For Winter Sports School teacher, an unconventional path led to Park City
July 21, 2015
Alex Burlacu held his entire future in his hand. Printed in black ink on sparkling white paper was a full-ride offer to study applied mathematics in graduate school at Princeton University.
What the sheet of paper represented was clear. It offered a path to a lucrative career, and it meant fulfilling many of the dreams Burlacu’s parents had held close when they immigrated to the United States from Romania about a decade before.
But it also signified one more thing, a reality Burlacu couldn’t ignore: Accepting the offer would mean lying to himself about who he was, suppressing every instinct about the life he envisioned for himself. He could sign on the dotted line, go to one of the best schools in the world and eventually earn piles of money — but if he did those things, could he live with himself?
He tossed the sheet of paper in the trashcan. To make his decision final, he doused it with hot coffee.
There was no turning back.
"I knew that if I went to Princeton and had a traditional career, I’d regret it," said Burlacu, who at the time had just earned his undergraduate degree in math and physics from Michigan State University. "I would be removed from my true passions. But who walks away from Princeton, right? Walking away from free Princeton grad school? Everybody thought I was insane. They thought I was going to look back on that and regret it. But I haven’t for a single day. It was a big leap of faith on my part, but I knew it was the right decision for me."
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Much of why Burlacu harbors no regrets is because of how his life has transformed since spurning Princeton. Shortly after the decision, he moved to Park City and began working as a ski instructor at Deer Valley. For Burlacu, who had spent much of his teen years skiing competitively, it felt like coming home.
But, sitting at a round table in a bright classroom at the Winter Sports School, he explained that what truly changed his life was reigniting another passion that had long lain dormant.
A dream remembered
Burlacu was a second-grader in Romania the first time his father asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. His response was quick and sure: He was going to be a math teacher and a ski instructor. His father, certain Burlacu would soon grow out of those ambitions, chuckled.
His father was right. After his family moved to Michigan from Romania when he was 12 — the elder Burlacu, an aircraft technician, had earned a green card via a lottery process that sought foreign skilled workers — Burlacu began showing promise as a ski racer. In the snow-capped mountains of Northern Michigan, he began to imagine a bright future of fame and fortune and forgot about the aspirations he had once harbored.
"If you would have asked me when I was 16, my dream had turned into, ‘I want to be a professional ski racer. Are you kidding me?’" he said.
Burlacu poured all of his efforts into skiing. He completed school work whenever he was able, between training sessions or on the long bus rides to and from competitions. The quest to become a champion consumed his life.
Everything changed, though, when the injuries began to mount, forcing him to quit skiing competitively. With his dream of speeding to glory on the slopes suddenly dashed, he burrowed into his school work at Michigan State. He had always been the type of student who could sleep through math class, then ace the test, and he discovered his natural aptitude for math and physics was still intact.
He began tutoring other students and leading study groups. And it was then that Burlacu felt the spark in his chest. He thought back to his response to the question his father had asked him.
"I remembered back in second grade, what it was like to want to be a teacher," he said. "It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is why I wanted to do that.’ I remembered that doing this actually makes you feel good."
A home at last
With a rediscovered passion for teaching, and having rejected the offer from Princeton, Burlacu began a search for something new. He sought a life of true gratification, something he had once thought he had in competing, but later realized had actually left him hollow.
He came to Park City in 2009 and quickly snagged a job as a ski instructor at Deer Valley Resort. A year later, in 2010, he completed the second part of the equation he had formulated in second grade: He accepted a job as the math and physics teacher at the Winter Sports School, a charter school for winter athletes.
As soon as he stepped into the classroom, he knew he had found what he was looking for.
"My career-ending injury was the best thing to happen for me," he said. "It put me where I am right now. I’m married, I have a kid, I live in Park City. And I teach. It’s so much better and more fulfilling for me than skiing ever was. Skiing was great, and you’re on that podium for 15 seconds and you get that glory. But then you step off the podium."
Burlacu did not have a teaching degree, and he’d never stood on front of a classroom of high schoolers expecting him to fill their brains with knowledge. But it felt natural, and in the students, who go to the school so they can have winters off to focus on their sports, he saw himself.
"It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can actually relate to these kids since I was one of them growing up,’" he said. "I didn’t go to the Winter Sports School, but I was a winter athlete, so I know what it’s like."
The level of commitment the students have for their school work has impressed Burlacu. He remembers being initially surprised when many of them earned "A’s" in his class, despite not viewing himself as an easy grader. Seeing their dedication, and knowing he gets to play a role in molding their futures, has left him more satisfied than he ever felt at the end of a ski race.
"It’s not an easy way to make a difference, but it’s a meaningful way to make a difference," said Burlacu, who also still teaches skiing at Deer Valley. "These kids are awesome, and it’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. You always go home feeling good about yourself — some days more than others, but you do always feel good at the end of the day."
Burlacu has proven to himself that turning down Princeton was the right choice. At the time, it didn’t seem so clear cut. His mother didn’t speak to him for a while. His relationship with his father suffered, too.
But even they cannot deny he is better off than he ever would have been had he chased Princeton and followed the traditional path. His relationships with his parents now are stronger than ever, and they eventually followed him to Park City, where they, too, have found happiness off the beaten path.
"If anything, they respect me more now for that decision," Burlacu said. "They were worried I was going against the grain for the sake of going against the grain. They realized that I was going against the grain because it was the right path for me. It’s what I had to do."
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