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College Exchange Program Lures Students to Utah's Mountains

April 9, 2005

The Miami Herald
Debbie Hummel- The Associated Press

ALTA -- For hundreds of college students, the choice between making the first tracks through a mountain of powder snow or trudging through the cold for an 8 a.m. English literature class would be an agonizing one.

Responsibility or rare opportunity?

Now, a Utah college is making that decision much easier.
A new program, Winter at Westminster, allows students to make their turns and get credit, too.

For $2,500 on top of the standard $12,651 for full-time tuition, room and board at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, students receive an unlimited season pass to Alta and Snowbird Resorts.

Here's how it works: Students attend normal college courses Monday through Thursday -- leaving Fridays and the weekends open for the program's planned excursions to the mountain runs above Salt Lake.

This is the pilot year, with three students taking part. Next year, school officials hope to allow up to 100 students.

This year's group was the first down the mountain from the tram at Snowbird, participated in Nordic and freestyle ski jumping clinics at the Utah Olympic Park and took an onsite avalanche class with the Snowbird mountain patrol. On Friday, the group plans to head out on a three-day yurt camping trip in the remote Uinta Mountains of eastern Utah, where they will snowshoe, backcountry ski and learn about avalanche safety.

"It's been the semester of a lifetime," said Jill DeVleming, a junior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

DeVleming, 20, had been turned down for an internship with a snowboard company, and planned on getting her snowboarding fix by riding on her school's team.

But while she was supposed to be working on a paper last November she just couldn't shake a "snowboarding bug."

A quick Internet search turned up the Winter at Westminster program. DeVleming was immediately hooked.

"I called home and said 'Mom, guess what I'm doing next semester?' I cleared everything within three days," she said.

DeVleming took a leave of absence from Whitman, but all 12 of the credits she's earned at Westminster will transfer back toward her double major in art history and economics.

Not only has the program afforded her dozens of outdoor opportunities -- including a lot of snowboarding during a season when resorts in her native Washington are hurting for snow -- she also scored an internship with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

"It's really just solidified my dream of working in the ski industry," DeVleming said.

Besides the networking opportunity, she's happy to have found so many kindred spirits.

"When there is 18 inches of powder it's not like you're blowing anything off. You have to be up here," she said on a recent sunny morning on the patio at Snowbird, recalling the ease of skipping a shift at the USSA offices on a powder day.

Westminster is a small, private liberal arts college in Salt Lake City.

Shortly after school president Michael Bassis took over in 2002, the school began working on a new plan to promote its location near several world-class ski resorts, former Winter Olympic venues and, yet, near civilization.

"Most of the other schools that have advantageous locations for recreation are three hours away from a city. We have the best of both worlds," Bassis said.

"Not only are we 10 minutes away from an increasingly vibrant city ... but 20 minutes away we have this incredible ecology that not only provides the outdoor opportunities, but is also a laboratory," he said.

Sarah Selznick West, formerly with the USSA's foundation, was hired as the program's director.

She's been impressed with the students' enthusiasm.

"We want to bring students here to the college to show them the experience of Utah's diverse landscape, to honor Utah's Olympic heritage and to network with industry leaders and entrepreneurs," she said.

The program partners with several leaders in Utah's ski industry and through this year's trial run the number of outdoor opportunities available to the students has grown.

A last-minute addition of a biathlon clinic was a hit with the students, West said, particularly with Brennan Ziegler.

The 21-year-old from Oakdale, N.Y., enrolled in the program to fill the space between his graduation from Suffolk County Community College in New York and his plans to go to James Madison University, which doesn't accept midyear transfers.

"It was a good school, and I'd be able to come to Utah and snowboard and ski on supposedly the greatest snow on Earth, which I've found to be true," Ziegler said.

Utah has spent millions marketing that feeling, using the motto "Greatest Snow on Earth."

But the state often lags behind its neighbor Colorado as the first place people think of when it comes to wintertime fun.

Winter at Westminster is a "win-win situation for the industry and the school," West said.

If this year's program is any indication, she could be right.

DeVleming says she plans on moving to Utah after she graduates to find that ski industry job she's hoping for.

And while Ziegler may not be making the same leap, his affection for Utah's mountains is clear.

"Coming out here has definitely been an amazing experience," he said, "and I'm going to work a lot harder this summer so I can save up to come back out here next winter."

This AP story also appeared in the following newspapers:

North Bay Nugget (Ontario)
Idaho Statesman
Shawnee News-Star
Bellingham Herald
Wilmington News Journal