A Vibrant Community in Utah
By Michael Bassis
When I was asked to become Westminster College’s 16th president, I had some concerns. I was a product of the East Coast, I had lived in New York and Boston and I appreciated the opportunity that an urban setting provided in terms of dealing with a rich mix of people from various backgrounds. And now I was going to move to Utah?
It seemed like a bad fit.
But after visiting the college, I changed my mind. It seemed to me that in terms of location, Westminster exists in “the best of all possible worlds.” Not only is the college located in an eclectic area of Salt Lake City known as Sugar House, but we are less than 10 minutes by mass transit from the vibrant downtown area – which is undergoing a $3 billion redevelopment designed to better serve the growing financial, high-tech and bio-tech industries, as well as a flourishing arts community. I also discovered that seven of the country’s best ski resorts are within a 30 minute drive from campus. And if winter activities aren’t your thing, I found that you can visit one of six national parks over the weekend and be back for classes on Monday – now where else can you find that in the U.S?
In addition to the diverse location, I also realized that the population is quite diverse. On campus, you can connect with students from more than 25 different countries, 38 states, and participate in travel abroad options. And our students regularly interface with the over 30 ethnic communities which enrich our culture and contribute to the success of our state.
I was, in short, delighted to discover that the Utah I saw was not the Utah I had imagined. But I was also disappointed to find that the college was so accustomed to the riches that surrounded it, that they were often taken for granted.
So very deliberately, over the past five years or so, we have developed programs designed to maximize the value of our location and integrate it into the academic and social aspects of our campus.
We started with the most obvious: winter sports. We have a program which allows students to schedule their classes to maximize their time on skis and boards. And if you don’t ski or snowboard, we at least make it possible for you to hang out with some people who do: More than 50 U.S. Ski Team and Snowboarding athletes are enrolled at the college -- 14 of whom competed in the 2010 Olympics, including a bronze medallist in moguls. We also have an intercollegiate ski and snowboard program, which has won nationals for the past two years. And for the less structured outdoor enthusiast, we have an incredible outdoor recreation program that not only hosts the state’s tallest indoor campus climbing wall, but also organizes everything from mountain biking and hiking trips to river rafting excursions.
From the outdoors, we moved into more urban settings. Given the variety of businesses in the Salt Lake Valley, we have developed internships which let students explore their interests and test new career options. Westminster offers students a Career Passages program which prepares them for the world of work. In addition to coordinating service-learning experiences, our Office of Civic Engagement works with faculty to create learning opportunities for students ranging from developing manuals for senior citizens to guide them through using e-mail and Facebook to organizing Habitat for Humanity projects and providing Native Americans with health screening clinics. Those activities become a part of regularly scheduled classes and ensure that our students use what they learn to improve the lives of others. Indeed the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching recently selected Westminster to be one of just 311 institutions nationwide included in its Community Engagement Classification.
Add all of that to the “normal” packed schedule of concerts, plays, lectures, art exhibits, films and poetry readings, as well as activities sponsored by our student government and the 50 student organizations on campus, and that spells both a vibrant campus and unique environment for learning found only at Westminster.