Students from other schools take a semester 'abroad' to study in SLC
The Salt Lake Tribune
By Mike Gorrell
Westminster College Snow and scholars
"Make your friends insanely jealous."
Now there's a marketer's line if ever there was one.
But it works well for Westminster College, which has set out to distinguish itself from hundreds of other small, private, liberal arts colleges across the United States.
The come-on refers to the college's Winter at Westminster program.
Instead of encouraging students to visit a foreign landscape, this "study abroad alternative" invites them to Salt Lake City for a winter of skiing or snowboarding to their hearts' content - while taking regular college courses supplemented by lectures from outdoor-industry leaders and access to recreation-oriented internships.
"The premise was to highlight what's unique about Utah - access to eight world-class resorts, top-flight backcountry skiing, an Olympic host city, the presence of numerous companies in the outdoors industry," said Sarah Selznick West, who developed the program as Westminster's director of new ventures.
It didn't take much to convince college president Michael Bassis that Westminster could benefit from being in the morning shadows of the Wasatch Mountains. Nor did it take long to achieve positive returns.
Enrollment has risen from three students in the inaugural year (2005) to 27 this year - from 17 states. And publicity? On Feb. 2, the Wall Street Journal highlighted Winter at Westminster in a section-front story about innovative college exchange programs.
"It's doing everything for us that we thought it would," said Bassis.
"We are trying to increase our national visibility and to have a healthy blend of students from Utah and other states. This is a good way to attract the attention of students from other states. With the lure of the mountains, we can expose them to a first-rate college experience," he added. "And they were impressed. A number have transferred to the college and become full-time students."
Westminster reached out to prospective exchange students in various ways, said Laura Murphy, executive director of communications.
Campus ski and snowboard clubs were contacted. Ads were bought in skiing and snowboarding magazines. The college acquired mailing lists from some of those publications, as well as ski-film producers, including the legendary Warren Miller.
In December, 23-year-old Noah Hatzung was pondering what to do with his recently received undergraduate business degree from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. Then "I was just strolling through my Powder magazine and saw the ad. . . . Two weeks later, I moved here."
Mike Cordaro, 20, of Connellsville, Pa., near Pittsburgh, saw an ad in Skiing magazine and knew he had to come out because "I need real mountains. I need real snow."
Erin Daniels, 19, of Santa Clarita, Calif. was looking at colleges but had not given Westminster a thought until she received a direct mail flier promoting the program. Now she is a full-time freshman.
"I thought 'this is amazing, in Salt Lake City, a nice size school and near the mountains. You can't get much better than that,' " said Daniels, who has bunched her classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights to keep days free for boarding.
"My parents say I'm living their dream, so they're happy for me," she added - despite the semester's tab of $16,500.
A by-product of this direct advertising is reflected in Steve Fox's decision to enroll. A 22-year-old from Roger Williams College in Bristol, R.I., he "was thinking about study abroad but I had no interest in going sight-seeing in other countries. So I googled 'ski college' and found this."
On Feb. 23, he was part of a Westminster contingent lucky enough to have early tram status at Snowbird on a big powder day. For his 51st snowboarding day of the season, the 'Bird received 22 inches of snow.
"They earn those turns," emphasized program developer West.
"We set up this program so that even if they are taking a semester off from their regular school, they are still on track to graduate," she added. "They're all here to get a great education, make friends and ride. . . . And for the most part, they keep up."
Students have classes Monday through Thursday, leaving Fridays and weekends free for special outings. Within that framework, academic advisor Deb Vickery arranges schedules that advance the pursuit of a degree while allowing maximum snow time.
"Some have all of their classes at night and use their passes all week," said Liz Rogers, the college's outdoor recreation coordinator, referring to season passes that Winter at Westminster students get to The Canyons and either Alta or Snowbird, depending on whether they are skiers or boarders.
Rogers is the prime organizer of special outings, which have or will include biathlon training at the Soldier Hollow Olympic course, an avalanche class, telemark skiing and ice climbing clinics, a bobsled ride at Utah Olympic Park, camping in a yurt, snowmobiling in the Uinta Mountains and Ski Utah's Interconnect tour of a half dozen resorts in the Cottonwood canyons and Park City area.
A former Alta Ski School and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor who has a master's degree in education, Rogers can keep students out of these adventures if they blow off classes or let their grades slip.
"Sometimes I hear 'it was a great powder day. I couldn't help myself.' And I understand that. Anyone who is this passionate about a sport has done that," she said. "But as far as I know, everyone is doing well in school. They have to sign an academic contract. And we really want them to succeed. They understand that."
Beyond the classroom, West's ski-industry contacts as a former U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association fundraiser helped her line up internships with The Canyons, Dynastar/Lange, Swaner Nature Center, the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, Spectrum DNA, the Norwegian School for OutdoorÂ Life and Backcountry.com.
She also has tapped the local ski culture for guest lecturers. Black Diamond Equipment CEO Peter Metcalf talked about land preservation and corporate ethics. American Skiing Co. executives described marketing the ski industry. Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Craig Gordon spoke of backcountry safety. And the students learned of perseverance from Paralympic athlete Chris Waddell.
"Our partners see value because we're able to promote ourselves to college-age students across the country, really across the world," said West. "Our program serves as their youth marketing engine."
Libby Dowd, spokeswoman for The Canyons, is enthusiastic about the affiliation with Winter at Westminster. "They're really cool kids and the program is such an alternative to doing something in Italy or France. It opens everyone's mind to Utah."
Her intern, Hatzung from Minnesota, is just as pleased.
"Initially, it was just going to be one day a week helping with events, but they ended up needing help in PR and brand management, and the Web site designer also needed a hand. I'm getting this broad base of experience that totally exceeded my expectations," he said.
Even better, after years of watching Warren Miller movies, he escorted a Warren Miller production crew around The Canyons. And when a Powder magazine photographer showed up, Hatzung became one of the skiing models.
"Those were huge thrills," he said.
This year's crop of students have enjoyed thrills aplenty.
Approaching his 100th day of the season after arriving in Salt Lake last fall, Grey Whittier, 20, from Sandpoint, Idaho, said his favorite memory is "just skiing powder over and over, because that's what I love doing. That's all I remember."
Same for Dan Witter, 19, a student at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pa., who notched day 36 on Feb. 23. "That's really all there is to life. . . . You're riding all the time."
After boarding just four days last year, Jessie Balicki, 21, from the University of Pittsburgh, said she now hits the mountains four times a week. "I can definitely see myself transferring to Westminster [full time]," she said.
Balicki wouldn't be alone.
Alex Mulvaney, 20, from Venice Beach, Calif., said he was not inclined to return to Santa Monica College, to which Ryan Pergola, 21, from Tampa Bay, Fla. quickly responded: "I'm not leaving. I'll be back here in the fall . . . this school has a really great economics program, and being able to snowboard makes it that much better. I'm addicted to snowboarding."
Winter at Westminster:
The Salt Lake City college's alternative study abroad program entices students to spend four months skiing and snowboarding at Utah resorts.
- Cost: Roughly $16,500
- Scholarships: Available, based on merit
- Class requirement: 12-16 fully transferable credits
- Perks: Season passes to The Canyons and Alta or Snowbird