Search
Link to 125 site
Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Behind Stowe Online

The Latest

Faculty Spotlight: Michael Owen and Melissa Cassel

As we begin a year of festivities for our 125th Anniversary, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the people who have helped transform our community. This year, two of our dedicated faculty members are celebrating two decades of service at our School: Dean of Students Melissa Cassel and Dance Department Head Michael Owen. Both arrived in 1998 and have positively impacted the Walnut Hill experience for so many students over the past 20 years. We chatted with Melissa and Michael to learn how they first came to the Hill, as well as to hear them reflect on the years they have spent here.

As we begin a year of festivities for our 125th Anniversary, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the people who have helped transform our community. This year, two of our dedicated faculty members are celebrating two decades of service at our School: Dean of Students Melissa Cassel and Dance Department Head Michael Owen. Both arrived in 1998 and have positively impacted the Walnut Hill experience for so many students over the past 20 years. We chatted with Melissa and Michael to learn how they first came to the Hill, as well as to hear them reflect on the years they have spent here.

 

How did you first end up on the Hill 20 years ago, and did you anticipate you were here to stay?

 

MO: I was still with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and had been doing some adjunct teaching at SUNY Purchase, and it became clearer and clearer that I needed to move on. A friend of mine, a stage manager, told me around early spring that of all places, the Wall Street Journal was listing a job at Walnut Hill. So I sent a résumé. I was teaching the summer intensive for ABT in Detroit when I got a phone call that the School administration wanted to interview me, so they flew me in, flew me back, and said they'd let me know. I didn't hear anything, and then literally 10 days before school started, I was notified. I had to pack up everything in New York and get here. I was getting married that fall as well, so we were kind of doing three of the most difficult things that you could deal with in your life all at one time.

At first it was an adjustment, coming from New York. I had lived there for almost 30 years, and even though it's a vibrant community here, I had to get used to a different pace. It was a huge learning curve to come from the professional world to academia. Initially, the first year was very difficult, just keeping my nose at the water line. As things settled into place a little bit more, I was able to tread through the land mines. The School had hired me to redesign the dance program, and I took the first year to evaluate my staff and what we were offering, so I could then start rebuilding. Suddenly I turned around and it was 20 years later!

MC: The previous Dean of Students, Aimee Simons, and I both went to Colby College and served as Resident Assistants and Head Residents while there. She contacted me when she resigned from Walnut Hill and asked me to apply. I was working at New England Conservatory, and the only thing I knew about Walnut Hill was that the extension division of NEC took over our dining hall and parking lot every Saturday, with lots of those kids coming from Walnut Hill. Still, I applied and came to interview and fell in love with the mission, the place, and the people. Stephanie Perrin, the Head of School at that time, talked about the role Walnut Hill played in changing kids' lives and I was hooked. I didn't really have an idea of how long I would stay, but I would never have imagined staying here for 20 years. However, once my son Jordan was born and this became home for him, leaving seemed crazy.

 

How has your department, or the School in general, changed during your time here? How has it stayed the same?

 

MO: I think all the departments have grown significantly—grown bigger, in a good sense, and certainly stronger. I firmly believe that we are the best in the business, and I think it's due to the fact that the arts departments for the most part have had longevity at the helm, and have been listening and adding to programs where possible. Is there more we'd like to offer? Of course, but there are only so many hours in the day. I do think all the art areas are very strong, and of course we have a solid academic program as well. I definitely see us as a leader in the marketplace.

