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Telluride students pursue Higher Ed remotely

 Student Taka Kondo in the back office of the Counter Culture Kitchen in Lawson, Colorado.
Gavin McGough
Student Taka Kondo in the back office of the Counter Culture Kitchen in Lawson, Colorado.

For six or seven years, Taka Kondo had been considering grad school, kicking the decision down the road, and working in the meantime as a guide and a cook in Telluride.

Then, in the fall of 2021, he says he felt it was time to decide.

“At a certain point, I thought to myself ‘I need to just clear my head of thinking that grad school might be a thing that I do, and I need to decide If I'm going to do it, or if I’m not going to do it.' And obviously the outcome of me taking some time to think about that was deciding to go back,” he said.

At the same time, Kondo knew he was not ready to leave Telluride, and COVID was opening up the possibilities of remote learning.

Soon enough, Kondo enrolled in a remote masters program to study mental health counseling.

It turns out Kondo was far from alone.

Telluride is home to dozens of students enrolled in remote higher ed programs.

When student Laura Parsons enrolled in remote school, she soon moved to Telluride, embracing the freedom to study from anywhere.

“When I started, it was the fall of 2020, and, as we all know, there was a lot going on then. So at the start of the program it was mandated that everything be online, and then about a year into my program they announced that it would be practical and possible to remain online for the rest of the degree. So that’s when I decided that I was going to come out to Telluride,” said Parsons.

Similar to Kondo, Parsons is studying to enter the mental health field, focusing on social work.

The pattern of students here studying to enter the helping professions, as they’re known, goes deep.

Another student, Robin Kondracki, who has formerly worked at the San Miguel Resource Center with domestic abuse survivors, says it might be more than a simple coincidence.

“I think we just see a gap, like specifically in Telluride but more broadly in our country. Working at SMRC I would refer clients to therapists and clients would come to me and let me know that the therapist had a six week waiting list. And, that sucks," said Kondracki.

Taking a break from a shift at the Counter Culture in Lawson, Kondo adds that Telluride’s connection to the service industry attracts highly social and people-focused residents.

“A lot of the people that come to work here are people’s people. They’re not getting jobs where they can hide behind a desk. And there are certainly a lot of people working desk jobs here, and that’s fine too. But there are so many people working in service, and that skill-set of wanting to work with people – taking that skill set out of the service industry to working with people in a helping profession [seems natural]” speculates Kondo.

Working in service is a distinct part of the student experience.

Hunter Emmons, who has worked various restaurant and serving jobs for years, says when she enrolled in remote school, it brought her new perspective.

“Because there’s a goal in sight.” said Emmons.

“I’m grateful to live in a place where I can work three or four days a week and that can pay most of my expenses.”

For Parsons, speaking on the Oak Street Plaza before clocking in to a shift as a bartender in town, there is a distinct connection between her work and her schooling.

“Being in the service industry, especially as a bartender, you talk to people a lot. You have to be able to navigate whatever situations arise. So, there have been a lot of situations where you really have to maintain your calm while trying to calm down someone else who might be belligerent, who might be having a mental health crisis. I think there are a lot higher expectations in social work, and it helps me keep my cool a lot better when working,” said Parsons. 

All of the students spoke of sacrifices — spending less time on hobbies or sport, struggling to balance work, and life and finances and studies.

“It requires a level of self-discipline I did not know I had. To bring yourself to get all your work done, to meet all your deadlines, to do group work — all of that is made so much more challenging on a remote program,” said Kondracki.

For these Telluridians, school is a process, part of a journey, one which is full of questions which only the future will answer.

Emmons reflects she is one track now, but still feels there are many ways to serve her community.

“It’s totally fine if you don’t go to school…I wonder if there are other ways that I could be going towards these same goals. [School] is just sort of what landed in my lap and made sense at that time,” she said.

As to the world beyond graduation, many students said they’d like to stay in Telluride, finding ways to give back, and practice what they’ve learned.

This storywas shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Gavin McGough