Fifteen-Mile Hustle: The Extraordinary Work Ethic of Rachel Parrish

Fifteen-Mile Hustle: The Extraordinary Work Ethic of Rachel Parrish

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Rachel Parrish confidently moves a grooming brush across the horse’s mane, releasing tangles and bits of hay.

“His name is Fat Boy,” she says with a smile.

Despite her casual manner, Rachel’s responsibilities are pressing.  She is a worker here at WVU’s Equine Education and Resource Center, a full-time veterinary assistant, a part-time WVU student, president of the WVU Collegiate Horseman’s Association (CHA), and the secretary of the national CHA organization.

At 23 years old, she has already dedicated more than a decade to working with animals.  It started with a single horse.

Falling in Love

Rachel was born near Richmond, Virginia’s busy highways, train trestles and cobblestone streets.  Fifteen miles south, the landscape opens up into fields, forests and streams.  It was here, in the town of Chester that Rachel first got in a saddle.  She was 12 years old.

“It was a white mustang,” Rachel said with a glint in her eye.  “I loved it.”  The ride had been given to her as a gift from a family member.  “If I had to thank somebody for starting it all, it would be my uncle, because he’s the one who paid for that first horseback riding lesson, and it just took off from there.”

Her uncle, Russ Baker, was simply giving a gift that he had enjoyed at her age many years previous.  And trying to keep her out of trouble.  “I thought maybe a horseback ride would give her something to concentrate on besides boys,” Baker said with a laugh.  “And it worked! She fell in love.”

Rachel concedes that a periodic fascination with horses is almost stereotypical for girls.  “A lot of people think it’s a phase and they’ll grow out of it,” she said.  “I didn’t.”

The night after her first lesson, Rachel told her parents that she wanted to go back.

A Passion Expanding

Unfortunately for Rachel, horseback riding lessons were (and are) expensive.  But rather than allow the newfound passion to fade into a cliché of youth, she approached Elaine Wilson, the barn manager who owned the mustang, with a proposition: she would work in the barn in exchange for lessons.  Wilson agreed, and Rachel showed promise instantly.

“She’s just got such a nice way about her that the animals really responded to her,” Wilson said.

Rachel’s early work was not glamorous.  She began learning the basics by mucking stalls and feeding the horses.  But this early in Rachel’s working life, Wilson could already see the concerted work ethic that would stay with her into her time at WVU.

“We’ve had other kids who don’t really want to work, but I never had a problem with Rachel,” Wilson said.  As if to emphasize the point, she repeated, “Never.”

When Rachel learned that one of her riding instructors was the leader of the barn's 4H club, she began working with that organization as well.  This involved a wider variety of projects, from community service to fundraising campaigns for horse show competitions.

By 2015, Rachel had graduated from a junior college.  Though horses were still a passion, by then she had realized that her interests extended to the entire animal kingdom and was working part-time with a local veterinary clinic.  She didn’t necessarily want to be a vet, but she knew that she wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree in a field that involved working with animals.  One evening, she found herself on the phone with a friend who was already attending WVU, discussing her options.

“While I was on the phone with her, we were looking at WVU majors and I saw that they had an equine studies minor,” Rachel said.

She applied that very night.

Ambassador

In August of 2015, Rachel started working at Morgantown’s Hillcrest Veterinary Clinic, where she is still employed.  Hillcrest offers her opportunities that she couldn’t have at home.  Virginia’s veterinary services are heavily regulated, requiring technician certifications to perform important tasks like drawing blood, running bloodwork, and giving injections.  In West Virginia, certification is not required, allowing her to to get more hands-on experience with treating animals.

Spending this much time around pets gives Rachel a surprising glimpse into human nature as well.  Some of it is encouraging. “Around Christmas time, I can’t tell you how many clients will bring homebaked goods and candy and cookies just to thank us for all the hard work that we do year round,” Rachel said.

On the other hand, it can also be disheartening.  “I try not to judge, but when you see someone come in with their pet and it’s been sick for a week, and they come up with a million excuses about why they couldn’t bring their pet in sooner, that kind of changes my view on people.”

The suffering of animals seems to be an animating force for Rachel. She thinks of her work as ambassadorship for the pets she’s treating.

