Wyoming Wonders: Cohort 7’s Journey

Author: Parker Gaines

The scholars of Cohort 7 of Notre Dame's Latino Studies Scholars Program (LSSP), embarked on a memorable journey to Wyoming in August 2023. This remarkable trip, graciously sponsored by the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), aimed to foster unity and camaraderie among our scholar cohort before we dove into our academic pursuits.

LSSP 7 WONDER Group Water
LSSP 7 students pictured in front of the Popo Agie Falls. (From left to right): Joaquin Lopez, Ivan Turcios, Christina Ayón, Shivani Gutierrez, Aliyah Cerda, Sarah Castillo, Jaylynne Calderon Monterroso, Parker Gaines. (Credit: Jack Thornton).

It marked the second year of collaboration between ILS and WONDER, a program that encourages students to embrace the beauty of nature and form meaningful connections. The organization's focus goes beyond physical activities such as backpacking and rock climbing; it also nurtures connections, promotes mental well-being, hones skills, deepens spirituality, and facilitates resilience and leadership development.

WONDER was founded in 2021 by Dr. Ilaria Schnyder, a former professor and scholar at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. When asked about her goals for the WONDER program, director Dr. Schnyder expressed that "In WONDER Trips, my aspiration is for students to discover a haven where they can rekindle their appreciation for the splendor of reality, reconnect with their true selves, and find deeper meaning in life while cultivating authentic friendships."

LSSP 7 & Thornton with their backpacks and week supplies. (From left to right): Joaquin Lopez, Sarah Castillo, Jaylynne Calderon Monterroso, Parker Gaines, Ivan Turcios, Christina Ayón, Aliyah Cerda, Shivani Gutierrez, Jack Thornton. (Credit: Jack Thornton).

The announcement of the trip was initially met by my cohort with a variety of reactions. Jaylynne Calderon Monterroso from Grand Rapids, MI, said, “When I first heard about it, I was concerned because I’m not a big person on outdoors, and it was a week long.” However, these initial apprehensions turned into anticipation and excitement as the journey unfolded.

LSSP 7 WONDER Group Shot green
LSSP 7 students pictured in front of the Red Canyon. (From left to right): Shivani Gutierrez, Aliyah Cerda, Christina Ayón, Sarah Castillo, Jaylynne Calderon Monterroso, Joaquin Lopez, Ivan Turcios, Parker Gaines (Credit: Jack Thornton).

The entire cohort met for the first time in the Salt Lake City International Airport, and we began about a 4-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Lander, Wyoming. During this drive, we saw the diverse landscape of Utah and Wyoming: canyons, mountains, valleys, fields, and ranches.

The first night, we slept at a campground in Lander and were given our supplies for the week. Our large camping backpacks included jackets, a headlight, a bowl, and other important items. We ate our dinner and promptly got some rest in our tents before our off-the-grid journey.

A picture of the hiking scene on the trail (Credit: Parker Gaines)

Our cohort divided up into 3 cooking groups. Each group was given a large duffel bag of food and had to plan meals for the week and decide which items to leave behind. I was in a cooking group with Ivan Turcios and Joaquín Lopez. I remember us carefully looking through each food item and planning our meals: chicken teriyaki, mac and cheese, oatmeal, spaghetti, etc.

Joaquín Lopez cooking breakfast (Credit: Parker Gaines)

After rationing the food for the week, the eight students of LSSP 7 embarked on an adventure through a region referred to as the Popo Agie Wilderness. We were guided by the vision of WONDER and the expertise of Wyoming Catholic College, in partnership with COR Expeditions. COR's own Damien Walz and Luke Christopherson were instrumental in ensuring the safety and success of this unique experience. 

A cooking group of Shivani Gutierrez, Christina Ayón, and Aliyah Cerda making spaghetti for dinner. (Credit: Parker Gaines)

Jack Thornton, a class of 2025 Philosophy and Theology student at the University of Notre Dame, also accompanied the LSSP scholars. Prior to this trip, Jack Thornton underwent training through The Wonder Leadership Program taught by Dr. Ilaria Schnyder in collaboration with Holy Cross College. 

We departed the campground in Lander and drove about an hour to the Popo Agie Wilderness region. I remember the beautiful scenery, including the Red Canyon, that we saw during our drive. 

