Gazing Skyward (Part 2)


The Transformer

For Barton Thurber, USD has proven the perfect place to satisfy his abiding curiosity.

by Sandra Millers Younger


The last thing Barton Thurber expected when he arrived at Stanford as a freshman engineering major was to be ambushed by a dead poet. But that’s what happened when the self-described “math and science kid” tackled a tough English assignment: The Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge by German writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

“I started reading at seven o’clock one night, and by eight o’clock the next morning I was an English major,” Thurber recalls. “It was a true conversion experience to a whole other way of encountering life than I’d ever dreamed existed. Suddenly, the one thing in the world I believed in and wanted to be a part of was literature.”

For the past 31 years, Thurber has conveyed that love of literature to his appreciative students at USD, where he’s taught poetry, Romanticism and 19th century British lit; served as English department chair; and attracted numerous grants, honors and awards.

Thurber came to USD in 1979, fresh from his doctoral work at Harvard. He never imagined he’d stay his entire career. But the young, evolving campus suited him, offering opportunities to explore his abiding curiosity about how things work, a holdover perhaps from his pre-engineering days. Thurber’s scholarly work addresses not only 19th century novels, but also the 21st century intersection of literature and technology — how the Internet affects narrative, for instance.

Sit in on one of his poetry classes, and you’ll see Thurber has also re-engineered the classroom for the millennial generation. No boring lectures, and no tolerance for apathy either, even at 7:45 a.m.

“You don’t get to be a fly on the wall,” he says. “This is because there are no flies, and, if I ever have anything to say about it, no walls.”

Instead, Thurber enables his students to experience a poet’s process, and even the birth of a new literary era.

“We’re going to invent American poetry in three steps,” he announces, and 20 sleepy students wake up and begin to puzzle out step one: listing the differences between merry olde England and the 75-year-old American nation in 1850.

“America was an idea before it was a nation,” Thurber hints. “America had a frontier, an escape from law and order. So what is American poetry going to be like?”

Gradually, they get it. American poetry should be new and different, unfettered from meter, rhyme and stuffy language. It should express freedom from outdated social structures. It should celebrate opportunity and individualism. It should, in fact, sound a lot like Walt Whitman’s groundbreaking “Song of Myself.”

Thurber reads a chunk of Whitman, points out its rhyme-free verse and everyday language. He recounts the vicious criticism Whitman initially encountered — charges of egomania and lack of craftsmanship — and asks the class if the critics were right.

Students confer and decide Whitman’s first-person voice is more plural than singular, his song not really of himself but of a cocky, adolescent nation working out its identity and direction.

“OK,” Thurber concludes, “now that you’ve got an idea of what American poetry is, write some.”

Ten minutes later, the hour ends in a flurry of freshborn verse read aloud, each poem, however unpolished, a reasonable facsimile of Whitman’s sassy authenticity. Thurber leaves the room satisfied.

“I see jaws dropping as they understand the truth, beauty and power of literature,” he says. “Some students are staggered by what literature can do, because they’ve never seen it before. Once you get someone like that in the classroom, it’s a privilege to be there.”

The Adventurer

Junior James Wykowski’s epic journey left him feeling truly at peace with the world.

by Ryan T. Blystone


An unsettling 12-hour bus ride between the Moroccan cities of Casablanca and Zagora was a definite learning experience for James Wykowski. “Our first trek into the desert was supposed to take place at sunset, but as the sun continued to go down, we began wondering what the camels’ night vision was going to be like,” he recalls about that journey, which was meant to culminate with a stay in a desert camp.

Fear and doubt consumed many of his fellow students — along with motion sickness brought on by the bus weaving up and down hair-raising twists through the mountains. “As the sun went down, concerns began to rise. Pretty soon talk of never getting off, getting scammed — or worse — began to sprout up.”

But the bus did reach its promised destination at last, and Wykowski’s worries disappeared, replaced by relief and calm.
“We trekked through the desert at night on the camels. Our way was lit entirely by the moon,” he wrote on his blog. “The sky was bursting with stars and I had this incredible feeling of being so far away from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, but still totally at peace with the world.”

