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Will Shafer and Nolan Cook

A Small Town, Two Students, and Different College Dreams

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

This piece was created by the photographer Katie Currid, with narrative by Graham Vyse, a staff reporter. It was edited by Maura Mahoney. Erica Lusk, the senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs.

Nolan Cook and Will Shafer have a lot in common.

They’ve both grown up in Weston, Mo., a rural town with a population of just under 1,800 people that’s about a half-hour’s drive northwest of Kansas City. They’re both 18 years old and about to graduate from the town’s West Platte High School, having done well academically and made well-considered plans for college and a career. They’ve both been shaped by living and working on farms, by families that valued education and tried to set them up for success, and by their tight-knit community just east of the Missouri River. When you talk to them now, as they’re beginning their adult lives, they sound optimistic about the future.

l to r: Will Shafer with Nolan and Gunner Smith.
From left to right: Shafer, Cook, and friend Gunner Smith at their sixth-grade graduation party in 2018.

Yet these two classmates, who’ve known each other since they were young boys, are heading in two very different directions after graduation — both in terms of where they’re going to college and the reasons why.

Cook will go to Southeast Community College in Milford, Neb., roughly three hours to the north, where he’ll start a John Deere tractor-technician program. He plans to build his life back in Weston after earning his associate degree. If it weren’t for the job training, he says, he wouldn’t have wanted to spend any more time in school: “We don’t have that much time here on Earth. Sitting in a classroom for another four years or six years wasn’t a happy thought for me.”

Nolan Cook works on a house owned by Mark Pierce on Saturday, March 9, 2024. The plan is for Nolan’s longtime girlfriend to move into the rental property while he is away at school in Nebraska.
Cook works on siding for a house in Weston he’s planning to live in after completing his degree.

Shafer, by contrast, is quite happy to have four more years of education ahead of him and to be embarking on a life journey without a predetermined destination. He’s going to the University of Oklahoma at Norman, more than five hours south, where he’ll study to be a pilot in its aviation school. He says he understands why Weston “has a way of holding people in and bringing people back,” but he has no plans to return home to settle down — at least not anytime soon. “I’d like to see the whole world, if possible. I’d like to climb Kilimanjaro.”

Will Shafer logs into the computer to fill out college paperwork in the family office after dinner on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 at home in Weston, Mo. Will will be attending Oklahoma University for college next year and plans to become a commercial pilot. Though a bachelor’s degree is not required to become a pilot, his parents felt strongly that Will have a four-year college experience.
Shafer logs on to the computer in the family office after dinner to fill out college paperwork.

Their stories illustrate how very similar students can look to higher education for exactly opposite reasons: as a means of staying grounded in a place or of (sometimes even literally) flying away.

Cook and Shafer both appreciate their upbringings in Weston. Known for its small-town charm and antebellum architecture, the community was founded in 1837. It was the first settlement after the Platte Purchase, a U.S.-government land acquisition a year earlier. (The Shafers say their family came to Platte County around this time.) Lewis and Clark camped near Weston in 1804, and the town was a major river port in the early 19th century. There’s a long tradition of tobacco farming in the area.

Weston, Mo., a town of less than 2,000 people, is located north of Kansas City. Its historic downtown is a bit of a tourist destination for locals.
Weston, Mo., is located north of Kansas City. Here residents enjoy Fourth of July festivities.

These days, Weston is a place where quaint lamp posts and old brick buildings marked with historical plaques flank Main Street — a stretch of tourist-friendly shops, restaurants, cafes, and museums. Travel + Leisure called it one of the “10 Best Small Towns in the Midwest” in 2022, and Kansas City’s Ingram’s Magazine has repeatedly ranked it as the best place for a day trip. Overnight visitors can stay at the Saint George Hotel, first opened in 1845.

Cook and Shafer grew up immersed in the culture of this community, surrounded by farmland and countryside, and involved in the workings of their respective family farms just outside the town limits. They’ve tended to livestock, operated machinery, and learned about the agriculture industry. They’ve also enjoyed the pleasures of rural life. “I have a deep appreciation for nature,” Shafer says. “I love hunting and fishing. I’m passionate about conservation. I’m kind of an environmentalist.”

Will Shafer helps his father, Quint Shafer, put out hay for the cattle amid below-freezing temperatures on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024 in Weston, Mo. The Shafers run a small beef operation, selling sides of grass-fed Angus beef that they raise on the acreage where they live.
Shafer helps his father, Quint Shafer, put out hay for the cattle amid below-freezing temperatures in January. The Shafers run a small beef operation, selling sides of grass-fed Angus beef they raise on their farm.

