Courtesy of Westminster College
Every Wednesday morning before 7:00 a.m., Bethami Dobkin heads to the Westminster College gym to set up about a dozen stationary bikes. After some brief stretching, the college president leads a group of eight to 12 students, faculty and staff members through a high-energy 50-minute cycling workout.
“Our students tell us that the Westminster education is characterized by things like breaking down stereotypes and getting out of your comfort zone, and I thought, well, this is a good way to model those things,” Dobkin said.
Dobkin became president of the Salt Lake City liberal arts college in 2018. A longtime equestrian, she was never an avid cyclist, but she enjoyed taking indoor cycling classes for several years. After a year of remote learning and social distancing, offering a cycling class of her own seemed like a good way to get back in front of students. She also hoped it would allow her to get to know students and employees in a more relaxed context and to show a side of herself that’s often stifled by the demands of a college presidency.
Dobkin is not the first college president to exercise with students. Oberlin College president Carmen Twillie Ambar has lifted weights with the football team and launched a "presidential boot camp" class. Greg Crawford, president of Miami University in Ohio, invites students to bike around campus or run stadium steps with him. And when Mike Lovell became president of Marquette University in 2014, he formed a “running with the president” group to join him twice weekly on his morning runs. All considered it a fun and productive way to connect with students.
“We all know what people expect the president to look like and act like,” Dobkin said. “Being in a gym and getting hot and sweaty and having fun isn’t something that is necessarily associated with a presidency.”
To teach the class, Dobkin became certified as a group fitness instructor by the American Council on Exercise and received a certification from the Red Cross. She works hard to create the perfect playlist for each session. Each week brings a new theme; so far the group has cycled to world music, ’80s hits, boy- and girl-band bops, beachy songs, one-hit wonders, and more.
“At one point, there was a little wager going on with some of the people in class to see if they could pick a song that was going to be on the playlist depending on the theme,” Dobkin said. “And then they realized how hard it is to figure out what the right revolutions per minute are and how long it needs to be.”
Emma Rohrer-Fitzhugh, a freshman at Westminster, has attended Dobkin’s class a couple of times. She loves that the president changes up the music with each session.
“It makes it fun and different every time you go,” Rohrer-Fitzhugh said. A member of the track team, Rohrer-Fitzhugh attended the class with a few of her teammates.
“Everyone had the same opinion—that it was really hard, but it was a good workout,” she said. “It was super fun.”
Kellie Gerbers, an assistant professor of outdoor education and leadership, attends Dobkin’s class regularly with a group of other employees. She has really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her colleagues and her president in a new environment.
“I think this is a really cool, weekly event that humanizes everyone in the class,” Gerbers said. “It’s a cool mixture of students, faculty and staff where we all get to see each other at our best and our worst—no one looks great as a sweaty mess. And we all get to see each other as people rather than faculty robots or administration living up in the high tower.”
Gerbers is an avid cyclist, but she considers the class accessible for any experience level.
“It’s just one of the things where you can adjust your speed or difficulty to meet the needs of what you’re looking for in the class,” she said.
A handful of beginner cyclists also attend the class—Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, an associate professor at the Honors College, is one of them.
“The very first class that she taught was the very first time I had done spin, and everyone else who went that day had already done it before. And [Dobkin] said, ‘So people know what’s going on, right?’ And I was like, ‘Not me,’” Cunningham-Bryant said. “But it’s been really fun. It’s a great workout.”
Cunningham-Bryant, Gerbers and Rohrer-Fitzhugh all said they’d recommend Dobkin as a cycling instructor. The president has received enough positive feedback that she’s considering teaching the class in future semesters as well.
“They seem to really enjoy it,” Dobkin said. “They’re starting to plan activities after class together. They’re starting to bring friends. So it might actually grow into something I didn’t anticipate.”