Tour de Pennsylvania

HACC President John “Ski” Sygielski exchanges school spirit wear with Scott Deisley, superintendent of the Red Lion Area School District. Sygielski met with Deisley while on his bike tour of the college's service area to raise awareness and funds to support HACC students. (Photos courtesy of Sygielski)

In late June, John “Ski” Sygielski, president and CEO of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, got on his Jamis Renegade bicycle and set off on his annual journey to show gratitude and raise awareness and funds for HACC.

Sygielski has been doing his biking tours for about a decade. It brings together “my avocation for biking, student success and raising money,” he says. He’s trekked across Europe, New York, Iowa and more, using vacation days and paying his own expenses.

This year, he stuck a little closer to home, making trips to visit public highs schools in HACC’s 11-county service region and talk with superintendents. So far, he’s logged 678 miles and visited 55 high schools.

Thanks to HACC’s generous donors, Sygielski has raised at least $7,900 for HACC students and the Fund for Excellence for CARE (Consultation, Advocacy, Referrals and Empowerment). The fundraising progress can be tracked on HACC’s online giving portal.  

In addition, several donors contributed by writing checks. The grand total raised will be announced by August 31. (His goal was to raise $6,500.)

Fortifying connections

The trip allowed Sygielski to reconnect with the community, HACC board members, superintendents and himself.

Sygielski visits a butcher shop established by former HACC culinary instructor Dave Mills.

“As we’re moving through this pandemic, I haven’t been out,” he says. “On this ride, I got to see parts of the community I don’t normally see.”

As Sygielski cycled across Central Pennsylvania in his HACC biking jersey, drivers would honk and wave. He even talked with people from the Amish community, who drove on the roads using a horse and buggy. Some people he met even handed him checks for HACC’s Fund for Excellence for CARE.

During his journey, the HACC ambassador used Twitter to document his route and snapshots with members of the community.

And then there was the mother of a recent HACC grad whose daughter didn’t get the traditional commencement experience because of the pandemic. The mother asked Sygielski to meet her daughter and take a picture with her. But the timing was off, and by the time he reached the daughter, she was in an ambulance about to give birth.

Lessons from superintendents

During his bike tour, Sygielski visited 55 of the 65 public high schools in HACC’s service region.

Talking with superintendents gave Sygielski insights into their concerns. They are worried about the mental health and safety of their students and faculty. Hiring faculty is also a struggle, as many have moved to work in the private sector. They are also dealing with generation poverty, both in the rural and urban areas.

“I have a better understanding of the challenges superintendents face,” Sygielski says. “I think it’s the hardest job in education.”

And while these superintendents are “overwhelmingly #HACCyeah,” Sygielski learned that “we have to start getting more entrepreneurial” as four-year colleges are getting increasingly competitive. That means, among other things, offering more ways to expose high school students to technical careers, as well as providing early college and dual-enrollment workforce programs.

Three HACC graduates who work at a local dental care company pose with Sygielski.

Another recommendation he heard is to eliminate placement-related barriers by finding ways to help high schools align their student exit outcomes to academic expectations of HACC. In addition, more relationship-building between faculty at the high schools and HACC is needed.

Sygielski also wants HACC to accelerate its use of technology, particularly mobile applications, for enrollment, counseling and tutoring.

While efforts to attract high school students to HACC will grow, data show that the number of high school graduates is decreasing.

“They’re not going to provide us with the enrollment numbers they once did,” Sygielski says. So, HACC also is expanding outreach efforts to adult students.

“We’ll stay involved with high schools, even as we expend more energy on attracting adult learners,” he says.

Lessons for leaders

Though Sygielski relishes talking with people in the community on his bike tours, cycling also gives him time alone to “reflect on the year and think on the year ahead.”

All that reflection led to 10 lessons that apply to both cyclists and leaders.

  1. Plan, prepare and stay focused.
  2. As you look ahead, know the hill ahead is never as steep as it seems.
  3. Be prepared to address the unexpected.
  4. Be open to and welcome detours.
  5. Keep one hand on your handlebar and the other on the brake.
  6. Shifting is necessary, always.
  7. Stay aware of your surroundings and pertinent signs.
  8. Know who to call if you run into a challenge.
  9. Stay hydrated and take breaks, when necessary.
  10. Celebrate milestones along the way.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.