When Cook reflects on his own formative farm experiences, he says he was constantly around animals: The family had chickens, donkeys, goats, and cattle. He grew up working on cars and tractors with his father, who was a mechanic before severe injuries from a car crash forced him to give up the trade.

Nolan at home with his family — mom Amanda, dad Josh, brother Matthew, brother Case, 13
Cook works on a car with his father, Josh, one evening after dinner.

Cook’s parents talked with him about the risks and uncertainties of higher education. It wasn’t that they were against it — they’d gone to college, as had their own parents, two of whom worked in education — but they cautioned Cook to plan carefully if he wanted additional schooling. He’d need to fund it himself and, as much as anyone can, ensure that it would be a worthwhile investment. “Don’t let your education get in the way of your learning,” his dad would say.

The Cooks — Case, Matthew, Amanda, Josh and Nolan (left to right), bow their heads in prayer before a family meal at home on Feb. 13, 2024 in Weston, Mo.
The Cooks — Case, Matthew, Amanda, Josh and Nolan (left to right) — bow their heads in prayer before a family meal at home.

“I’ve always been good in school,” Cook says, and he’s interested in law, politics, and agricultural engineering. “I probably could do well at a four-year college, but it costs so much, and you’re not guaranteed a job. That was really a drawback for me. I knew I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t take on $80,000 in debt.”

Nolan Cook and Will Shafer at West Platte High School on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
Cook works on a children’s book during a creative-writing class at West Platte High School.

Cook initially thought he’d be a welder, but his current trajectory isn’t ultimately that surprising. He’s always loved rebuilding and restoring vehicles, starting with a 1978 Chevy truck he bought when he was 13. “I’m really into taking old stuff and making it run like new,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in taking stuff apart and putting it back together.” He also appreciates the immediate rewards of manual labor — of being able to see the impact of your efforts right away. He believes being a tractor technician will mean fulfilling work with a good salary.

Nolan at home with his family — mom Amanda, dad Josh, brother Matthew, brother Case, 13
Nolan Cook repairs a vehicle with his brother. Members of the Cook family go down to their workshop most nights after dinner to work on their vehicles or taxidermy projects.

It was an intervention from a teacher that determined Cook’s direction. Carmen Buller — who teaches agriculture at the high school and was Cook’s adviser for FFA, the agriculture-education organization typically known as Future Farmers of America — decided to connect him with a recruiter for John Deere, where her husband works.

Nolan Cook, left, helps agriculture teacher Carmen Buller prepare plant fertilizer in the school greenhouse on Feb. 27, 2024 at West Platte High School in Weston, Mo. Nolan is a teacher’s aide for Carmen’s class, and also is enrolled in one of her agriculture classes. Carmen helped Nolan get his job at Ag Power, where he will shadow as a tractor mechanic and, once he graduates high school, Ag Power will sponsor him at a technical school to become a tractor mechanic.
Cook, left, helps agriculture teacher Carmen Buller prepare plant fertilizer in the school greenhouse. Cook is a teacher’s aide for Buller and is enrolled in one of her agriculture classes. Buller helped Cook get his job at Ag Power, a local John Deere dealer, where he’s developing his mechanical skills. He plans to continue working there during summer and winter breaks and is guaranteed a job at the dealership after he finishes his program.

Buller says she thought Cook could help to fill the company’s need for mechanics. He’d been one of the first students she’d gotten to know after moving to the school district two years ago, and she knew he was good at “getting dirty and getting things done.” Buller says Cook has “worked for everything he has, and his parents have instilled an incredible work ethic in him.”

Nolan Cook works on a house owned by Mark Pierce on Saturday, March 9, 2024. The plan is for Nolan’s longtime girlfriend to move into the rental property while he is away at school in Nebraska.
Cook peers upstairs in the house he’s been working on, assessing what kind of studs he needs for the walls.

Cook was thrilled to be connected with John Deere. He soon decided he belonged in the program at Southeast Community College, where he’ll live on campus starting in August. Between his savings and the income-based scholarship he expects to receive, he says he’ll likely complete the program without taking on any meaningful debt.

He’s also getting a head start on what he’ll be learning. Last summer, he accepted a job at one of John Deere’s dealerships in nearby Easton, Mo. He’s continued to work there part time as he’s finishing high school. “We’re one of the most state-of-the-art shops in the area,” he says with evident pride, “so we’re working on some of the biggest, baddest tractors and combines — some of the newest stuff John Deere has put out.”

