Interview with Wyman Bontrager

Major

History

Current Position

Professional Land Surveyor

GC Graduation Year

1974


Why or how did you choose your field? Were there specific experiences that influenced you?

I had majored in history at Goshen College, but I found that there were a limited number of jobs available in the specific field of history. I had worked as an apprentice bricklayer during summers while going to Goshen, and I continued with this after graduation. I laid brick for seven years, and then during a period of slow construction, I was given the opportunity to work on a survey crew for the U.S. Forest Service. I was amazed at the correlation between cadastral surveying and my previous life experiences. I had always had a love of mathematics, history, and the outdoors. This field involved all of the above and then some. After the first three months on a survey crew I knew I wanted to become a licensed land surveyor.

What’s exciting about your job or this field?

I don’t know if I would use the word exciting; it’s more the enjoyment of elements of the work. Finding the original stone corner, rotten wooden posts, or evidence of the original line cuts from the 1880/90 surveys makes my day. The added benefits of being in the mountains, startling deer and elk, watching birds of prey, being joined by a herd of mountain goats for the day, or just finding the new scenic spot that takes my breath away certainly helps the enjoyment of the job. Almost all my field work is done solo, thus the ability to encounter much of the natural world on my own is exciting/enjoyable.

What has been a challenge in your career journey?

The biggest challenge to my career has been economic. Living in the Colorado mountains between the ski resorts of Vail and Aspen drives the cost of living beyond most of the rest of Americans’ comprehension. The land I survey can have a market value in the millions of dollars per acre (or even per lot in some cases) but being employed by the government, I am paid the same as if I lived in any other portion of the United States. My wife and I have gone through many periods of considering alternative places to live that are more in line with my income, but when we consider what it is we love to do (search and rescue work, skiing, 4-wheeling, hunting, fishing, etc.) we cannot find anywhere that would meet our wants and our needs.

My most direct challenging career factor would be the continuing need to learn. In this career, technology has moved from transit and chain to global positioning and GIS during my career. As a surveyor, I have always felt that one of the joys of the job was also one of the greatest challenges, maintaining up to date knowledge while learning the many facets that relate to the job. Surveying includes knowing how, why, and when the original surveys were done, the nature of the obstacles that may have been present to the original surveyors, the natural process of decay, erosion or other means that had disturbed evidence, vegetation types, etc.

How did your liberal arts education assist you in your journey? Are there specific examples you can offer?

The education I received has greatly assisted me in my career. I started as a pre-med student with biology, chemistry, and math until I found that history was my true love. The multi- discipline necessary to grasp an understanding of history has been vital to understanding surveying. It has been said that an accurate survey using the wrong points is never equal to the quality of a less precise measurement between the right points. The background in reasoning I have received in my liberal arts education is the greatest asset I have in accomplishing my work. I often rely on the structured composition of writing I was taught at Goshen in composing reports. This same logical order can be placed on survey evidence which aids in deciding which is the right conclusion.

Did anyone offer you some memorable advice that you’d like to pass on? Or…what advice would you give to a young person just starting out?

I have received much memorable advice on living, but to leave one thing to the student that would aid in career decisions it would be the advice of an older surveyor when I was hesitating on taking my exams for licensure. He told me to think about failure. If you have never failed, you have never tried your best. In order to reach your greatest success, you may need to risk your greatest failure. As a Christian, I believe the greatest failure would be to lose my love for the Lord. All else is of minor inconvenience. Go for it. The Lord is your Shepherd; He will not allow you to fail in his presence.