When Dan Piquette walked across the stage at Western’s 2014 Commencement, he followed a path that is in his blood.
Piquette’s dual bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Biology is the 23rd Western diploma granted to members of his extended family. And he is the 27th family member to attend Western. Almost as significantly, Piquette is one of eight 2014 graduates selected to receive Western’s Alumni Award of Excellence, honoring his scholarship, persistence and the 3.8 grade-point average he earned.
In 2012, Piquette’s daughter, Lacey Keane, graduated with a Sociology degree and spoke at commencement. Piquette’s father, Jerry Piquette, earned two degrees from Western, in 1961 and 1969, and worked at the college as vice president for Business Affairs. Even Lacey’s mother, Piquette’s former wife, is a Western grad.
Piquette is also a non-traditional student, a former operating room nurse for 17 years at Gunnison Valley Hospital, who “went through some life changes.”
“Our kids were grown and moving out, and we got a divorce,” he recalls. “I spent so many years taking care of other people that I forgot to take care of myself. I quit drinking. I tried construction for about a year. But that didn’t work.
“I was having a conversation with my daughter, and I said, ‘Lacey, you need to find what you love to do and do it.’”
Those words echoed in Piquette’s head. In 2009, he found a seasonal job policing aquatic invasive species for the National Park Service in the Curecanti National Recreation Area, which encompasses Blue Mesa Reservoir, just west of Gunnison. He enrolled at Western the following year.
“All I knew was I wanted to work outdoors,” Piquette recalls. “I talked with Dr. Pat Magee, and he just told me I was going to do a coordinated double major in Environmental Biology and Environmental Studies, with an emphasis in Ecology.
“I didn’t really know what that meant. But when I was working as a nurse, 80 hours a week, I almost never got outside. And Pat got me outside. He trusted me. He really introduced me to the field of Ecology.”
Magee and others involved Piquette in a string of research projects, sending him along streams, into canyons and up in the hills. But there were other academic forces at work on him.
“My very first year, in Philosophy 101, Dr. John Hausdoerffer got under my skin,” Piquette recalls. “And something about him got me into the philosophy of the environment.
“Up until last August, I was planning for graduate studies in Ecology. But during the Headwaters Conference (which Hausdoerffer helps organize), the keynote speaker, Walter Echo Hawk, said we must ask ‘how we comport ourselves to the environment.’ I just sat there and thought about that.”
Piquette recalled his frustration with writing scientific papers that paint issues in black and white. What good does it do, he thought, to generate a bunch of raw data that no one can read but other scientists? He had a conversation with Hausdoerffer about the ideas swimming in his head.
“He said, ‘Dan, you’re talking about ethics there,’” Piquette recalls. “I decided I wanted to use ethics to change policy, rather than strictly science, because science isn’t doing it.”
And Hausdoerffer, being Hausdoerffer, had an assignment ready for Piquette to explore such ideas. It’s key to the professor’s capstone class in Environmental Ethics. Students must compare Aldo Leopold’s journey in A Sand County Almanac to their own lives. How did Leopold become aware we are a community that is all connected? Was he right? Was he wrong? Was he missing something?
“It’s a fascinating assignment,” Piquette says. “I had a blast doing it.”
Instead of pursuing a master’s degree in Ecology, Piquette will move to Corvallis, Ore., to study Applied Ethics: Environmental Ethics at Oregon State University. Since his degree is not in Philosophy, like most applicants to such programs, Piquette says Hausdoerffer was key to helping him find the right graduate program. With his professor’s help, Piquette leveraged his science degree and life experience into acceptance at OSU, with a full-tuition scholarship and stipend as a teaching assistant.
While he is an active hiker and telemark skier, like many fellow students, Piquette says that returning to school in his 40s was, at first, “unbelievably intimidating.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever been so scared as walking into a classroom full of younger students,” he recalls. “But eventually, I found some of my best friends. The age is all relative. We’re all very similar. We think there’s a generational gap. But the only difference is life experience.”
Asked for his final thoughts on his time at Western, Piquette pauses and then gushes.
“Science is really a story. It’s to the best of our knowledge,” he explains. “We have to be humble about it.
“What I really learned at Western is how much I don’t know. I learned how to learn.”
Story by Greg Smith, Western Marketing & Media Relations.