Eight- year-old Erin Elizabeth Wilhelmi, accompanied by her sisters Katelyn and Sheila, walked into the basement of the Cary Methodist Church to take the first ballet tap combination class I would teach as a studio owner. All three were bare-legged, wearing bright-colored leotards and had the longest thinnest legs I had ever seen. I was enchanted by them, their huge almond-shaped eyes and the fact that they never stopped smiling. Breathless and excited to try a brand-new studio for her daughters to learn dance; their equally smiley, long, lean mom, Maggie introduced the five of us. I began class; unaware that this was the beginning of relationships that would become so important to me and have lasting significant impressions. I never stopped feeling as enchanted by Erin as I was that first day.
At 28, Erin is a Fulbright Scholar, high school Spanish teacher, musician, dancer, choreographer, world traveler, homeowner, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece and friend. She earned her BA in Spanish Education with a minor in music from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. As a Fulbright Scholar, Erin lived in Argentina and taught at the University of San Juan and at ASIC, English Institute and Americas Public Library. While living there she was able to travel to Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. Her travels have also taken her to France, the British Isles, Spain and many US destinations. Erin is a freelance accompanist, plays piano and choreographs for Cary-Grove High School’s Swing Choir, and is rehearsal and performance accompanist for C-G’s musicals. In addition to teaching Spanish at John Hersey High School, she will be the director of the Hersey High School show choir group called, Ladies First, for the 2019-2020 school year. While in high school and college, Erin danced and sang in numerous performing groups and shows and has sung at many weddings and funerals. She has played lead roles in musicals which showcased her great comedic timing and was one of the most beautiful dancers at my studio. I sat down with Erin several months ago to find out how she has accomplished so much so young; and how she maintains her rigorous work, travel and social schedule while managing to be happy, graceful, calm, funny, kind, and energetic.
Growing up the middle of three sisters, Erin saw herself as a nurturer and a helper and the one in the family who fulfilled whatever role was needed. In this way, she says that she was much like Switzerland; she wants everyone to get along and will do what it takes ensure that. Perhaps more of a feisty Switzerland since she has the fortitude and the strength to assert herself when necessary. Raised by parents, especially her mother, who were great role models and set high standards and expectations of their children, Erin credits her parents for first teaching her to think of others…
“I think it started with my parents, especially my mom. She was always making me think about other people. Whether it was writing thank-you notes, or… Who was it who phrased it this way? Maybe my mom, but we said there are the “here I am” people or the “There you are” people. My mom taught us to reflect on this, even after family events. She really engrained in us to think about how we wanted to treat other people. My mom is a very “There you are” person, and I think going abroad also was a huge influence that made me understand the world has so many different people, different customs and different communities that have different customs. I wanted to understand those. I think that is when I started channeling the “there you are”. So, I would be a listener, and I learned to listen more than I talked.”
Erin describes herself as a teacher, learner, musician, and credits music with making her a team player. When asked if that is what she loves most about music she responded, “I am so grateful for music and I think both music and dance are and were an escape and a stress relief for me, a way to express myself. I still use music as a way to destress and challenge my mind. I feel that way with dance and choreography too. It puts me at peace and makes me happy and it makes people around me happy. It can be me playing the piano with my sisters singing or playing for Swing Choir or for the musical, it’s really cool. Whether that’s in the pit with these other amazing people or accompanying these kids who are having so much fun singing and dancing. It’s like, ‘oh I get to be a part of that!’”
Practically every time we talked about music and dance Erin got emotional. She credits her training and experiences in both as having a huge influence on her life and giving her the work ethic and discipline she needed.
Erin’s reply to what she loves most about teaching, “I like seeing kids as individual people, and I think that is part of why I love teaching so much. I meet these kids and I don’t know everything that they are dealing with in their life, but for 50 minutes I can form a relationship with them and make them feel seen, and make them think about something outside of themselves. For a high school student that is more of an uphill battle to fight. But it’s something that is important to me to do.”
