Mustangs among us: Alumni give back as CA employees, volunteers

For many Colorado Academy alumni, time spent as a Mustang represents a touchstone to which they return throughout life. Whether it is the long-lived friendships that took root in the classrooms of the Lower School, the defining passions and talents that blossomed in the Middle School, or the enduring thirst for intellectual challenge and global engagement that deepened in the Upper School, formative CA experiences provide firm ground for alumni as they succeed in college, career, and beyond.

For some, the return to CA is a literal one: alumni employees and volunteers contribute in almost every area of the school—welcoming, teaching, and caring for the people and places that continue to define the CA community that once nurtured them. With the start of the 2022-2023 school year, a remarkable 10 CA alumni are employed on campus. Three more are serving on the Board of Trustees, and several are coaching Upper School sports. All have been called back to campus by a common desire to give back to the institution that gave so generously to them.

Abel Ramirez ’16, who returned to CA in June 2022 as Assistant Director of Admission/Middle School and Spanish Language Liaison, came back in a quest to find “purposeful work.” A Senior Account Manager and then Senior Analyst with a team at Accenture dedicated to a major social media platform, Ramirez saw a role with CA as a way to reconnect with experiences that were among the most meaningful of his life—finding his place in the CA community, and pursuing photography here.

First arriving at CA in Ninth Grade, he says, he was understandably nervous, but immediately felt accepted in the CA community—so well accepted, that when he ran for the student government that first year, he was elected, and continued to serve throughout his time in the Upper School.

“My core group of friends in Denver today are my friends from CA,” says Ramirez.

Now, in his dual role with Admission, he is able to provide that same immediate sense of welcome and community to families considering CA. “Working with families has been fulfilling—especially working with Spanish-speaking families. That was my family when I first came to CA. I love that I’m able to tear down the language barrier and provide that connection between Spanish-speakers and the broader CA community.”

At the same time, Ramirez has found that coming back to CA allows him to stay in touch with his passion for photography, first ignited in the photo studio in the pre-renovation Ponzio Arts Center. “I practically lived in that studio,” he recalls.

He’ll have the chance to pass on that creative spark as he teaches photography to Sixth Graders this year. “Being able to provide the experience of exploring a new art medium with students who are figuring out who they are, what types of art they like to do, is really exciting. I find an incredible sense of purpose in that,” says Ramirez.

Returning to CA in 2021, Assistant Director of Admission for the Lower School Aidah Clinton ’06 also has found fulfillment in diving back into the world that helped shape her identity. A Mustang through Lower and Middle school, Clinton cites the impact of opportunities such as playing the cello, global travel, and exploring Woody’s Pond. “To have science out in nature, not just in a classroom, was really big for me,” she says.

Just as significant was the opportunity to engage with the diverse CA community. “The desire to learn more about people—really look at people’s differences and different backgrounds—continued to grow for me at CA and beyond.”

All of this is what brought her back to CA, Clinton says. “When I came across the job in Admission, I was all in. I knew I would love to be able to share what I had with so many others in the community, opening up doors for folks of all kinds. When I came to campus for Professional Development Week and got to spend time with some of the same teachers I had had—only as an adult—I was reinvigorated.”

Connections with faculty members—and with the close-knit CA community—certainly exerted their pull on Sonia Arora ’01, CA’s Director of College Counseling and Director of Upper School Strategic Initiatives. Between the time she graduated in 2001 and her return in 2018, she says, “I was always connected to CA in some way or another.”

Visiting campus frequently, getting her start as an educator during three summers with the Horizons Program, and introducing family and friends to the world of CA, Arora always imagined returning to campus one day to work if the right opportunity arose.

And it did. “The chance now to make an impact through working with students and collaborating closely with Dr. Mike Davis and others has just been so invigorating for me,” she says.

As a strategic partner to Davis, Arora says she appreciates that the Head of School asks for her opinion before making key decisions. “To have that really strong, healthy working relationship with someone who is truly looking for ideas and valuing the people that he brings on board—and then using feedback to shape his own vision and to move the school forward—is just truly wonderful. As a woman of color, I feel valued.”

In her counseling role, Arora works with the children of many fellow alumni—a plus that only underscores the intimate Pre-K–Grade 12 culture that drew her back to campus. “When I stepped back into this community, I knew many names and people and faces, not just of faculty and staff, but of students and families. That familiarity is comforting.”

With its roots in her 10 years as a Mustang, that sense of connectedness has always resonated. “You would see the younger students whom you cared for,” she recalls. “You knew their siblings, you rode the bus with them, you saw them walking around campus, going to specials and activities. Then you’d see the older students—your role models who performed and presented.”

