Ski-town lifestyle draws alums to mountaintops

Between graduate school applications and job searches, the fall of senior year can be one of the most stressful times of a college student’s life. Or, for those who go from “Yale to Vail,” it can be incredibly relaxing.

Over the years, a smattering of Yale students have put aside high-powered careers in favor of working at ski resorts as ski instructors, waiters or medics in orthopedic clinics. Most of these students travel several hundred miles west of the Elm City, looking for a change of pace before they ever crack open a book in graduate, medical or law school.

Will Ralph ’02, pictured here at Vail, taught skiing — and waited tables, on the side — after graduation. He is now a first-year student at Stanford Law School.
Will Ralph ’02, pictured here at Vail, taught skiing — and waited tables, on the side — after graduation. He is now a first-year student at Stanford Law School.

Regardless of the type of jobs they take on to pay the bills, students said they live in ski towns for the slopes.

But don’t think they are slackers.

“I was not a ski bum — I was gainfully employed,” said Annemarie Baltay ’05, who worked as a ski instructor in Vail, Colo., with her friend and classmate Victoria Phillips ’05 and is now enrolled in graduate school at Stanford.

Working in a ski town is not as stress-free as it might sound, Baltay said. Because the mountains do not start hiring people until November, adventure-seeking Yalies head out West without any guarantee that a job will be waiting for them when they get there.

And because they only reside in these towns temporarily, they automatically land at the bottom of the job ladder. Beginning instructors do not have a regular schedule — sometimes they show up to work and have nothing to do, but around the holiday season, business can get overwhelming, recent graduates said.

“In March, I worked 20 days without stopping,” Baltay said. March is prime vacation season.

Sue Clifford, secretary of the Park City Ski School in Utah, said approximately 10 percent of their 500 seasonal employees come straight from college.

“The retention rate is low, but some of them get hooked and come back during their breaks for years,” Clifford said.

Ski school employers said they are very conscious of the uncertain job market that recent graduates face.

“A lot of people are nervous about it,” Clifford said. “The ones who are skeptical don’t necessarily come out. That’s how we weed out the irresponsible from the responsible kids.”

Yale’s University Career Services could not be reached to comment on the number of University students who have headed to ski towns over the years.

Many graduates who teach skiing said they have to hold a second job to make ends meet.

“I had to be a waiter too,” said Will Ralph ’02, a first-year at Stanford Law School who also worked at Vail. “I worked at the prestigious Outback Steak House.”

None of the graduates said they had trouble convincing their parents to support their decision. Some said they think their parents did not voice concerns because they assumed their children would eventually return to academia. Others said their parents recognized that working in a ski town could be a valuable real-life learning experience. Nick Rosic ’04, who took the spring of his junior year off to work as a ski instructor, said his parents were incredibly supportive.

“They didn’t have to pay tuition for a semester,” he said. “What I did was like a semester-abroad experience without going to class … my parents understood that.”

Maggie MacDonald ’07, a former copy editor for the News, is living out her father’s dream. MacDonald, who is currently staying in Park City, Utah, and waiting for ski season to begin before looking for a job, said her father took a sabbatical between jobs and skied 75 days out of the season.

“This was the chance my dad never got,” she said. “At least, that’s the way he sees it.”

Though MacDonald’s mother was concerned she would not make any friends in a new town, MacDonald said she is not worried because she knows she will meet other young people once the ski season is underway in November.

Ralph, who is currently in his first year at Stanford Law School, has friends who were more apprehensive about his decision to take some time off than his parents were.

“My friends were surprised because most were ready to get on the career wagon,” Ralph said. “So many of us at a school like Yale are used to being in a race to win the next gold star … I have no regrets for not getting on the career train right away.”

Katie Curran ’06 had planned to teach skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, after graduation, but instead she decided to return to her home state — Washington — to work in a surgical veterinary lab so she could build up her resume for veterinary school. While she was struggling to make this decision, she said her parents told her they would support her if she wanted to try something different.

“They knew I was driven and that they didn’t need to worry about me stepping away from academia forever,” she said. “They also knew that I needed a break.”

Another issue confronting graduates who plan to teach skiing for only a year is the challenge of obtaining official instructor’s certification. Like the others, Rosic traveled to Colorado without a job offer and spent the first two weeks sending out applications. Because he was not certified, he could only teach and care for three- and four-year-old students on the “bunny hill.”

“It was more like a glorified day care than anything else,” Rosic said. “My job involved taking the kids in for snacks or starting snowball fights.”

Most graduates said their biggest stress came from the possibility of losing a young skier in their care — a cardinal sin on the slopes. Ralph said he once lost track of a student and “got a stern talking-to” from his employers. He said watching after the children often felt like “herding cats.”

But despite some common misconceptions, ski towns can be an exciting place to live — even if you do not get a job on the mountain.

Dave Wing ’02, who traveled to Vail with Ralph, worked as a clinical research intern for a local sports medicine research center. Wing said he enjoyed his time in Vail, which he said had a “diverse economy.”

All graduates interviewed said they felt they had an incomparable experience working in ski towns because it taught them how to manage children and their own stress.

“I think that taking time off to ski gets a rap as kind of ‘Hey, bro, let’s go out and be irresponsible,’” Ralph said. “It is not really like that though. It is not a difficult job, but it is definitely a stressful one.”

Ralph said his job taught him to appreciate those who work in the service industry and turned him into a “great tipper.”

“It is eye-opening to see how you are treated by some people who have a lot of money,” he said.

Some University students are looking to follow in their predecessor’s snow tracks.

Jessie L. ’08 — who asked that her last name be withheld because she is applying to medical school — said she will most likely take a year off before going to medical school to become a ski patroller and work as an emergency medical technician in Vail or Aspen, Colo. But she said she could face obstacles in pursuing her dream, including the possibility that the medical school she chooses to attend will not let her defer her matriculation for a year. She also said it is difficult to become an EMT because training is expensive, and certification is hard to obtain for people only planning to work for one year.

While some students said taking a job so far off the beaten track is intimidating while their friends follow more conventional career paths, they said their excitement about doing something they love helps to offset worries about venturing far away from family and friends.

MacDonald, who arrived in Park City just a few weeks ago, said she does yet not know anyone in the city. She said nearly all of her close friends are living in New York City, while she has moved more than 2,000 miles west.

“They are all enjoying it and hanging out with each other all the time,” she said. “At the same time, however, I don’t think that they love their jobs as much as I am hopefully going to love mine.”

Comments