Erin identifies going to Hope college as a pivotal time in her life. On one hand understanding how much her parents had done for her; on the other realizing that she could form and express opinions and make decisions without consulting them first. As a Spanish major, she was required to spend a semester abroad. One of the most important decisions Erin had to make was where she would study.
“I had This Argentinian, amazing, super-cool professor who would take us out for small group coffee dates to talk to us and also to talk about the study abroad program, our thoughts, ideas, plans. I just asked a bunch of questions of her and she started talking about Buenos Aires and Argentina and her life there because she was born and raised there. It was fascinating to me what she had to say about Argentina. I thought well, I feel like at some point in my life I will go to Spain because that is where everyone went. It would be cool and different and I don’t know as much about Argentina, I want to go there. But then I had a small moment of panic, after applying to the program through my school, which was a language intensive program, not a program where Hope took a bunch of students; I would be with student from all over the US. I got accepted and then researched Buenos Aires. I found out that it was a humongous city and kind of panicked. Then thought ‘I don’t think I can do this; I need to go somewhere smaller…’ But then it was the best thing I ever did.”
Erin grew to love Buenos Aires, her host family became her second family, and the friends she made while there have become lifelong friends. Teary eyed, Erin said how proud of herself she is to feel that way about Buenos Aires. Not only did she conquer a completely foreign city but came to adore it. Brave of her considering that prior to going to Argentina, Erin had never traveled outside of the United States other than to a resort in Mexico. This experience sparked a sense of adventure in Erin and she now has a rule that she will travel somewhere at least one weekend each month.
Erin had a feeling she would return to Argentina. Return she did, as a Fulbright Scholar. A mention in passing from a friend turned into months of preparation just to apply to become a Fulbright. The Fulbright program was started in 1954 by Senator J. William Fulbright who called for the use of surplus war property to fund the ‘promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science’. The program offers opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The program awards grants in all fields of studies and operates in more than 140 countries worldwide.
Six months after graduation from Hope College, Erin headed back to Argentina as a teacher and Fulbright Scholar. This was Erin’s first experience ever living alone, so she accepted every social opportunity offered to her from friends she made at the university, took Tela (silks) classes, read and traveled. To her this was an empowering and liberating experience that taught her to enjoy and embrace alone time. Her job was teaching English classes that were meant as a cultural exchange where she offered a United States point of view, told from her lense, on culture, pop culture, history, politics, and whatever her students wanted to discuss. All of which forced her to look at current American trends and fads and to research and learn more about her own country.
Argentina is primarily Catholic and the current pope, Pope Francis, was born there. Erin was raised Catholic so I asked her if she had attended church while she was there. She described the church there as very literal and strict. Consequently, she didn’t attend mass while living there and avoided religious discussions. Erin describes herself as Catholic in background and finds solace attending mass here at home; but says that it is not how she would describe her faith. She identifies her faith as spiritual rather than sectarian.
Erin was in Argentina while Barack Obama was in office and was surprised and gratified to hear Argentinean people express their affection and admiration of him. Now more than ever, we need these cross-cultural personal connections and ambassadorship. I marvel at the people of her generation and their willingness to travel, study, learn and take a stand. They live in a world that encourages them to expose themselves in a myriad of ways, many not good; yet Erin and many of her generation whom I know and have had the privilege of teaching, have used the “age of information” to create lives and experiences that have and will make a difference in the world.
Erin is a professional woman who has traveled the world and is an incredible teacher who has experienced places and things I have not; yet there is part of me who will always first see that darling, eager, hard-working, magical little girl I taught my very first day of being a dance studio owner. Her energy is even more positive, fresh and kind than it was when I first met her. Elegant and gorgeous on the outside, her beauty emanates from her courageous, brilliant, generous, creative heart. This is only part of her story; we talked for hours. Our conversation was enlightening, interesting and fun and I am thrilled to see how the rest of her story goes!