MARIETTA - A trick rider, a pageant queen and a world-class jump roper walk onto a college campus....
That's not the start of a bad joke but a sampling of this year's freshman class at Marietta College, some of the newest residents of Washington County. At 385 members, the class isn't the largest in recent memory, but it boasts some strong academic numbers and a wealth of unusual life experiences as well.
"It's important as you build a cohort of students that you consider the diversity of that class," said Tom Perry, executive director of strategic communications and marketing.
Photo by Evan Bevins
From left, trick rider Dallas Montag, jump-roping champion Morgan Armstrong and Miss Pittsburgh 2012 Emily Drabeck — all Marietta College freshmen — share a laugh outside the school’s Legacy Library.
While there are grade and test score guidelines the college uses when considering potential students, they aren't the final criteria on which acceptance is based. Perry said references, interviews and other factors are also taken into account.
Students who are engaged in activities before they come to Marietta are also likely to get engaged as part of the campus community, increasing the chances of the college retaining them, Perry said. Strong academic performance can also be an indicator of retention possibilities.
This year's freshman class has students from 22 states and some foreign countries. The entire student body represents between 36 and 40 states and about 10 countries
"We want (students from the local area) to meet people who are from the Northeast, who are from out west," Perry said, noting the college also tries to expose students to new parts of the country and the world via alternative spring break trips.
But there's more to diversity than geography and ethnicity.
"It's also just the talents that they bring, the experiences that they bring," Perry said.
Skipping Rope, Not Class
To some people, jumping rope is a childhood game or something out of a boxing movie training montage. For Morgan Armstrong, it's been an opportunity to meet new people and travel the country and the world.
"Jump roping has helped me with public speaking and time management so much, I don't know how I would do college without jump roping," she said.
The MC freshman from Vienna, W.Va., first saw a jump rope team perform at a church camp. At age 8, she attended a camp put on by Jump Company USA, a Parkersburg-based jump rope competition and demonstration team. She spent about a year practicing with the team before joining after completing a series of tricks and routines.
The team performs and competes all over the map, even spending a week in France in 2011 with a sister team there and performing with another American team. Armstrong said she enjoys performing and meeting people; competition is probably her least favorite part.
"But I have to compete to see all of the people I've met and gotten to know over the years," she said.
Although competition isn't her primary focus, Armstrong's done all right, earning 16 world titles, mostly in pairs speed jumping, where a duo jumps as fast as they can, and pairs freestyle, where they perform a routine. She's also been part of a four-member championship speed relay team.
Graduating from Parkersburg High School this year didn't mean graduating from the team.
"That's a big part of why I went to Marietta, because I could still be a part of my team and go to college," said Armstrong, who plans to major in accounting with a minor in studio art. "I've had to adapt a little, but I still make time to go to practice."
Queen for a Year
The start of Emily Drabeck's first semester at Marietta College overlapped with the end of her reign as Miss Pittsburgh 2012. During her first weekend home in September, she helped crown her successor.
Drabeck, of Washington, Pa., didn't enter her first pageant until she was a freshman in high school.
"I didn't do the whole 'Toddlers and Tiaras' thing," she laughed.
Drabeck said she tried a variety of activities in middle school, but never found anything that really struck a chord with her. Still looking for the right fit, she entered the National American Miss pageant in Harrisburg, Pa., and came in fifth out of 116 girls in her division.
"I really liked how it pushed me to become a better person, and it was something I could do to better myself while still giving back," she said.
In June 2012, Drabeck won the title of Miss Washington, which qualified her for the Miss Pittsburgh pageant. The September competition consisted of interview, personal introduction, evening wear and swimsuit components, all piled into a single day.
After winning the crown, Drabeck traveled around the Pittsburgh area, attending events, visiting places like the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and working to promote her platform of literacy.
"I've been able to talk to people in my area and go to a lot of charity events, which really inspired me to become, maybe, a major event planner," she said.
A visit to campus helped her settle on Marietta College, where she plans to study organizational communications while minoring in marketing and leadership.
"As soon as I stepped on campus, I fell in love with the friendly atmosphere," she said.
For now, Drabeck is focusing more on classes than pageants, but she hopes to one day compete for the title of Miss Pennsylvania in the Miss America system. She still expects to draw on the abilities she developed in pageantry while in college.
"Being able to converse with other people that I'm not familiar with, that helps a lot," she said.
Riding into the Sunset
Since age 11, Dallas Montag, of Belmont, has combined her interests in gymnastics and horses as a trick rider, performing acrobatic stunts on - and under - her horse. Her father puts on rodeos in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and she developed an interest in trick riding after seeing a rider perform when she was 9 or 10.
"She taught me a few things, and I told my dad I was really interested in it," Montag said.
Eventually, her brother Shadow joined her and the two performed for several years as a brother-sister duo. They often took part in fundraisers for organizations like St. Jude Children's Hospital, fulfilling their family motto of "Giving is living; living is giving."
Trick riding is about more than simply learning how to do stunts like the "death drag," where Montag hangs upside down under her horse, or the "liberty stand," in which she stands on the animal and unfurls an American flag as a patriotic song plays. Montag said she has to keep herself in shape as well as her horse.
That level of commitment is hard to maintain while attending college full-time, which is why she had to hang up her saddle - eventually.
"I retired, like, eight times, but my brother and I always had these big events that we want to do," she said.
The most recent was a Relay for Life "Hoedown for Hope" in June. The show was planned by her brother, who was also making his return to performing after suffering a broken collarbone and other injuries while training.
"That's why I had to do it," Montag said.
Now a biochemistry major, Montag believes she's finally done performing as a trick rider.
"I miss it a lot," she said. "That's something that's been a part of me for my entire life."
But Montag said she's passionate about the next chapter in her life: becoming a dentist. And she can apply what she learned in the rodeo arena to that pursuit as well.
"It's taught me a lot of lessons about perseverance through the tough times," she said. "If you're really passionate about it, you're really going to put your time into it."