by Evangeline Delgado '11, Alumni Association Chair and Director of Summer Student Life
Left: Amanda Black '16 and Neeraj Ramachandran '16 as Walnut Hill dance students; Right: Erica Maul '17 at her Walnut Hill senior recital with Angela Gooch.
Summer at Walnut Hill is a refreshing but concentrated experience—like drinking extra-sweetened iced tea on a hot day. You’d better be ready for the sugar rush that tingles through your body down to your toes. Each year a handful of young Walnut Hill alumni return home to the Hill for a summer job as Resident Assistants (RAs) in our theater and dance boarding programs. As RAs, they start to grow out of being students, and learn what it takes to actually shape and mold new Walnuts. It is exhausting work. The summer does not run without the energy and enthusiasm of the RAs. They plan Coffee Houses, run Nut Cup games, and help students overcome homesickness and disappointments when casting or placement comes out. But our alums have been through it all before—they know the kind of hard work it takes to show up at the studio every day.
This summer, we welcome back three alumni as summer RAs: dance majors Amanda Black '16 and Neeraj Ramachandran '16 and voice major Erica Maul '17. A few weeks ago when Garrett Murphy '08 and I had dinner with them, the “remember whens” were heard around the table, and they each shared with us part of their Walnut Hill story.
Returning for her second summer as an RA, Amanda Black has been a Walnut for most of her life. At age 8, she joined the Community Dance Academy, a program at Walnut Hill that offers dance classes and training to local students starting at age 7. It was never a question for Amanda—she was always going to be a Walnut. But it was not an easy decision for her family. Sometimes we forget that we give up a lot when we choose to be a part of this incredible place. Our Walnut Hill education is expensive, sometimes it is far away from family, and it requires sacrifices beyond our own.
Attending the high school program at Walnut Hill was going to be an adjustment for Amanda and her family. “There was a good public high school in Sherborn, that’s why my family moved there,” she says. “Both my parents work, so getting to school was going to be a challenge. And I have a younger brother, so I think the question was asked, why do I get to go to private school and my brother doesn’t?” But there was going to be nowhere else to train once Amanda outgrew the Community Dance Academy, and her family supported her as she continued to pursue a life in dance.
Amanda had spent six years dreaming of being a part of the Walnut Hill program, admiring the high school students as she passed them walking between studios. “They were princes and princesses,” she says, smiling. “I looked up to them so much. They were my superstars!” She loved the school and the opportunities the Dance Department offered. “It felt so legit, like a company. Other dance programs are not the same. You can dance and do online school or homeschooling, but here you can do both.” Not only was she engaged as an artist on our beautiful campus, but she was pushed to appreciate and work with other students who were passionate about their art.
Her Walnut Hill training provided her with incredible opportunities after high school. In Amanda’s senior year, she was offered a trainee position at Ballet Austin, the news delivered in person after her audition right in Studio 2 of out Dance Center. The decision to join a company or to attend college was one of the hardest decisions she had to make. Amanda’s mom offered her support and a good dose of advice. “You will never be 18 again,” her mom counseled. “You do not have a family or kids to think about. This is your time to do what you want to do.” On May 1, the last day to commit, Amanda made the decision to attend Ballet Austin.
It was a whirlwind of change. Amanda attended the summer program at Ballet Austin, found an apartment with a friend from a previous dance intensive, and got a job to support herself. It turned out that doing ballet as a job was very different. “If you made a mistake, you were yelled at,” she recalls. “It was not nurturing. But I loved getting to perform to live music! It felt professional.” Even as she dealt with the transitions, Amanda felt that Walnut Hill had prepared her for a full professional life. “I feel well-rounded and confident,” she says, “not just with regard to my dance, but with other skills that might help me get jobs outside the dance field.”
After a year as a trainee with Ballet Austin, Amanda chose to go back to school. She explains, “It was a difficult decision, but I am thankful that I had the opportunity for both. I will always have dance in my future. I’m now a Zumba instructor and I still teach when I get a chance. I sometimes think about pursuing dance again. It’s a possibility for sure.” She now attends Wake Forest University in North Carolina on a pre-med track as a biology major with a dance minor. Amanda is proud to have received two scholarships that are helping her finish school: the Presidential Scholarship for Dance, and the Serruzzi Scholarship for arts leadership, which she attributes to the many leadership opportunities she had while at Walnut Hill.
Amanda proudly states that she owes everything to Walnut Hill: “It paved the way for pursuing a professional dance career and paying for my college education. I absolutely believe in arts education, and it’s an evolving culture.” And this is why she returns to Walnut Hill each summer. “I love watching the new little Walnut nuggets grow up, learn to dance, be fabulous, and make mistakes,” she says. “I feel like a proud mom. It’s exciting to see the next generation work their magic. I get to see the kids as silly goofs every day, and then watch them transform when they perform onstage.”
