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Chatham Alumna Ellen Stolpe Class of 1982

The PHOENIXES

The Freedom to Soar

Ellen Stolpe ‘82 rose from early challenges to embrace an unexpected career in teaching while staying true to her talents as an artist.

 

 

Ellen Stolpe came to Chatham in 1978. As she remembers it, “Campus was hopping.”

The Black Student Union was strong, and gay culture was thriving. The environment was eye opening, and invigorating, for a self-described “white girl from the woods of Western Pennsylvania.”

Ellen came from a family of rural doctors and teachers whose faith in education “made it safe to go out and consume as much of the world as possible.” An aunt who had gone to Chatham was the one who encouraged her to apply. In high school, she had loved orienteering. And when she found herself in Pittsburgh, she took a map and a bus pass and approached the city the same way.

Ellen Stolpe Chatham University Class of 1986 Alumna

Ellen was energized by the cultural offerings she found, especially the music. She had inherited a family gift for singing. At Chatham, it was only natural for her to join the choir, though she was a Theater major. The head of the Music department quickly recruited her to change her major, and she relished classes in theory, writing music, piano, and more. She selected carefully the few electives she had time for, putting together a well-rounded education.

“What changed my life was an art history class. That class just opened up the world for me,” Ellen says. Art history led her to a “bigger life”—and ultimately to a career as an educator that suited her perfectly.

But first she had to pay her dues as a struggling young artist. She took a job singing at the Church of the Ascension in Shadyside. She worked for the Pittsburgh Opera as an assistant stage manager. She also taught preschool and catered weddings.

But she soon realized that the life of a singer was going to be challenging: “I simply couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have thick enough skin, and I wasn’t hungry enough to stick it out. It was a very tough realization.”

A job teaching music theory in the Centers for the Musically Talented program with Pittsburgh public schools opened up another path. It led to a masters program in teaching at the University of Pittsburgh.

With a masters degree in hand, she started a full-time job in Pittsburgh public schools. For 23 years of her 24-year career, she taught English to sixth graders—first at Greenway Middle School and later at the Traditional Academy. Having grown up in a little township school where her mother was the senior English teacher, Ellen loved the community feeling she found among a diverse population of students and teachers.

She credits Chatham with helping to shape the course of her life: “My time at Chatham taught me that a liberal arts experience is incredibly valid. Today lots of people want to get a degree that makes them immediately marketable. But I did not go to school to get a career; I went to study liberal arts. I paid for the education myself, and it was worth every penny because it gave me [and here she pauses to emphasize every word] a life I could otherwise not have had.

Not everything about Ellen’s time at Chatham was positive, however. While there, she suffered intense bullying from one particular clique of classmates. “I was an outlier—a nerd, a little Einstein,” she says, but that did not excuse the girls who tormented her. As she grew up, she was able to view her experience from a more empowered perspective. Now she is active in confronting bullying among young people she mentors. She says, “I see myself as a phoenix because I was able to rise from the ashes of that experience. Now I carry myself stronger and straighter.”

Not only that—she found that letting go of her dream to be a singer actually allowed her to soar: “I rose from the ashes of that dream into realizing how happy teaching made me, and how much I was freed to sing for enjoyment. There is a kind of glory in accepting that I become stronger and more compassionate as I learn from my mistakes and rise again and again.”

Forever a lover of the arts, music is still a huge part of her life. Ellen retired in 2015 and now sings with the Bach choir in Pittsburgh, dances with an English country dance group, and paints and sews in her home studio. She has traveled from Montana to Georgia to Maine and beyond. The impressions she collects as she goes—from a field of sunflowers in South Dakota, to the “brain-exploding” art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—fuel her to continue to do and see more.

“My goal has always been to make my world as big as I can, and I’ve done that. I always told my students, ‘Make your life as big as possible.’”