Ornella Martini Vivas (left) and Sophia Leones, both from Argentina, are two of the 45 South American students working at Cascade Mountain near Portage this winter.(Photo: Brian E. Clark)
Ornella Martini Vivas, who hails from Argentina, could have spent the South American summer — which runs from December through March — on the Atlantic coast resort of Mar del Plata working on her tan.
But Vivas, a second-year law student who’s hoping for a career in her country’s diplomatic service, opted instead for chilly Wisconsin.
Here in the Badger State for just a few weeks now, she’s working at Cascade Mountain outside Portage in the guest services department, where she helps skiers and snowboarders line up to get on lifts, answers questions and tends the fire pits in the resort’s plaza, among other duties.
She’s one of 45 college students, most from Argentina and Brazil, who are employed by Cascade through a program that grants them J-1 work visas. Some of the students have liked their time at Cascade so much that they’ve returned. Sophia Leones, also from Argentina, is now in her fourth ski season at Cascade.
Rob Walz, whose family has owned Cascade since 1977, said the students make up a little more than 10% of his workforce. Without them, he noted, the resort would not be able to open some weekdays because many of his other employees are in school or have other day jobs.
Cascade began using foreign students in 1997, when he said managers were hard-pressed to find enough local workers to stay open as many hours as they wanted. Walz and his wife bought the resort from his parents in 2006. Last season, they spent more than $9 million to add two new lifts, eight trails, more snowmaking and other upgrades.
A skier carves a turn at Cascade Mountain in Portage. (Photo: Cascade Mountain)
Vivas, 21, said Wisconsin and the snowy winter are still new to her after her early December arrival.
“But so far, it’s good,” said Vivas, who said her first choice was Aspen, Colo. Living there would have required a long commute to her job, however. At Cascade, she lives in resort-provided housing near the slopes, which she considers a big plus.
“I have about 20 friends who have worked in the United States during our summers,” she said. “One of them got a job at Kalahari and said that Wisconsin had a different culture than Argentina. And I am looking for a new experience, so this was a right choice for me.”
Vivas, who has skied at major resorts in the Andes such as Las Lenas and Bariloche, said she hopes to improve her skiing technique during her time at Cascade and then travel in the United States when spring arrives.
Leones, who lives in Tucumán in northern Argentina, heard about the work-abroad program from a friend five years ago. She then traveled to Buenos Aires, 700 miles to the south, for interviews.
“Wisconsin wasn’t my first choice, either, but after I learned more about the state I became interested in working here,” said the 24-year-old Leones, who is studying to become an English teacher in her native country.
“I came here with two friends and really enjoyed my time at Cascade, which is why I’ve come back now for my fourth year,” said Leones, who said she has skied a few times in the Andes.
“I like the small-town atmosphere of Portage, and found the people to be friendly and kind. In addition, I’ve made friends from a lot of different countries,” said Leones, who works as a lift operator at Cascade.
She considered trying a resort in Colorado after her first year in Wisconsin, but said the cost of housing there was much more expensive than Wisconsin — which would have left her with little money to travel or take home.
Leones isn’t sure where she’ll go when the resort closes in the spring, but her past journeys in this country have taken her to Chicago, New York, California, Florida and Hawaii.
“It’s been a great experience and has improved my English, which will be good for my work as an English teacher,” she said.
Walz said he initially received some pushback from locals when the resort began hiring students from South America.
“When people from town say ‘Hey, you’re hiring foreigners?’ I’m quick to say they are international students,” he said. “And as soon as we explain it, they understand. They know what a big operation we have here with 300-plus total employees and that we need the students to stay open.”
Though the use of foreign students is much more commonplace in the state’s tourism industries now than it was 20 years ago, Walz said the fate of the J-1 program was “very much in jeopardy” this year.
Leones and Vivas said they were not sure if they would be able to get their J-1 visas to work at Cascade until late in 2017.
“The student visas got lumped in with the H-2B professional visas, which are different categories, so things got complicated,” Walz said.
“But the reality is that there are not enough people to fill all the jobs we have,” he said. “I can’t speak for other states, but I can for ski areas and we need people. We’re lucky to have these kids working here.
“They aren’t replacing American workers, they are a complement to them. Skiing is more than weekends and one-day ticket sales. We want to be open on weekdays, too, and they make it possible for us to to that.”
More information: Cascade Mountain is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Day/night lift tickets are $64 for adults and $54 for kids ages 13 to 17; kids 12 and under ski free with a paid adult.
For more, see cascademountain.com or call (608) 742-5588.
Getting there: Cascade Mountain is at W10441 Cascade Mountain Road, Portage, about 105 miles northwest of Milwaukee via Interstates 94 and 90.
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