Hitting the books between pow turns 

Whistlerites find a way to get a degree without leaving the mountains

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - learning lessons After a busy day on the mountain, Audrey Charette-Caron studies at Whistler Public Library.
  • Photo suBmitted
  • learning lessons After a busy day on the mountain, Audrey Charette-Caron studies at Whistler Public Library.

Whistler has talked about getting its own university for years, but a learning revolution is happening organically among Whistlerites. Walk into the library and you'll see Whistler already has an organic student body — and they're doing it online.

"Last year, out of my group of five snowboard friends, three of us were at school. This year, a fourth friend has started too," said Audrey Charette-Caron, who is finishing her Bachelor of Psychology online from the Université du Québec à Montréal.

"A lot of people choose to do online school because they are from out of town," said Sophie Garneau, who completed part of her Bachelor's of Hospitality Management online from Vancouver Community College. "I have friends who took a semester off school to visit Whistler for the winter and while they were here they did online courses to avoid falling behind."

Many students choose degrees that fit in with their career aspirations as well as the Whistler job market. Garneau chose her degree to further her hospitality career. "Before my degree I worked at the Whistler Conference Centre; I also did my school internship there as a catering coordinator during the Olympics. Afterwards I got an entry level sales position at the Westin. From there I moved up really quickly and now I'm a sales manager at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler. School helped me get into sales, but you have to want it too. You make your own success."

Adam Gray is two years into a construction management degree, from the University of Newcastle in Australia.

"I chose to do online school so that I could study and continue to live in Whistler," said Gray. "My course is very relevant — I work in construction and before that I managed a retail store."

But not all school leads directly into a career, so Charette-Caron researched job availability before choosing a course.

"There's not many opportunities to use a university degree in Whistler, you don't need any school for most jobs," said Charette-Caron. "I'd like to teach, so I'm thinking about doing a Master's or a Bachelor's in Education — Whistler schools need people who speak French for French immersion."

Online learning isn't for everyone, Garneau thinks many students struggle to adapt. "Online school works best for people who already have some education under their belts, it's good for perfecting something. You really need to be a self-starter and learn well on your own, because it's hard to get support from your teacher online. It's also hard to stay interested — a lot of people are visual and you need live presentations to get their attention."

Many university students choose to work and study at the same time, but Whistler's online students enjoy the local outdoor recreation too. Gray works at Garfinkel's part-time, but that doesn't mean he makes it to the after-party.

"School is a stretch of my time," Gray says. "This year I'm doing three subjects, around 30 hours a week. Most days I get home from work around 3:30 a.m., I sleep until around 9 a.m., then I snowboard until the end of the day. Afterwards I come home, eat, study and then maybe have a nap before work. If you're snowboarding and working as much as I am, you need to make the most of your time in front of the books!"

Charette-Caron also likes to snowboard five days a week, so she saves time by studying at work: "I try to study three or four hours every day. I work as a babysitter and I can often study for a couple of hours while the kids are asleep. When I worked at Dairy Queen I did homework when it was quiet too — the managers didn't mind!"

The online learning revolution isn't restricted to Whistler; the Open Learning Division at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops has 7,938 students in B.C., 41 of whom are registered in Whistler. England's Open University is one of the largest online universities, it has 250,000 students spread across Europe. Education is becoming something that we can conveniently continue throughout our lives, and online school allows us the flexibility to do this.

As the number of online students in Whistler increases, you can expect clichéd ski bum paraphernalia — such as empties, roaches and lighters — to be replaced by course curriculums, assignment notes and highlighter pens. But one thing never changes: Whistlerites might be studying hard, but we'll be hitting the mountain harder.

Penelope Buswell holds a Master's of Global Consumer Marketing, completed entirely online from the University of Liverpool in the UK. While studying she was surprised by the growing number of fellow online students around town.

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