Yale’s Courtney Pensavalle makes serving others a priority

By Gabbi Riggi

Standing at the blue line after the starters have been named, her position at the boards closest to her bench throws off the numerical order but Courtney Pensavalle belongs there.

She slips the microphone from the timekeepers’ box and begins to sing the national anthem in a warm, powerful alto. Like much of her Yale career, she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her Bulldogs teammates but represents something of her own.

The senior has shown during her undergraduate tenure that same duality: a focus on community, team culture and those in need around her. Her largest contribution has come as the leader of the Mandi Schwartz Foundation through the Yale women’s hockey team.

Honoring a former Yale player who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011 and passed away before the end of her college career, the group’s dedication to Be the Match and bone marrow drives lives on.

“We have the White Out for Mandi game and we have our Be the Match drive in April, which is the largest bone marrow registration drive in the nation,” Pensavalle said. “It started when Mandi was looking for a match and we’ve added 500 people every year, which is pretty huge. That was in her honor and continued in her honor.”

Although Schwartz passed away before the current group of seniors ever walked across Yale’s ancient buildings in New Haven, Conn., her impact as a pillar in the Yale women’s hockey community is a constant.

“We try to keep that very alive and very present, just what it means to be a Yale hockey player. We have her stall in our locker room,” Pensavalle said. “We all know who she is and we all know the sacrifices and just how great of a teammate she was. Her life applies to us as teammates and people on campus. We keep her with us, and I think that’s important.”

Pensavalle is the seventh Yale player to be a Hockey Humanitarian Award nominee. For her and the rest of the Bulldogs, embodying a cause that has so closely affected the program is natural.

“It’s not just saying we should raise money for a cause, it’s applicable and an example of the kind of person we want to be,” Pensavalle said. “She was an amazing teammate and had an amazing work ethic. It’s an easy type of foundation and cause to want to be a part of because it applies so much to our lives here.”

Her biggest focus is engaging the university and New Haven communities involved in what has now become the largest bone marrow drive in the United States.

“Seeing the support we get is pretty powerful. You can go around and mention the foundation and the women’s hockey team and Mandi Schwartz and people know who she is,” Pensavalle said. “Knowing statistically that Mandi had thousands of matches but none of them were in the drive, for me realizing that, it’s so important. We’ve had 37 matches. That means we’ve saved that many lives.”

Despite the success on and off the ice, Pensavalle saw a steep learning curve on a part of her game and mindset that she didn’t realize needed development.

“I looked at my hockey experience selfishly and I didn’t realize what it meant to be a part of a team,” she said. “I learned it didn’t matter how many goals I scored or what line I was playing on, a lot of those material, success-driven things people place a lot of importance on. I had a bit of a skewed perspective.”

The biggest adaptations have been time, a supportive group of six other teammates in the Class of 2018, and devotion to the Mandi Schwartz Foundation and the personification of Mandi’s contributions to her team. Now, Yale coach Joakim Flygh admires the presence that Pensavalle has on the squad.

“She’s such a great teammate,” Flygh said. “She knows to challenge when they need to be challenged but to help when a teammate needs a shoulder to lean on. Her nomination was no surprise at all.”

Being active in the community is something that Pensavalle said started with her parents engaging her and her brothers Sean, Ryan and Alex. The family volunteered in soup kitchens and community sports groups around their Winchester, Mass., home.

“Courtney is passionate about helping and serving others, which started before she got to Yale and embraced it,” Flygh said. “She’s very adamant about serving others and making sure Mandi’s legacy is kept alive.”

Her community dedication took roots when she enrolled at the Nobles and Greenough School, where she travelled to Guatemala to develop a community school, as well as a tutoring initiative with Boston public schools. For Tom Resor, the girls hockey head coach at Nobles, the nomination for his 2014 graduate doesn’t come as a surprise.

“I’m so excited to see Courtney’s nomination. It’s such a tremendous thing for someone to be nominated for such an honor,” Resor said. “She’s all about reaching out and bringing different communities together, and this award fits Courtney to a T.”

Pensavalle, who plays to enter into Teach for America after graduation, wants to continue to dedicate her life to serving others.

“I live my life that way and emphasize the importance of relationships. The effect you can have on people is more important than any kind of accolade,” Pensavalle said.

“How many goals I score or how many awards I get is so insignificant at the end of the day. What is always significant and eternal and will always live on is the relationships you make and how you affect people and how you were there for them.”