We hiked for a few hours to get to our camping site for the week. This hike was definitely strenuous, and I remember getting easily exhausted as we continued to traverse the steep geography. We crossed streams and climbed up large hills. We took short breaks to refuel our bodies with snacks and water. Nonetheless, this was a beautiful hike with plenty of scenery, and I was proud of myself and my cohort that we could accomplish this multi-mile hike.

Landscape of the lake at our campsite in the backcountry. (Credit: Parker Gaines)

As we continued hiking, our guides found a flat site where we could set up our tents, make a fire, collect drinking water, and cook our meals. After we got settled, our guides showed us how to use the portable propane stoves. We gathered water from a nearby lake and began cooking our meals. I have to admit that I was impressed with some of the cooking skills of my friends. Although some of us had more success with the propane flames than others, we all eventually succeeded and were able to make our meals

This campsite had beautiful scenery. We were surrounded by tall pine trees and a beautiful lake with snow-top mountains in the distance.

We spent around three days at this site, enjoying the scenery and camaraderie of one another. We played different card games and shared our life stories and experiences with each other. I feel that, in these three days in the backcountry, we began to develop a strong cohort bond.

Students rafting: Parker Gaines, Christina Ayón, Ivan Turcios, Joaquín Lopez. (Credit: Parker Gaines)

My cohort also has fond memories of some of the challenges we experienced during this time. With these challenges, my cohort maintained a positive attitude and could laugh through these moments, further strengthening our relationships with one another.

After these three days in the backcountry, our laughter continued as we continued throughout the region of the Popo Agie Wilderness. In the last days of our trip, we took part in various activities, including repelling, rafting, rock climbing, and some intense tournaments of Spikeball®.

Our skill levels varied in each activity, and some of these pushed us out of our comfort zone. As someone who has a slight fear of heights, the repelling and rock climbing were challenging; however, I ultimately survived these activities and overcame the struggles.

Students pictured with their luggage at the airport. (Credit: Parker Gaines)

Shivani Gutierrez from Logansport, IN, reflects on her experience repelling down a cliff. "Repelling was such an amazing experience. I had never done anything like that before. You had to trust that the rope would hold you and it did. After repelling I felt accomplished and proud of myself for trying something new even though it was challenging and scary," said Gutierrez.

The journey to Wyoming for Cohort 7 was not just any typical trip, nor was it necessarily a vacation; it was an adventure meticulously designed to foster personal growth, teamwork, and a deep connection to the natural world.

Upon our return, the impact of this remarkable journey was evident, and the students shared their newfound wisdom and favorite parts of the trip. "My favorite part was learning about survival skills that I didn’t know before and pushing myself to do things I wouldn’t have normally done," remarked Plymouth, IN native Ivan Turcios.

LSSP 7 students pictured in front of Sinks Canyon. (From left to right): Aliyah Cerda, Shivani Gutierrez, Jaylynne Calderon Monterroso, Christina Ayón, Ivan Turcios, Sarah Castillo, Parker Gaines. (Credit: Jack Thornton).

Joaquín Lopez from South Bend, IN, says that the program changed his outlook before heading into the university. 

This was the second year that ILS has collaborated with WONDER for its incoming merit scholars. “WONDER is an essential part of our program because our students open up to each other, connect with nature, and strengthen their spiritual connection with God and their new community at Notre Dame. Our merit scholars arrive enthusiastic, having established camaraderie and kinship with their peers. They start their first year with a level up of confidence, compassion, and a sense of ownership of the Go Irish spirit!” said Paloma Garcia-Lopez, the Associate Director for the Institute for Latino Studies.

Christina Ayón from Long Beach, CA, reflects on the trip and says, “The Wyoming trip was a blessing. When I look back I see laughter, friendship, adventure. It was an incredible time of self-reflection and connection.”

In conclusion, the Wyoming journey of Cohort 7 was more than a trip; it was an exploration of self, nature, and culture. We are incredibly thankful for all of the individuals that made this trip possible. Thanks to the collaboration between the Institute for Latino Studies, WONDER, and COR, my cohort began our academic journey with a profound appreciation for the splendor of reality, a deeper connection to their true selves, and authentic friendships that will last a lifetime. As we move forward in our pursuits of Latino Studies, we carry the wisdom and experiences gained in Wyoming, ready to make a difference in our communities and beyond.