When recent Hope graduate Tara Stollenmaier describes herself, she says she is a planner.
When Hope College professors describe Tara Stollenmaier, they say she is a doer.
That start-to-finish combination of personal action — planning and doing — is the reason why Stollenmaier was able to return to college after 25 years away and graduate with the Class of 2021 this spring.
Here is her story of perseverance on a rerouted journey back to Hope.
Back in the Day
In 1992, Stollenmaier arrived on Hope’s campus from Clinton, New Jersey with plans to make a difference in the world by majoring in sociology and social work. She remembers enjoying the course work, feeling it fit her interests and world view, knowing it could help lead to a career where helping others in need is paramount.
When she became pregnant during her sophomore year though, her educational plans did not change; they just became delayed for a while. She took some time away with her newborn and returned to Hope as a junior with one-year-old Isabella Dorine in tow.
“I planned to come back to school with Bella for two years,” says Stollenmaier who is the youngest of 10 in her family. “But I had to work. I worked 20 hours a week at Famous Footwear (in the outlet mall) and then I went to school full time.”
Of course, she was a full-time parent, too. Stollenmaier did receive help from daytime babysitters, Holland residents Toya and Joe Rodriguez with whom she still keeps in touch, and from classmates who found that using her home computer and apartment washer and dryer was a good trade-off while watching a toddler at night.
“My friends could do their papers and their laundry while they watched Bella so I could go to work or (night) class,” Stollenmaier says. “They were doing me a favor because that was all I could pay them. And my daughter, God blessed me with her. That girl has slept through the night since she was three-weeks old.”
But for as much support as she received, for as much as she wanted to finish the thing she had planned to do, the load of full-time school work, full-time parenting, and part-time employment became just too much to bear. She left Hope 19 credits shy of her degree.
“It was hard; I felt alone,” she explains. “I had fantastic babysitters. Toya and Joe became like a second family to me. But my GPA slowly and steadily declined. I was just overwhelmed. I had friends, and I had great friends. My biggest support on campus were my sorority Kappa Delta Chi sisters. But, you know, I was the only parent there, and they had other things to do.”
Stollenmaier returned to New Jersey and first found work as a case manager for a senior assistance for independent living program. Then she landed a job in banking where she did well but needed to work on weekends.
“As a single parent, that’s not always the easiest,” she explains, “so then I got a job working for the state of New Jersey with benefit redetermination and applications for their food stamp and cash assistance programs. Since I needed those programs too when I lived in Michigan with Bella, it felt nice to give back that way.”
Eventually though, Stollenmaier moved south to relocate near some of her siblings, plus “I thought I’d go back to school while working in banking down here. But I quickly realized I had too many credits I’d have to take.”
Though her educational plan was still delayed, moving on was not. Stollenmaier became reacquainted with an old friend who would become her husband. They would write a new life chapter together, even though another – the one about her college degree – would take a little longer to finish.
“Jeff (White) was my brother’s friend and I had known him for 10-plus years. I moved (to Boone) on a Thursday, we talked on a Friday, had our first date Sunday and a year later we were married. We’ve been together almost 15 years, and we have two more children (sons, Owen and Ian).”
The Past Year
2020 – that life-shifting, plan-crushing, pandemic-defining year – was actually the impetus for Stollenmaier to return to Hope. When she was first furloughed and then terminated from her job as a community relations manager for a major retail outfitter, the woman who likes to — has to — plan things needed something to do.
“I’m a planner and I had nothing to plan in 2020,” she admits. “I had a beautiful paper planner. I love my paper planner, and it was empty and that was hard for me.”
One good thing did come out of 2020 for the Stollenmaier family, though. Daughter Bella graduated with her master’s degree in opera performance from DePaul University. Stollenmaier was understandably proud of her daughter but couldn’t help but reflect on her years in Holland and the undergraduate degree that she hadn’t completed.
“I’ve always considered my time at Hope as a failure because I didn’t finish,” she confided. “Nobody wants failure in their life journey.”
Then an epiphany shortly after Bella’s graduation. Both of her young sons were at home, learning remotely due to the pandemic. Might Hope now have online courses, too?
Stollenmaier reached out to an old high school friend who she knew teaches at the college. Dr. Jason Gillmore of the chemistry department and Stollenmaier were classmates at Northwestern High School in Clinton. Her call to Gillmore confirmed that Hope was indeed accommodating remote learners in 2020-21. Gillmore helped make some introductions; Stollenmaier reapplied and for the past year, she has taken a mixture of online, Zoomed-in synchronous, and asynchronous sociology and general education classes in order to finish her Hope degree.
“People in Hope admissions and financial aid worked hard to figure out what I needed and how I could get restarted,” she says. “I have enjoyed my classes a lot. My German class, I loved that class. It gets me up three days a week and seeing and talking with new people. . . I had two classes with Dr. Koch (in sociology), and I really enjoyed her. I wish I could have taken her classes in-person because she is a super engaging professor. . .And my capstone sociology course with Dr. Swanson is a deeper dive into political and social class issues which I’ve found very interesting.”
As for taking classes with Hope 20-somethings, the 47-year-old Stollenmaier has appreciated that, too. “I enjoyed their insight,” she exclaims. “They give young people a good name. . . There has been a little curiosity (from them) about my life story because I am literally old enough to be everybody’s mother, but I’m treated with respect and not treated in a different way.”
Graduation and Beyond
Dr. Debra Swanson says that if Hope’s sociology and social work department had an award for tenacity, there’s no doubt that Stollenmaier would be the hands-down winner.
“Tara is smart, and funny, and a joy to have in class,” Swanson says. “But I am most impressed with her hard work; her willingness to get this done. I am so proud of her.”
Dr. Pamela Koch appreciates “the energy she brings to class,” she says of Stollenmaier. “And I think it was really nice for other students to see that. This has been a hard year to do anything. But she has provided a way to focus on one good thing that has come of this (past year). She’s going to get her degree from Hope, and this is the only way this could have ever happened.”
Both professors were delighted to finally meet Stollenmaier in person at Hope for graduation on Sunday, May 16. Another highlight of her weekend was seeing Dr. Roger Nemeth, professor emeritus of sociology, who came to congratulate her in a meeting area post-ceremony. “He was my advisor and favorite professor (in the 90s),” she says. “I loved seeing him and knowing he came to see me.”
While all of that was a pleasure, Stollenmaier was most grateful that her daughter, husband, sons and octogenarian parents got to celebrate her completing the plan she started two-and-a-half decades ago. As she walked across the commencement stage at Smith Stadium to receive her diploma from President Matthew Scogin ‘02, she was overcome by a tsunami of elation and relief, followed by a wash of tears.
Now, with a Hope degree on her résumé, Stollenmaier plans to continue residing in her mountain town of Boone while working for Wilkes Community College as a community resource development specialist, a job she interviewed for and earned three days after graduation. She’ll also continue volunteering on the boards of the three non-profit organizations which she serves – a food security agency, a back-to-school festival, and her youngest son’s charter school. Each is a source of joy and fulfillment, a place where her affinity to plan has a doable purpose.
“Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean it’s going to go that way. Life really is a journey and you do not know where it will take you,” she says. “I’ve been blessed with pleasant surprises my whole life.”
Now, she’ll wait, and plan, for the next one. And then, of course, she’ll do something about it.
Graduation ceremony photos by Steven Herppich