“This may sound kind of ridiculous to say, but the point of being in the veterinary field is that we’re advocating for them,” Rachel said.  “People can speak for themselves. We’re speaking for the ones who can’t speak.”

Not long after she began working at Hillcrest, Rachel began working toward her Animal Nutrition Sciences major at WVU.  She was unsure what the university had to offer, but was soon introduced to the WVU Collegiate Horseman’s Association (CHA) in one of her equine studies classes. She started attending the club right away.

By her second year, she was the secretary, and by the following semester she was serving as president of the WVU chapter and secretary of the national CHA organization.

Heavy Load, Even Keel

Fifteen miles east of WVU’s crowded downtown campus, Rachel walks Fat Boy down the stable corridor to turn him out into a field. She makes the 25-minute drive to The Hazel Ruby McQuain Equine Education and Resource Center (which she just calls “the farm”) often.

“I typically don’t have weekends,” she says.  "There may be one weekend every 2 or 3 months that I don’t have to work at either the farm or the clinic.”

Nothing about Rachel suggests that she is bitter about this.  On the contrary, all of the work seems to continually drive her toward her eventual goal: leading a team of people as a farm manager.

As she removes Fat Boy’s lead and lets him wander into a field with the other horses, the air feels cool, the sun warm, the day leisurely and serene.  A fifteen-mile drive home awaits.

 

Paddleboard Yoga Comes to Cheat Lake

Paddleboard Yoga Comes to Cheat Lake

Canyon Gorge

Canyon Gorge

Canyon Gorge is a rutted, one-lane road that winds down a hillside to the bank of Cheat Lake. It’s short, but it feels like West Virginia.  Just to the left, overlooking the water, you’ll find the beautiful home of Joelle Cameron.

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On Saturdays and Sundays, Joelle teaches stand up paddleboard (SUP) yoga out on the water. The positions and movements are largely the same, but as the name implies, they are performed on a 10’ floating platform.

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She started practicing three years ago here in Morgantown at Suncrest Yoga. Eventually, she took an instructor class, and everything took shape from there. 

On this particular morning, Joelle has two students, Kaitlynn and Jamie. Kaitlynn drove all the way from Pittsburgh.

“It wasn’t too bad, only an hour. This is way prettier than Pittsburgh,” she laughs.

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Everyone seems to agree that the surroundings are a big part of what makes the class experience so unique. “It’s so peaceful on a Sunday to come out here and be on the water,” Jamie tells me.

Joelle agrees wholeheartedly. “We’ve got the best spot on the lake. We go right over to Quarry Run and there’s a waterfall in there. It’s nice and quiet. You don’t have to paddle too far to get there. It’s just beautiful.”

Joelle shows Jamie and Kaitlynn how to size their paddles

Joelle shows Jamie and Kaitlynn how to size their paddles

What sets SUP yoga apart, aside from the scenery, is the fact that the support itself moves beneath you. The idea can be intimidating for people new to the practice, but Joelle says the board serves as a feedback mechanism for learning how to get better at yoga.

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“On a stable platform like the floor, you could be uneven the whole class and not know it. But on a paddleboard, it’s going to tell you. Your weight will shift one way or the other.”

As the body counters and balances those shifts in weight, it uses fine muscle control that is rarely employed anywhere else. Which means that it’s a great way to strengthen untapped muscle groups.

“I’ve heard people say that they use muscles that they’ve never used before, and they’re either semi-sore or very sore after class,” Joelle says. “I think it’s a whole body workout.”

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After some basic instruction, the girls paddle a short distance across the lake. They anchor in a shaded cove and begin the class. The small waterfall Joelle mentioned emanates a gentle white noise, occasionally cut by the sound of a boat in the distance.

Before the day is over both students will have tumbled into the water once. Each time they laugh it off and continue.

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It would be disingenuous to say that paddleboard yoga looks easy. But perhaps there’s something to be said for a particular discipline when failure means swimming in the lake on a summer morning. Some of us were going to do that anyway.

Valerie

Valerie

This is Valerie.  She's a West Virginia veteran, model, and genuinely good person.  It's nice to hang out with someone who can talk about guns, video games and fantasy worlds with equal enthusiasm.  After a longer-than-expected hike out along Cheat Lake in Morgantown, we shot four looks in the same area. 