Now, as they start Pre-K here, Arora’s own twin children become part of that extended CA family. “Moving on from our amazing faculty child care program, they already know their peers—the other faculty children. They walk around like they were born here, and I’m so excited for them to discover new ways to experience Colorado Academy.”

The feeling of coming full circle—of seeing continuity from one CA generation to the next—is familiar to Second Grade teacher Lizzie Welborn Rockmore ’90, whose great-grandfather, Jesse Welborn, owned the elegant country home that became the centerpiece of CA’s campus, and whose grandmother, Frances Newton, grew up on the farm that once existed across Pierce Street from the house where Rockmore’s grandfather, Bob Welborn, grew up.

“The history of CA runs through my blood,” says Rockmore. “The fact that the Welborn farm is now a school is poignant and profound in so many ways. My grandfather was deeply involved in education and believed in it enormously. He was so proud to see this place of learning come to be.”

Rockmore’s own CA experience, from Grade 6 to Grade 12, was no less impactful. “I participated in everything when I was here. I would go from field hockey practice to musical practice in the same afternoon. The balance of the curriculum—the idea that everyone participates in academics, athletics, and the arts—afforded me an incredible set of skills that made me the person and the teacher I am today.”

Incorporating both art and athletics into her classroom on a daily basis, Rockmore values grit in her students—the combination of passion and perseverance that leads to success. “I love to see children take on a new challenge and, with love and support, find the energy to achieve their goals and feel a sense of accomplishment.”

The opportunity to care for young people and witness their growth at CA is a dream, says Rockmore. “I feel honored to be teaching next to teachers who taught me, and taught my children.” One of her closest friends is Upper School social studies teacher Elissa Wolf-Tinsman, who was Rockmore’s field hockey coach and European history teacher when she was a student.

“I value this place in so many ways,” she says.

Middle School English and social studies teacher Matt Olmstead ’95 followed a less-direct path back to CA. Working on property investments and then wilderness guiding in locations such as Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska, Olmstead began a search for reinvention—and a more settled life—as soon as he and his wife, fellow Class of ’95 graduate Lyz, started a family.

His search led back to campus.

Olmstead had been strongly influenced by the student-teacher relationships that are one of the hallmarks of the CA experience; he remained in touch with numerous alumni and faculty members. “Every time I would visit friends here at CA I’d feel at home,” he says, “and it didn’t take too long for me to wonder if I should reconnect with the culture.”

When Olmstead learned that CA at the time offered a teaching internship and licensure program, he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “It just sounded fun,” he recalls. “I realized I wanted to be in the classroom, offering kids what I had had—the experience of being surrounded by people who cared about me and wanted to know me well.”

Now a veteran teacher in the Middle School, Olmstead has frequently interviewed new teachers looking to join the CA faculty. “What I want to hear somebody say in that situation is that they value the small class sizes, they want to know the families of the students they teach, they’re eager for deeper connections with learners.”

Olmstead knows the right answers by heart. They’re why he’s back, why his three children go to CA, and why he and his wife care so deeply about the school.

The connection to CA runs just as deep for Lower School music teacher Nora Palenchar Golden ’00. She’s known since the Fourth Grade that she wanted to be a teacher—“probably of music,” she says. And for 12 years in her role at CA, she’s worked to become the very best music teacher she can be.

A Mustang from Grade 2 to Grade 12, Golden vividly recalls the thrill of CA’s arts program, from private lessons in flute and voice, to multiple choirs, including a flute choir, to numerous plays and musicals.

“It was fairly constant,” she observes.

Golden sees a continuous thread connecting her time at CA to the present. “It’s the fact that we’re a Pre-K through 12 school and that our Lower Schoolers constantly see the older students in a creative way. I remember being a Second Grader and feeling so excited that I actually knew someone I had seen on stage or in a performance.”

Golden says her son, a CA Fourth Grader, feels the same way. “The love and passion for the arts in this community are tangible, and they are highly supported by our families and administration,” Golden says. “From my time here as a student to my role now as a faculty member and parent, it’s clear that CA has always done an amazing job of fostering kids’ passions.”

That campus safety officer Andrew Kirshbaum ’89 found his way back to CA after retiring from law enforcement was one part serendipity and one part destiny.

It was the middle of the pandemic, and Kirshbaum was searching for a teaching position. At CA from Grade 8 to Grade 12, he had spent his undergraduate and graduate years studying philosophy, and had gone on to teach high school before making the switch to law enforcement. Becoming a police officer had always been a dream, and he rose through the ranks to become a detective with the Boulder Police Department before taking early retirement in 2020.