Consider it a lesson learned, one of several memorable adventures from the USD junior’s Semester at Sea (SAS) fall excursion, which spanned 111 days, 12 countries and five college classes aboard the passenger ship MV Explorer.

It’s the sort of journey that a person can’t fully prepare for, says Wykowski, a theatre arts and theology and religious studies double major. “Visiting so many countries in such a short amount of time is an amazing and overwhelming experience.”

The voyage began in Montreal, moved on to Casablanca and then to Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Japan, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Cuba, before finally docking in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Wykowski was one of 63 USD students aboard the ship, alongside hundreds of college students from all over the nation. The nonprofit Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE), runs student education trips year-round.

Of course, it’s not all about clocking travel miles and hopping from one international adventure to the next. There is actually studying involved. Wykowski took five courses: Global Studies, World Literature, Conversational Spanish, World Theatre and Performance and History of Musical Theatre.

Kira Espiritu, director of International Study Abroad programs, says USD sends more students on SAS than any other school in the country.

Wykowski is the first USD student to be an ISE Presidential Scholar, an honor which, among other benefits, covered the cost of his semester’s tuition. His selection brought with it a responsibility to adhere to the SAS’ mission “to educate individuals with the global understanding necessary to address the challenges of our interdependent world.”

To answer that challenge, he embarked on a research project delving into the Catholic Social Thought principle of solidarity.

He credits his two-year participation in USD’s University Ministry’s Tijuana Spring Breakthrough immersion as the main impetus for his decision to apply for SAS. “My Tijuana experience changed my perspective on everything,” he says, “It made me more globally aware, more aware of myself, how I relate to others and what my idea of service is.”

The Crusader

Jeff McAtee leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of environmental criminals.

by Mike Sauer


For someone who spends his days documenting the nefarious activities of some of the world’s most notorious environmental criminals, Jeff McAtee sure seems to have a chipper outlook on things. “There are some bad people out there doing some bad things to our planet, but I really feel like the work I’m doing is making a difference,” the communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Criminal Enforcement says with typical good cheer. “How can that not make you smile?”

Once dubbed “the nicest man in news” during his 34-year broadcasting career, McAtee’s endearing geniality and aw shucks selflessness seem atypical of someone whose job it is to doggedly pursue those who have run afoul of federal environmental laws, and help bring them to justice.

However, closer investigation reveals McAtee to be more pit bull than pacifist when it comes to bringing the truth about environmental negligence to light, and he’ll leave no stone unturned in his attempt to inform and educate his audience — as the five Emmy awards he’s won for excellence in television journalism can attest.

“It’s really important that people know what the criminal enforcement division of the EPA is all about, and that’s what I was brought here to do, to help get the word out,” McAtee explains. “People think we’re just tree huggers — which we are — but our division is focused on going out and getting the bad guys. Trust me, there are plenty of them out there.”

Among his many talents — rumor has it he’s a wizard with a ukulele and possesses a singing voice that earned him an invitation to study with the nationally acclaimed Lyric Opera of Chicago — McAtee seems to have an innate ability to understand when he’s arrived at a crossroads in his career. He actively seeks out “new and interesting ways to better myself, which, in part, was what led me to the MSGL program at USD back in 2002.”

The Master of Science in Global Leadership program is an intensive and challenging educational experience at the best of times, but trying to balance a demanding course load with a full-time television anchor job in Seattle was bordering on impossible. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also his side gig as a commanding officer in the Naval reserve, a position he stepped away from last November after 23 years of service.

To say it was a frenetically paced existence would be an understatement, but, always the optimist, McAtee sees his USD experience as an essential part of his current career path.

“It had to be one of the toughest times in my life, but I’ll tell you what, it was also one of the best decisions of my life. I know my MSGL degree appealed to my employers in the Navy, and it led to me working on one of the Navy’s most important environmental projects of the last decade, which was called the Naples Public Health Evaluation. It also helped me land my current job with the EPA, and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.”