Gun lovers:  Don't forget to check out the AR build at the end.  And Valerie wants to make sure people know that the mag is not resting on the ground in that prone shot.  :)


During this first shoot, a butterfly approached Valerie and began to flit around her, hovering just in front of her face.  After a few moments, it landed on her nose.  She giggled like a kid (without realizing it I think), then laid back on the rock with her new friend.  The butterfly stayed right there on her nose for more than 5 minutes.  It was pretty magical.

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Central West Virginia

Central West Virginia

While on a recent trip through the state on assignment, I pulled over to take these photos of the rolling hills of central West Virginia.  Beautiful.

WVU's Tuition Hikes Are Not (Just) About Budget Cuts

WVU's Tuition Hikes Are Not (Just) About Budget Cuts

A Buck Passed

Yesterday, the WVU Board of Governors voted to raise tuition costs another 5%. In addition, housing and dining plans are being raised 3.5%. This is just another chapter in a nationwide, 15-year trend of drastically increasing prices for students of higher education.

Administrators here and around the country throw up their hands and say, “What can we do? If the state continues budget cuts for universities, the students have to make up the difference!” At yesterday’s Board of Governor’s meeting, President Gordon Gee exemplified the notion in his speech:

“When people talk about the fact that they’re not raising taxes. I think they are raising taxes and they’re raising it many times on the most vulnerable people, our students who are trying to get ahead in the world and so I find that disturbing,” Gee told the assembly.  The direct implication here is that taxes weren't raised for West Virginians, but because of the budget cuts that made that possible, students and their families are picking up the tab.

This is only half of the story.

Tuition hikes are almost always several times higher than the budget cuts they claim to be addressing, and this year is no different.

Common $ense Math

WVU’s tuition revenue for 2017 was about $400 million. (Tuition accounts for less than half of the University’s total revenue, but that is another matter altogether.) A tuition increase of 5% means a revenue increase of about $20 million. The state budget cuts were only 8.7 million.

To reiterate: This year’s tuition increase was 150% larger than the state’s budget cuts.

This is a repeating occurrence for WVU, and the gap between the two totals is usually even larger. In 2002 and 2004, the increases were twice as high – about 10%. In 2006, the state did not cut WVU’s budget at all, yet tuition increased 7.5%. And so on through 2017.

Contrary to popular belief, WVU had planned a 5% tuition increase for this year long before the state budget was ever being discussed. (The refusal of the University to release this year’s tuition costs until the state budget was finalized was merely to determine whether they were going to increase tuition more than 5%.)

At yesterday’s Board of Governor’s meeting, WVU’s assistant vice president of finance, Anjali Halabe, tried to placate the crowd. “Our institutional financial support to the students will also increase by an equal amount, which is 5 percent.” But this is slightly disingenuous. When I spoke with Halabe earlier today, she made clear that financial support to the students will not increase by an equal amount, but only by an equal percentage. Which comes out to about 6 million dollars.

In other words, less than a third of the $20 million tuition hike will be matched, and only for students who can academically (or demographically) compete for scholarships.

Investing in Dystopia

When students (and sometimes faculty) gripe about the ever-increasing tuition costs, the usual response is that WVU is on par with other universities in this respect. “Everyone else is doing it, too.” And that much is true.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, state funding to colleges and universities has decreased 22% between 2002 and 2015. But in the same period, tuition rates skyrocketed 62% - a massive difference that outstripped inflation by 150%.

Granted, much of the additional income provided by tuition is needed for maintenance. As the new $88 million Agriculture Sciences Building prepared for dedication last year, all 94 locks in the Life Sciences building were being replaced at a cost of $162,500 (about $1,700 per lock). Students living in 52-year-old Summit Hall will have new closets and doors this semester at a cost of $1.1 million (about $2,000 per resident, or 13% of the entire state budget cuts for the year).

Maintenance of a university is expensive. Budgets are very complicated issues, and I do not wish to oversimplify them. But the cost of higher education for students may approaching unsustainable levels. If the debt burden on new students continues to grow disproportionately to budget cuts, the state (and the country) could be in for a much more dangerous scenario than the austerity of any one legislature.

Perhaps worse, people in states like WV – where 25% of students are the first generation in their family to attend college – may decide that higher education is just not worth it.