Penn State Hazleton partnership helps students learn to ski and succeed

Campus collaborates with Hazleton Integration Project and Vail Resorts to empower youth
Group of about 30 people inside a clubhouse room at a ski resort dressed in ski gear.

Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth J. Wright (rear row, first from left) and first-year student Dylan Riofrio-Pine (first row, first from left) volunteered as mentors for Hazleton Integration Project students learning to ski this winter at Jack Frost and Big Boulder ski resorts.

Credit: Elise Nicol, Hazleton Integration Project

HAZLETON, Pa. — For many of the underserved, first-generation high school students in the Hazleton Integration Project’s (HIP) College Prep program, the idea of a day spent skiing in the Pocono Mountains felt like a luxury that was out of their reach. 

Yet this winter, a collaboration between HIP, Penn State Hazleton and the resorts’ owner, Vail Resorts, provided the group with the opportunity to spend several Sundays on the slopes of Jack Frost and Big Boulder ski resorts, where they learned to build resiliency and overcome challenges as they get ready to begin their college careers. 

The trips, including ski lessons, equipment rentals, meals and transportation, were fully funded by Vail Resorts’ Epic for Everyone program, a youth access and inclusivity initiative made possible through cash funding from Katz Amsterdam Charitable Trust. The program partners with nonprofits like HIP to host students at its resorts who otherwise may be unable to afford access. 

“As someone who doesn’t have a lot of money, skiing seemed really expensive and so it was something I never pictured myself being able to do,” said Wilkes-Barre Area senior Penelope Cruz. “Now that I was given that opportunity, I realized I liked it and want to keep doing it.”

In addition to discovering a new hobby to enjoy, students said they came away from the experience with newfound courage and confidence. 

“The moment that I finally made it down the mountain was the moment I could see a change and started believing in myself,” said Analucia Zarcone Minyety, a senior at Hazleton Area High School. 

Fellow Hazleton Area senior Sonia De Los Santos added, “I realized there is nothing I can’t do because the only one putting a stop sign in front of me is myself.” 

“The harder you try, the faster you succeed,” said Hazleton Area High School senior Diego Marmolejos. 

Like many first-time skiers, the group struggled to stay upright as they learned to move and balance. Slips and falls were frequent, but that was the lesson they were there to learn, said HIP College Prep Director Julie Vandivere. 

“It requires them to face their fear and realize they can overcome it,” she said. “When we fall, we get back up. We want that to translate to other things, particularly in the academic realm.”

To help students get acclimated, Penn State Hazleton Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth J. Wright and first-year student Dylan Riofrio-Pine volunteered each Sunday as mentors.  

Riofrio-Pine connected with students on a peer-to-peer level as a one-time HIP student while Wright lent her expertise as a former NCAA Division I cross country skier at the University of New Hampshire. 

“Seeing these students learn to overcome their doubts and exceed their own expectations, all while having fun, was special to be a part of,” said Wright, who serves as a university access advocate for HIP. “Penn State Hazleton is grateful to HIP and Vail Resorts for organizing an opportunity that is so beneficial to students and our community.” 

Riofrio-Pine said he was grateful to pay forward the experiences he once had growing up in HIP. 

“It was a great experience to see them start believing in themselves,” said Riofrio-Pine, an information technology major from Hazleton. “It was one that made me not only feel closer to my community, but by the end of it you feel like you served a purpose and inspired kids for their future.” 

Having positive adult role models the students can connect with and learn from is a key component of Epic for Everyone, said Vail Resorts Senior Manager of Inclusive Access Travis Tafoya.  

“The future of snow sports is inclusion, especially for communities that haven’t been exposed to them,” Tafoya said. “Our intent is to make sure youth are introduced to the sport and have an avenue to participate.”

Because many HIP College Prep students work part-time jobs and help care for their siblings in addition to going to school and their other responsibilities, the ski trips give them an outlet to relax and enjoy themselves, Vandivere said. 

“They said how this is one of the first times in years they’ve been able to focus on simply having fun,” she said. 

Vandivere said she hopes to expand the program next ski season to include even more HIP College Prep students. 

“Continuing to get these students into the outdoors and doing something unfamiliar will provide them with the grit and ability to persist in life,” she said.