Nolan Cook shadows service technician Shannon Harness as they work on a John Deere Combine X9 1000 at Ag-Power on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024 in Easton, Mo. Nolan started working at Ag Power a few months prior when his agriculture teacher asked him if he would be interested in a position there. Ag Power was looking for students who they could sponsor at a technical school after high school to be trained as a tractor mechanic, and Nolan was interested. Nolan will shadow technicians at Ag Power until he graduates high school, and then he will go onto a technical school to learn to work on tractors, sponsored by Ag Power.
Cook works on a John Deere X9 1000 combine.

Cook believes that over the long term, he’ll be doing more than working with cutting-edge farm vehicles: He’ll be playing an important role in an industry that’s vital not just to his area but to the entire nation. “My job is to help farmers get their jobs done,” he says. “If farmers don’t get their jobs done, we don’t eat. Knowing that my work impacts more than just me and my family is a huge influence for me.”

Shafer may not share Cook’s desire to stay in Weston, but he also takes pride in the place. An athlete who played football, basketball, and ran track, he says, “I didn’t play football because our team was good. I played football to represent Weston.” He was moved by the fact that many residents showed up to watch his games. He appreciated their community spirit.

Will Shafer at basketball practice at West Platte on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 in Weston, Mo.
Shafer (center-right) at basketball practice.

Despite his hometown ties, Shafer says “it was always an expectation for me to go to college — always.” Though he gravitated toward a traditional four-year experience, his parents say they wouldn’t have minded if he had opted for vocational training. They just wanted him to continue his education. Quint and Christy Shafer were high-school sweethearts in Weston — today he’s a judge, and she owns an events venue in town — and they talked with Will about how much fun they’d had in their college years at the University of Colorado and the University of Kansas, respectively.

Will Shafer and his mom Christy plate their dinner in the kitchen as Will’s dad, Quint, takes a phone call on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 at their home in Weston, Mo. Though Will’s schedule as a high school senior is busy – he’s a three-sport athlete — the family eats dinner together every night.
Shafer and his mother, Christy, plate their dinner in the kitchen as his father, Quint, takes a phone call. Though Shafer’s schedule as a high-school senior is busy – he’s a three-sport athlete — the family eats dinner together every night.

The Shafers also cultivated their son’s desire to see the world — by showing him a remarkable amount of it. In addition to hosting a foreign-exchange student, they’ve taken family trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, Austria, Italy, Spain, and national parks across the United States. “Honestly, our very best times as a family have been traveling together,” Christy says. “It’s been a real bonding experience for us.” Will is well aware that the experience is uncommon. “It’s not lost on me how lucky I’ve been,” he says.

When Shafer thought about career possibilities, he realized he didn’t want to work behind a desk. But he doesn’t remember when or why he decided on flight school. “I just thought, man, that would be a badass job,” he says. “I met up with a neighbor who’s an airline pilot and told me about all the reasons it was a great time to get into the airline business,” including the national pilot shortage. He learned that Flying magazine had recently named the University of Oklahoma’s aviation program the best in the country.

Will Shafer eats lunch with friends and classmates in the school cafeteria on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 at West Platte High School in Weston, Mo.
Shafer, in the blue shirt, eats lunch with friends and classmates in the school cafeteria.

The university also had another appeal for him. He says he’s looking forward to a more robust social life — and to the sheer pleasure of meeting a bunch of new people — after having, as he puts it, “the same eight friends since I was 5 years old.” His mother thinks it’ll be good for him to move someplace bigger and see a contrast with a town where a high-school class can have as few as 45 students. “You go to a small high school. Go to a big college,” she tells him. “You live in a small town. Live in a city once in your life.”

Will Shafer, center, works on Spanish homework during study hall in the library on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 at West Platte High School in Weston, Mo.
Shafer, center, works on Spanish homework during study hall in the high-school library.

Not that Shafer needed convincing. “I’ve always planned on taking the cold plunge of leaving this small town – and leaving Missouri – for college,” he says. “It does scare me, though, because I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

Will Shafer closes a pen behind a bull after moving the animal to a new pen with his dad on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 in Weston, Mo.
Shafer closes a gate after moving a bull to a new pen.

Cook and Shafer may be headed in different directions this summer, but each is intent on making his own way. Buller, the agriculture teacher, says she’s seen many driven students in her time, but never anyone who made plans quite like Cook — for his finances, for his family, for his whole future. Shafer’s father, Quint, says his son “came up with wanting to fly all by himself.” Now, Quint says, “he’s got a plan, and that’s more than I ever had.” One student is staying, and one is leaving — but in keeping with Weston’s pioneer spirit, each is charting his own course.