Higher Altitude Education

Ski Bums at School
By: Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Like many college graduates, Daiva Chesonis planned to go straight to a master’s program—and then she took a scenic detour. Her post-secondary bypass included a tiny whitewater rafting village in Pennsylvania and a host of small Eastern ski communities. Ultimately she landed in Telluride, a town known more for powder snow than for ivory towers—and an unlikely place to earn a master’s degree. Until now.

Fifteen years after earning her bachelor’s degree, Chesonis decided to return to her academic aspirations: an MA in Diplomacy and International Conflict Resolution. “I’m a foreign policy junkie,” she says. Roadblocks on the path to graduate school included a husband with a small business in Telluride, a three-year-old daughter and deep roots in the Telluride community. One of the nearest universities, Mesa State in Grand Junction, is three hours away. Even if she could commute the distance, Mesa didn’t offer degrees in her field of interest.

In January of 2005, Chesonis brought her classroom to Telluride: She enrolled in an 18-month online program offered by Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. “It was intensive,” she says. “There were six 11-week semesters with a one-week residency in Vermont at the end. If I’d known how hard it would be, I wouldn’t have purchased a ski pass. I had to pretend there were no mountains around me.”

Like Chesonis, many folks in the region want to add a few letters behind their names. A 2004 Higher Education Needs Survey of the Telluride area found that 10 percent of respondents wanted to obtain an associate’s degree, 13 percent wanted to earn a bachelor’s, 35 percent wanted to complete a master’s, and 10 percent hoped to attain a doctorate.

Those are daunting goals if people want to stay put in paradise—and many do. Over 66 percent of the people surveyed said that if they could get the education they want and need in Telluride, they would stay in the local workforce.

Considering Telluride’s relative isolation, one might be surprised by the myriad adult educational opportunities. And we’re not talking ski school. Despite its insular nature, Telluride boasts a community calendar robust with lectures, readings, symposia and workshops. The teachers are often internationally renowned, from Rinpoches to Smithsonian scholars.

These opportunities keep the mind sharp—and after a day spent thrilling in the mountain steeps, there’s an important balance found in deep thought. A discussion on modernist poetry, perhaps? A lecture on biodiversity in Papua, New Guniea? French lessons? For Telluriders with more specific academic goals, there are now multiple tracks toward MAs, BAs, MPAs and other versions of alphabet soup.

Any ski bum can Google “online degree” and uncover thousands of opportunities to earn credentials without leaving the living room. Another variation, hybrid distance degrees, require campus visits in addition to online coursework. And now, since fall semester 2005, Telluride boasts its own collection of makeshift college credit classrooms. Qualified locals teach courses such as Supervisory Management, Eastern Philosophy and Southwest Archeology, and residents receive credit through Mesa State College or Colorado Northwestern Community College. The programs are made possible through the University Centers of the San Miguel, a locally supported, non-profit, rural higher education initiative.

“The UCSM is committed to offering programs of particular relevance to our region’s unique socio-economic, cultural and natural environments, focusing on the real needs of local students and our local job markets,” says the organization’s founder, Sarah Silver. She earned a master’s in Education from a hybrid distance-learning program offered by Prescott University in Arizona. Founding the UCSM was her project for her master’s thesis. “Online courses are great,” she says, “but they’re not the total answer. They require tremendous self-discipline and academic confidence. The UCSM believes that most people just starting their college journey have greater success with face-to-face instruction in small classes, with caring teachers and solid mentorship and counseling. That’s what we offer.”

There are now enough UCSM courses at the core freshman/sophomore community college level for anybody who is working and living in Telluride to begin their education. “We can then direct them on to a degree program they can complete without leaving the community,” Silver says.

Bottom line: You can live in Telluride and earn your degree. You might have to skip skiing for a semester, though.

Around a decade ago, Lance Waring earned his High School English Teaching Certificate through Regis University in Denver. He relied on the U.S. Postal Service and telephone to communicate with his advisor, and several times he drove to Mesa State to take tests and “knock out core credits.” Though it was a two-year program, he had financial incentive to condense his studies. One year later, with only one face-to-face meeting with his advisor, he had the necessary piece of paper in hand.