Now, looking to return to teaching, Kirshbaum stumbled across a listing on CA’s website for a position in campus safety, and a bell rang in his mind. “Did I know I wanted to be a campus safety officer when I retired from policing? No,” he says. “This was all about coming back to CA, in a role that pairs my two previous career paths in an environment I knew I’d be comfortable in.”

For Kirshbaum, there’s comfort in the connections he still maintains with many of his CA classmates, and there’s also reassurance in seeing that the bedrock of the CA experience remains as solid as ever.

“What I have found most rewarding about coming back,” he says, “is that behind all the ‘flair’ we have now—the incredible athletic program, the amazing new facilities—there are still those core values that CA takes very seriously: the personal accountability, personal responsibility, and academic progress and prowess. CA students take themselves seriously, they take each other seriously, and they take their work seriously.”

That’s what’s so valuable about the CA experience, says Kirshbaum. “Kids find respect for each other, respect for themselves, respect for academic pursuits. So when they go to college, they’re already primed to succeed.”

It was college, in fact, that brought David Jones ’09 back to campus in summer 2022—specifically college counseling, and a connection with Associate Director of College Counseling Cathy Nabbefeld that lasted well beyond his time as a Mustang.

Jones had been working in college counseling at an independent school in the Los Angeles area, but during the pandemic found himself longing to return to Colorado to be closer to family and friends. A perfectly-timed email from Nabbefeld arrived, alerting him to an opening in CA’s College Office.

“It was a no-brainer for me to apply,” Jones says. “I wanted to be back home with my family, and CA was always a home for me, too.”

Jones found himself in awe of CA’s college-like campus and facilities when he returned, but still felt grounded by the relationships he had valued here.

“I felt like I could take a deep breath,” he says. “Teachers at CA were such a huge part of my life—people like Cathy, [former Vocal Music Director] Ms. Jordan, Coach Bob [Ulrich]. I had to give Cathy and Coach Bob big hugs when I got to campus.”

In college and at work in L.A., Jones had found many experiences had a transactional feel. “Nothing about CA was transactional,” he asserts. When he was a student, Jones could often be found with friends singing in the parking lot as they waited for choir practice to start, or staying late to study before a basketball game. “The connections I made with people through sports and through the vocal performance groups still resonate for me.”

Through CA, Jones observes, he realized that life isn’t all business—or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s a realization he holds onto today. “I tell the students I work with we’re not going to talk about college all the time. We’re going to talk about Netflix; we’re going to hang out. It’s about connecting.”

Jill Christensen ’15 agrees that connections are key. “What brought me back to CA was a sense of community that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else,” she says. “I’ve been at other schools in different states, and none of them was able to foster community the same way that CA does.”

New in fall 2022 to CA’s early childhood program, Christensen looks forward to teaching Pre-K students just beginning their CA journey. “You get to be that person who gives them their first impression of what school can be. That’s really special—they’re just so excited to be here.”

Christensen’s own CA experience included just the Upper School, and she is eager to learn what a year in the Lower School looks like. “I’ve heard so many good things about the program and about Lower School Principal Angie Crabtree.”

As a student and athlete at CA, Christensen says she was well prepared for college and for her career as a teacher—academically, of course, but in other important ways, too. “Through things like Interim and playing field hockey, I learned a lot of skills that are important day to day for the real world,” she says. “I was incredibly well rounded, not just a student.”

In a Pre-K program that nurtures the whole child, that experience will undoubtedly serve her well.

A 24-year veteran of CA’s Lower School, science teacher Jeff Goldstein ’88 says he values the same whole-child approach. “I wouldn’t say what I do is just science. It’s everything. I believe children are natural scientists, artists, poets—the younger they are, the more these areas coexist.”

Earning his licensure at Denver’s Stanley British Primary School after spending several years in China teaching English, Goldstein was excited to return to CA, first as a homeroom teacher and then as a science teacher.

“I always loved math and science, and I knew CA would be a fantastic place to be. And it has been. I tell visitors to my classroom that I have the best job in the school.”

With two children of his own who are both CA “super-lifers,” Goldstein recalls, “It was wonderful being able to be close to my kids throughout their school career.”

For Goldstein, seeing children—both his own and those of other families—grow up from Pre-K to Grade 12 is certainly part of the magic of CA. Some of the students he’s taught even have their own little ones enrolled at CA today.

“It’s mind-boggling,“ he admits—almost as boggling as the sheer number of CA alumni-employees who remain so strongly connected to the school.

Beyond those profiled here, three alumni are current members of the Board of Trustees: VJ Brown ’11, Amy Livingston ’93, and Rob Stettner ’94. Three alumni are coaches: Maddie Goral ’12 is with JV Volleyball, Jonathan Rockford ’16 assists with Ultimate Frisbee, and Jill Christensen ’15 is coaching Field Hockey.