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“An amazing mentor”: Arts Academy grad shares story of how Interlochen’s arts faculty became like a second family to her

Aspiring musician Ella Schoenow left public high school and found the creative guidance she needed at Interlochen.

A student in a black and red top stands smiling with her arm around her smiling teacher, who is wearing a white shirt.

Arts Academy alumna Ella Schoenow stands with one of her favorite instructors, Courtney Kaiser-Sandler.

Halfway through her freshman year, it became clear to Ella Schoenow that public high school wasn’t for her.

“I remember walking out on the last day of the first semester of my freshman year thinking, ‘I am never going to walk into this building again,’” she says. 

Schoenow had several reasons for wanting to switch to an arts boarding school, but one of the biggest draws was her desire for mentorship and guidance from faculty members.

“Public school is a lot more distant,” she says. “You’re with your teacher for an hour of class, and then you leave. There's a degree of separation there.”

Schoenow wanted instructors who cared about who she was as a person, and were committed to seeing her grow in both her academic and creative pursuits. At Interlochen Arts Academy, she found all that and more. Spending the rest of her high school journey at Interlochen allowed her to form deep bonds with faculty members who inspired her, pushed her, and supported her in every way—even while she faced some unexpected challenges.

The arts boarding school difference

Not long after making the switch to Interlochen, Schoenow started working one-on-one with her arts instructors and finding a level of connection unlike anything she’d found at public school. Clyde Sheets, Director of Interdisciplinary Arts at Interlochen, was a vital resource for her during this time.

“My first mentor, Clyde Sheets, made the transition to Interlochen as seamless as possible for me,” she remembers. “He took the time to sit down and talk me through the program schedule, the different activities that we do, the classes that we take—the whole arts experience at Interlochen. It's definitely like no other place or high school.”

Schoenow says that the faculty presence at Interlochen is part of what sets the boarding school experience apart.

“Interlochen is set up so that the instructors have the time and the necessary resources for guiding their students,” says Schoenow. “I think that the format of an arts boarding school really lends itself to the student-mentor relationship.” 

Clyde [Sheets] was an amazing mentor in my life, and he would challenge a lot of my work. He would listen to it, analyze it, and critique it, and that was incredibly valuable to me.

Ella Schoenow

Finding a second family

Schoenow found that her skills as an artist grew tremendously during her time at Interlochen—due in part to the fact that her mentors were constantly pushing her to do better.

“Clyde was an amazing mentor in my life, and he would challenge a lot of my work,” she says. “He would listen to it, analyze it, and critique it, and that was incredibly valuable to me.”

But it wasn’t just the artistic input that Schoenow found valuable. When her grandfather passed away during her junior year, Schoenow described herself as “distraught.” She needed extra support during this time, and she received it.

“Even though it wasn't arts-related or school-related or anything, Clyde was willing to be emotionally present with me, and express to me that he was there for me. It meant so much to me,” Schoenow says. “Even though I was living at home, it felt like I had a second familial support system.”

She also spent time with Courtney Kaiser-Sandler, Instructor of Singer-Songwriter, who helped her work through some of her anxiety.

“Her mindfulness really helped me become more mindful, as a performer and as a person,” says Schoenow. “Her advice helped me a lot with my personal growth as a human with anxiety. It was absolutely invaluable.” 

A smiling student in a graduation robe stands with her arm around her arts instructor.

Ella Schoenow celebrates her graduation with Clyde Sheets, Director of Interdisciplinary Arts.

Words of wisdom

Schoenow has been out of Arts Academy for a few years now, but the lessons she learned from her instructors still shape her to this day.

“Something that Clyde once said really stuck with me: ‘There are many ways to be in the music industry.’ I think that statement applies to any industry, any career, any way of life,” says Schoenow. “There's just so much opportunity all around you. It's all about carving your own path and living your life, not the life that others might expect for you.”

Schoenow is a sophomore at Belmont University now, studying songwriting with a minor in music business. As she strives to navigate college coursework and find her own unique place in the music industry, Sheets’ comment rings truer than ever.

“It's really helpful to know it'll work out. I know that carving my own path is possible,” she says.

She’s still in touch with several of her instructors. Kaiser-Sandler showed up at her high school graduation party, and she recently consulted with Sheets about an exciting development: buying her next guitar.

“I sent him this picture of a guitar that I wanted to buy and was like, ‘Should I buy this?’ He talked me through a lot of my other guitar purchases when I was at Interlochen, so I knew he was the guy to go to for that. And he was like, ‘Yeah, it's a great price. Go for it.’ I wouldn't have made that decision without reaching out to him. That’s another huge aspect of why I’m so grateful for what he's brought into my life.”

Wherever Schoenow’s journey takes her, she’ll have high standards for the mentors who have input on her life. She can look back on her time at Interlochen for examples of the profound impact a kind, competent, and rigorous arts instructor can have.

“From what I know, Interlochen is truly a place that facilitates really good relationships between the faculty and their students,” she says.

Learn more about Interlochen Arts Academy.