MC: When I started here, it was just me and a part-time assistant/attendance person, whom I shared with the Academic Dean, in the Student Life Office. While the School was smaller (235 total students) at that time, I still was responsible for the same areas as I am now plus some more: Health Services, Fitness/Wellness, Residential Life, International Support, Student Activities, Discipline, Leadership, Assemblies, Orientation, Attendance, Advising, Crisis/Emergency Response, Administrator on Call Training and Support, Student Support, and Parent Support. I think that the sense of what a boarding school needed to provide students was significantly less than it is now and that being a teenager was perhaps easier or at least different. Students need much more support as they move away from families that may have done increasingly more for them than in the past; the level of anxiety and depression is on the rise among adolescents, likely linked to the increased invasiveness of social media; students find themselves under more pressure to know what they want after high school and work to achieve that from the start of 9th grade rather than just enjoying high school. For these and many other reasons, the support function has increased in my job and we have restructured to take other areas away that focus on community development—leadership, advising, assemblies. We have also increased the hours of our School Counselor and the number/hours of our nursing staff. The School has seen lots of changes—there is no longer a middle school; the majority of our international students are from China rather than Korea; we have grown in size from 285 to 290; we've added a new dormitory and restructured others; we've continued to support all students, including implementing a gender-inclusive dormitory several years ago; we switched from Creative Writing to WFMA; the majors have more balanced enrollment; and I've worked for four Heads of School, each of whom has brought a different vision to the School. Through all of these changes, though, we have remained true to our mission of training young artists not only to be great artists, but to be the best people they can be. As a public school kid and supporter, I never imagined working at an independent school, but at Walnut Hill we do things that public schools don't have the resources to do—we give excellent arts training, provide terrific academic training, and form community so that students can grow. I often tell students that their grades in their arts and academic classes really don't matter to me—what matters to me is that students take full advantage of the opportunities here, that they express their curiosity and push themselves to try new things, that they learn from their mistakes, that they care about other people and themselves, and that they are kind and honest young people. I love my job because I work with students as well-rounded people with all its aspects—the good, the bad, the hard, the sad, the funny—and that has never changed.

 

Melissa, for the past few years you have served double duty as Dean of Students and the parent of a Walnut! How has this additional role affected your experience and outlook on the Hill?

 

MC: I never imagined being a theater parent, even though the students who were here when Jordan was little told me he'd become a theater major. He was a shy, introverted kid who loved to come to my office and draw. I'm not surprised he wanted to attend school here, as this is his home (he went to Dorm Parent meetings in diapers and this year was his 17th Harbor Cruise, as he's attended the event with me every year), and I think that the way Walnut Hill teaches is perfect for him. It has been challenging at times for him to be a student here, but actually I think more for him than for me. It's hard to be the kid whose mom is in charge of discipline and who seems to always be around. I worried a lot that people would think he was telling me things or would give him a hard time. Sometimes that did happen, but for the most part it's been really positive and a blessing to see him blossom through his adolescence. I don't actually see him much on an average day, but I get to hear about him and know what is going on. Additionally, I've always loved getting to know the students in my Dean job, but to get to know Jordan's friends has been so special for me. I am "Mom" to lots of them now, and they love to come over and hang at my house. I think the Mrs. Cassel on Summit Road is much less scary than the Mrs. Cassel on campus can be. I think it has also helped me do my job so much better because I truly understand things as a parent. I can empathize with parents and push them on issues in new ways since I've really "been there."

 

What is your favorite memory or experience from your years here on the Hill?

 

MO: I think probably New Works, on a yearly basis. Denise Lewis and I try to stay away so that it's really Diane Arvanites's project from fall through spring. We try to stay clear because we like to go into the performance with no preconceived notions or feelings, in order to be able to critique it on a very clean basis. It always amazes me—we'll see things from students that we didn't know were there. We think, "Where did this come from? Why are we only seeing this now?" It's such a huge growth process, particularly for those seniors who are involved with choreographing and creating. That's probably one of the most exciting things for me, year to year. And I think overall, being able to see other art departments—what they're producing, what they're doing with their students, what's being accomplished—that's exciting too.

MC: I don't think I can pick one—which is a wonderful dilemma to have. There have been so many students over the years who have touched me in so many ways, and often they are the students who struggled the most to find their way at Walnut Hill. I love to laugh with the kids and to remind them of their little successes when they can't see those things themselves. The New York City Galas of the past were amazing—tiring but amazing; so many musicals that I've watched, art shows, readings, recitals, Nutcracker performances, and the artistic list goes on. Visiting Globalism, Development, and the Middle East (GLODME) classes, talking to freshmen in Foundations, going into ELL classes, quizzing students before tests, and the academic list goes on. Our annual Leadership/OC Gratitude Circle, Harbor Cruise, Prom, Boar's Head, Candlelight, Tree Day, and of course Mountain Day—even when I was pregnant. But honestly, I think my favorite memories are those times when a student and I really truly connect—when they realize that like them, I am just a person who wants nothing more than for them to be successful, however they define success. Sometimes this means holding them accountable for a bad mistake, sometimes it's being with them as they are sad or mad or silly . . . in any situation being with them is what is important. That's what I will remember the most—being with the students in so many ways. I'm lucky because my memory is so full of students who allowed me to be part of their experiences here. Now, as I get older, my memories include connecting with alums in all walks of life and seeing them as successful adults—sometimes even meeting their kids! I feel truly blessed.