Neeraj Ramachandran began his time at Walnut Hill as a summer student. Like many Walnuts, Neeraj is skilled in multiple artistic areas. While at a piano lesson, his teacher talked with him about the School. As a kid with a lot of passion for dance, Neeraj wanted any opportunity to be more serious about his art. After auditioning for both the summer and school-year programs, Neeraj joined Walnut Hill in summer 2012 for our five-week dance intensive. Continuing on to four years in the Dance Department, Neeraj developed as a strong artist and deepened his opportunities for learning.
“I grew a lot at Walnut Hill, not just as a dancer and an academic,” Neeraj notes, “but socially I became more in touch with myself. I was very inspired by the people I was around. When I went to college, I wanted to be reminded of the people I met at Walnut Hill and I wanted to be inspired just like I had been here.”
Departing from Walnut Hill brought big changes. Neeraj is entering his junior year at Columbia Univeristy, studying linguistics. It has been a challenge to balance the intensive academic workload while adjusting to such a large community. But he feels prepared, particularly in his humanities training, and spending time as a boarder for two years at Walnut Hill gave him skills in independence. He says, “The mindset that you develop as a dancer has been very applicable, even outside of the studio. You learn how to be ambitious and have a strong work ethic.”
Though no longer dancing after a knee injury, Neeraj is still involved with the arts. He is part of the university’s creative writing magazine, and he works on arts administration at the Columbia Arts Initiative. “I want to be ambitious in trying new things, pursue options beyond college that I’ve never thought of before. There are a lot of new possibilities. I want to see those possibilities and take advantage of them,” he explains.
He has taken advantage of some of those opportunities this summer. When he’s not hard at work in the dorms as an RA, Neeraj works part-time at the Earthwatch Institute, an environmental nonprofit with a U.S. base in Boston. “I’m working on some projects that have me involved with business administration. It’s a good opportunity, they have a mission to benefit others, I get experience in a corporate setting and opportunities to travel. At the end of the day, I’m back at Walnut Hill, working with kids, which is great to be a part of!”
Erica Maul was a summer student at Walnut Hill in 2013, attending the now-retired three-week Summer Voice Program. She says of her work here this summer, “I wanted to become an RA because I loved my time as a summer student, and I wanted to give back to other students who came for the program.”
Born and raised in Nebraska, Erica grew up participating in regional choral conventions. As she began studying with a private teacher and became more interested in solo performances, she realized there were not going to be many opportunities for her to expand her training moving forward. “Singing was something that made me really happy, and I felt restless because I wanted to do more.”
Like so many other Walnuts before her, Erica took it upon herself to find a solution to the artistic bug that buzzed through her. At 12 years of age, she did the old Google search and found Walnut Hill’s Summer Voice Program. “I had to wait a whole year in order to come at 13,” Erica says, but it was well worth the wait. After spending her three weeks in intensive training on campus—one of those weeks spent traveling and performing in Italy—she had connected to the School and her teachers. She begged her parents to let her apply for the school-year program.
“My summer teachers were influential in my decision to apply. Angela [Gooch] did a school-year plug, and I was so amazed to learn that there were opportunities to be an exponentially better singer every day. I was feeling trapped about the coming year back home in public school. I realized that if I came to Walnut Hill, I could study music as hard as I wanted and no one was going to stop me!”
While still on campus, Erica put together the final touches on an application, calling home to have her mother search through boxes to find pieces of old homework she could use. After returning to Nebraska at the end of the summer program, Erica waited to hear the news about her year-round application. She was in. But with the letter of acceptance she received in the mail came the disappointing news that it was going to be too expensive to attend. Without Erica knowing, her mom wrote a letter to the Admission Office, asking for more financial aid. Erica had already started 9th grade at her local public school, prepared to make the best of it. On the third day of school, her parents picked her up in their van, the outside of which bore a message written in paint that read “Walnut Hill, Here I Come!” This called for a family celebration at Dairy Queen, before quickly packing the car and making the 30-hour trip from Kearney to Natick. Walnut Hill was starting just days later!
At Walnut Hill, Erica got to see the world through other people’s perspectives. She learned the values of hard work, passion, and character building in an environment stressing the importance of the arts in the lives of young people. Now Erica resides just down the street at Wellesley College, and she is not afraid to once again challenge herself to try new things. “I always really loved school and being a learner, and I knew that a conservatory wasn’t right for me. Studying art so intensively had become overwhelming—it had become a stressor and not a joy. I wanted to go back to the place of joy and not have grades associated with it.” Now entering her sophomore year, Erica is majoring in environmental studies and minoring in Arabic, and she has become a dedicated member of the Wellesley College crew team. “Art is something that you can always come back to,” she notes.
No matter when you return to Walnut Hill, the memories bubble over. We think of the time when the bottom of the hill flooded behind the gazebo and we went stomping around in the puddles. We remember when we first came to campus, perhaps on a quintessential New England autumn day, or in the middle of a brutal Nor’easter. No matter how you came, or how you left this campus, reflect back on what brought you here in the first place, and consider how you have been changed as a result.