In 1999, when Laura Kudo wanted to earn her teaching certificate, the advent of the Internet had opened new doors for those reluctant to uproot from their rural hometowns. “I’m married,” she says. “I have a home here. My life is here.” Kudo hoped to do course work part-time and work part-time. She also wanted to supplement the Internet classes with real classroom experiences during the summer, “so I could actually see the professors and get some face-to-face interaction.” She found the answer in a distance-learning program through Fort Lewis College in Durango, two hours away. Four semesters later, she was ready to do her student teaching in Telluride and complete her degree.

Though the Internet allowed her to meet her degree requirements while living and working at home, Kudo recalls it wasn’t without drawbacks. “Just seven years ago, downloading and chatrooms were still not common, and so the online relationship with the professors was distant—cut and dried. And back then it wasn’t common to send documents over the Internet, so I did a lot of mailing. My best communication with professors was through their handwritten comments on papers that they mailed back.” Perhaps the biggest hitch: dial-up access. “It was unreliable,” she says.

In 2005, when Andrea Pfefer wanted to start earning her teaching degree, she had more options. It wasn’t the right time to leave Telluride: She was several months pregnant, and she and her husband had just started building a home. She could have begun a distance-learning program, but the UCSM had just opened its doors. She took Speechmaking 102, knowing it would help her own interpersonal classroom skills. Now she can transfer those credits to whatever program she ultimately enrolls in—be it online, hybrid or traditional.

When it comes to educational opportunities, what’s good for the individual is good for the community. “It’s well documented that communities that have established a local community college not only have a more consistent and productive workforce,” says Silver, “but they also attract and retain families and employees because of the broader array of educational opportunity and enrichment in the community.” For now, the combination of the UCSM and online learning seems to provide just what the regional community needs—opportunities for certification, education and edification in a wide constellation of fields.

Susan Rice, who has worked in San Miguel County’s west end since 1978, wants to remain in her new job as coordinator for the Naturita Public Library until she retires. To do so, she must become a certified Library Technician. To that end, she’s taking courses through the UCSM and will transfer credits to Pueblo Community College next year when she enrolls in their online program. To date, she’s taken courses in English and Public Speaking. “I’ve learned a lot and gained self-confidence,” she says. “And the convenience and opportunity of this learning environment gives one a sense of community.”

For psychologist Kristen Redd, an online study program enabled her to open a private practice. She had long dreamt of a career in social work, but when she and her husband moved to Norwood in 2001, pursuing higher education seemed improbable. They had a family business, a small child and plans to build a home. “And then the library had a distance-learning fair,” she says. “I found a master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology through Naropa. I jumped on it.”

It was arduous. For two years she arose at 4 a.m. to study for two hours. She drove her daughter to preschool in Telluride, then haunted the library all day. “I didn’t have my own laptop,” she says, a true detriment for online students. “But the Telluride library has computers specifically designated for distance learners. I could be on them as long as I needed—usually four to six hours a day.” (It’s no surprise there’s munificent library support for online learning: Wilkinson Library’s Adult Services librarian earned her Master of Library Science degree through a hybrid distance-learning program.) Empowered by her positive master’s experience, Redd amplified her dream: She’s already applied and been accepted to a PhD program. “But that will have to wait until we’re done building the house,” she says.

And for Telluride Marshall John Wontrobski, the post-secondary opportunities in Telluride allow him to dream on what might come next. After 13 years with the marshall’s office, he’s pursuing professional development and considering a master’s in Public Administration. “I’m taking the UCSM Public Speaking course for the popcorn,” he says. “And perhaps it will get me student admission into the Nugget Theater. Otherwise, I hope it will add to my professional ‘toolbox’ and make me more marketable.” And, Wontrobski notes, the higher education experience “rounds out one’s time in Telluride, helping to keep up with trends and new practices in the rest of the world.”

There’s still no Starbucks in Telluride—no Target, no stoplights, no crowds. Most locals hope it stays that way. But there is a bit more knowledge knocking around these valley walls—newly qualified RNs, MAs and MLSs that elevate the regional quality of life. We even have a trained diplomat. More alphabet soup, anyone?