annual UW award for excellence in internationalization.

To her, being a UW Cowboy means being down to earth and grounded with a strong sense of place. It also means having fun and confidence.

Recognized for her contributions as a professor and community member, Newlin has received a number of awards, including the faculty member of the year award from the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees in 2018. She was also profiled on the Wyoming PBS television show, Wyoming Chronicle, and is spotlighted in Lindsay Linton Buk’s photography and podcast project, Women in Wyoming.


man and woman holding small child
Kyle, Cade and Abby O’Donnell. (Photo by The Bomb Photography)

Abby O’Donnell, Washakie County

In the small town of Ten Sleep, Wyo., UW alumna Abby O’Donnell has a big presence. In addition to her role as the Wyoming sales manager and corporate branding specialist for Colorado-based ProCorp Images, O’Donnell is active in the community, helping to organize and run the Ten Sleep Youth Rodeo, serving as an active member of the Ten Sleep Baptist Church and its vacation Bible school, contributing to the Washakie County Cowbelles events and the Ten Sleep Rodeo Association, participating in career day at the Ten Sleep High School, and helping cook and serve at the annual Ten Sleep Harvest Dinner.

She also assists with youth sports in the community. “My husband is the assistant high school basketball coach, and we try to stay involved in the school sports helping anywhere we can,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell graduated from UW in 2010 with her bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and applied economics. “The degree I selected was perfect for my career, even though I didn’t know it at the time,” she says. “I was able to stay engaged and involved in the College of Business courses while at the same time learning about the practical side of agriculture.”

At ProCorp Images, O’Donnell partners with companies and organizations to provide promotional products, branded apparel, webstores and products for award programs. Her diverse client base is international and includes many from the agriculture and rodeo industries.

“My job requires me to run my own business—as much work as I put in, I get out,” O’Donnell says. “The university gave me the tools to stay organized, problem solve, think critically, and develop a plan and strategy to achieve my goals.”

O’Donnell and her husband run a small herd of cows, so she is also able to utilize the agriculture side of her education. “We are excited to raise our son around farming and ranching,” she says.

Originally from Castle Rock, Colo., O’Donnell found Laramie a fun hometown community with lots of activity. “I loved the smaller class sizes and the welcoming feel,” she says. “This was comforting as an incoming freshman.”

Alumni connections are a big benefit of UW, O’Donnell says. “This has helped me pursue business clients, select new hires, and make new friends in new communities, and it provides a general sense of belonging.”

She recommends UW to potential students for many reasons. “First of all, Wyoming high school graduates have every financial opportunity available to attend a top-notch university for an extremely reasonable price,” O’Donnell says, adding that there are great resources to make sure students succeed, plus individual attention, diverse degree programs, cultural events, job placement assistance and state-of-the-art facilities.

Reflecting on what it means to be a UW Cowboy, O’Donnell says that the term comes with a certain historical tradition. Words that come to mind include strength, integrity, ethics, hard work, leadership, pride, courage and compassion, she says. “The University of Wyoming embraces these traits. In additional to a great education, UW nourishes these attributes, creating a bond throughout students, alumni and communities, both on a professional and a personal basis. I am proud to be a Cowboy!”


woman holding a large book
Vanessa Sorrels at UW’s School of Pharmacy

Vanessa Sorrels, Wind River Reservation

When Vanessa Sorrels graduated from UW with her Doctor of Pharmacy degree in spring 2019, it was her goal to help her people and work at Indian Health Service in Fort Washakie. Now, her goal is a reality.

“UW supplied me with the education required to practice as a pharmacist,” she says. “I was very fond of the smaller class sizes. Some schools of pharmacy have classes that are 150–200 students. I do not think people realize it, but that gives Wyoming a huge advantage, at least to me. It allows the opportunity to build relationships and not just be a number.”

But Sorrels’ route to becoming a pharmacist took a few turns. She left high school after her freshman year and became a young mother. Sorrels’ mother is a nurse, and that inspired her to get her certified nursing assistant license.

“My mom was my inspiration, because she was a single mother with three kids who went to nursing school while working all the time and raising us,” Sorrels says.

Sorrels took a job at a nursing home, and that’s where her interest in pharmacy developed. Although she was born in Lander, Sorrels considers Casper her hometown and earned two associate degrees from Casper College before transferring to UW.

A member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, Sorrels found UW as a place where she could reconnect with her Native American roots. She served as president of the student organization Keepers of the Fire at UW and helped with the opening of the Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center. “I feel that I helped create a sense of belonging and an open community where everyone is welcome,” she says. “That was my whole goal—to make a family away from family. I am not sure how many people know about Native American culture, but we are very family-oriented people—so much so that it can be detrimental if we do not find ways to cope. So, I think I accomplished that with the help of the grand opening of the Native American Education, Research and Cultural Center.”

Between pharmacy school, Keepers of the Fire and her daughter, who is now 11, Sorrels stayed busy at UW.

“I was also able to meet some wonderful people who are heavily involved with the community, and I hope to one day become highly involved as well,” Sorrels says. “Currently, when asked, I attend meetings and events to speak to Native American high school students about college and careers in the medical field. I hope that I can offer valuable knowledge and maybe even be an inspiration for others that think higher education is not possible.”

Sorrels recommends UW for its community feel and personable professors. She says UW Cowboys are men and women of all colors and backgrounds.

“Growing up in Wyoming, you generally grow up with many ‘Cowboys,’ even if they do not claim to be one—meaning, the definition of Cowboy is definitely open for interpretation depending on who you ask,” Sorrels says. “For me, it is a way of life and also an approach on how one lives their life. Cowboys are people who get up and take care of business with no complaints every day. They press on no matter how tired they are or how hard of a task it is. They are people who, if you need anything, they are dependable and have your back. They do not get offended by every little thing. Above all else, they appreciate and reciprocate hard work, honesty and respect. I feel that my work ethic and determination was taught by the resiliency of those Cowboys.”


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