Celebrate the snow at Prince William Sound College

by J. Besl  |   

Based in the nation's snowiest city, winter plays a mighty role in the curriculum at Prince William Sound College. (Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

Winter doesn't equal hibernation at Prince William Sound College (PWSC).

Though it's a small school in a small town, the college boasts an avalanche of snow-focused events, both academic and entertaining, to fill the long winter in the nation's snowiest city.

This semester, PWSC will offer courses in ice climbing, winter camping and avalanche safety. A visiting glaciologist shared his icy research in February, while a week later students enjoyed a ski movie projected on a wall of plowed snow. Day after day, the health and fitness center hosts "Ski for Free," a program of the Sound Wellness Alliance Network, which provides free skis and snowshoes to anyone who visits - not just residents of Valdez, but anyone.

With Alaska's recent financial squeeze, the faculty and staff have refocused on their strengths. And in a place like Valdez, one of those strengths is snow.

Students in a Beginning Mountaineering course in 2016. (Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

"We have a pretty unique and awesome landscape; we have a bunch of snow. Let's try and maximize those things," explained Dan O'Connor, the college director.

PWSC is a community campus of UAA, with extension sites in Cordova and Glennallen. Staff and faculty stress the traditional academic curriculum but, O'Connor said, they also ask "what other kind of programming can we bring to the community where we integrate our expertise with the landscape, the weather, the climate, the recreational opportunities and the unique history of this part of Alaska?"

First and foremost, PWSC serves its students, whether they're working towards an associate degree or taking dual-credit courses through the high schools in Valdez, Cordova or Glennallen. But as a community campus, PWSC also serves the residents of Valdez. No matter the department, staff members thread themes of community and the outdoors into every program. It's even in the college's mission statement: "to use ... unique resources and magnificent landscape to enrich the lives of our students and our communities."

Thankfully, there are enough academic programs and educational opportunities - as well as snowstorms and winter adventures - to meet both populations.

The mountains are the classroom for students in PWSC's crevasse rescue course, open to both students and community members. (Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

Outdoor Leadership: "It's all so accessible"       

Looking at PWSC's degrees and certificates, outdoor leadership stands out... especially in winter.

The A.A.S. in outdoor leadership is a two-year degree offered in the wilderness playground of Valdez. Students take semester-long foundation courses from a variety of elective courses on mountain, snow and water skills, as well as filmmaking.

"It's all so accessible. It makes [Valdez] an awesome classroom," said Erin Cutts, assistant professor of outdoor leadership. "Even for some of my classroom-oriented classes, we're able to get out just for the day and go on outings to the beach and check out our surroundings."

A crevasse rescue course from 2016. (Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

The opportunity to access wilderness a half-mile from class simply doesn't exist at many other schools. "It really opens up a lot of options in the outdoor leadership world," she said.

PWSC also provides affordability for students seeking the outdoor leadership life. Alaska offers the cheapest in-state tuition in the country and all PWSC students pay the in-state rate. Cutts estimates half her students are from Outside and moved to Alaska for the program. Students from places like Arizona and Southern California enroll in winter camping courses alongside classmates from chillier states like Minnesota and Maine. For outdoor leadership students, Valdez provides not only a spectacular setting, but remarkable savings as well.

The northern lights dance over the student residence halls at PWSC. (Photo by Craig Titus)

Community Education: "We are our community"

While students move to Valdez for the education, PWSC serves the 4,000 people already living there, too.

As the community education coordinator, Wendy Goldstein plans short courses at PWSC. These are frequently non-credit, one-evening events that open the campus and its resources to members of the community.

Winter, of course, plays a role. "Valdez has the most snow of any town in the United States, so we work with what we're given," she said. This semester's slate of events included talks from professional ice climbers, a presentation on ice cave research and a dog-mushing course in Glennallen, offered for only $25 through a partnership with United Way. PWSC sits in the heart of the city's central neighborhood, and many residents can simply walk (or ski) to campus.

Students measure snow depth in a recent avalanche safety course. (Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

In her coordinator role, Goldstein identifies what the neighbors want and need, then finds the right instructor. That creates a wide range of courses focused on areas like workforce development, creative arts and, of course, winter recreation. Sample courses include wilderness first aid and boat engine maintenance, as well as ceramics and organic gardening. PWSC will open a demonstration kitchen this semester, adding culinary classes as well.

"I feel like the college is here because the community asked for it in 1978, and we support one another very well," Goldstein added. "Anything our community needs in the line of education, that's what we do, whether it's a one-night class or getting ready for your bachelor's degree."

Through 300 inches of annual snowfall - what The Washington Post recently called "a ridiculous amount," - PWSC creatively serves both its students and the citizens of Valdez.

"Anybody who walks in our door or lives in Valdez is one of our students, Goldstein added.

"We really are for our community and because of our community. We are our community."

(Image courtesy of Prince William Sound College)

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Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement