One day during advisory, social studies teacher Elizabeth Van Pilsum, (known to her students as “VP”), projected a photo of the beautiful Dominican Republic and told her advisory, “I’m moving here.” At first the girls assumed it was a joke, maybe wishful thinking. But soon, they realized their beloved advisor truly would not be with them next year.
Following in the footsteps of her sister who taught in Tunisia and friend who taught in Paraguay, Van Pilsum has decided to teach history at the International School of Sosua in the Dominican Republic. She signed a two year contract, however she could stay as long as she wants.
After studying abroad in France during college, Van Pilsum has been wanting to live and travel internationally ever since.
“It’s basically a way to see places that I teach about that I would never get to go to,” said Van Pilsum.
After 16 years of teaching social studies at Minnehaha,the time for travel came this year when her son, Sam Jirele(‘14) began his freshman year at the University of Minnesota in September and her father, John passed away in November. She was one of his main caregivers and did not want to leave him.
As she was scrolling through job openings for teaching around the world, Van Pilsum said she came across the International School of Sosua in the Dominican Republic and thought, “Tropical paradise? Well, there’s no way [I could get the job], everyone will want to go there.” But after writing to the organization, she was offered an interview the next day and then offered the job soon after.
While the tropical paradise was intriguing, there was more that drew her to the Dominican Republic. The rich history surrounding the conquests of the area fascinates to her and she hopes to be able to learn more while living there.
The culture is also very different from what she has experienced because she has never been there. Living in France during college was a different dynamic from what the Dominican Republic will be.
Living near the ocean will come as a large change, but fortunately, the school has a similar atmosphere to what Van Pilsum is used to here at Minnehaha Academy. With the small community and family based school, she may not feel as far from home.
“It’s like a smaller version of Minnehaha,” she said, “where everyone teaches everyone’s kids and I thought that would be a good fit for me.”
She will continue to teach AP World History and regular world history. But teaching AP European History will be new to her.
“Oh yeah, I’m teaching American history too,” she said laughing. “Oh, I’m teaching everything. Boy, they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Students in the school come from 27 different nations, which is why she particularly looks forward to teaching world history. Many perspectives of how the world works will be shown as well as having learned material differently.
When Van Pilsum departs at the end of July, Sam will be with her for two weeks to help her settle in, but after he leaves she will be living on her own. The school does not provide housing for teachers but she was able to find an apartment right along the ocean side.
Saying goodbye to her son will be one of the hardest parts of leaving, along with students and faculty at Minnehaha, said Van Pilsum.
But the hardship will not be one sided. Students will miss her humorous comments during history class, smiles in the hallways and many girls will miss admiring her “cute outfits.”
But her closest crew, her advisory of junior girls may be the most heartbroken. They will be missing more than chips, salsa and queso dip on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Something I will miss most is, [VP] talks to us like adults,” said junior Lily Bjorlin, one of Van Pilsum’s advisees, “not like we’re lesser and just kids but she talks to us like we’re equals.”
Fellow social studies teacher Julie Johnson agreed.
“Everybody loves her because she can tell a good story and she’s very likeable and caring,” she said, “I’ve never had a bad moment with her.”
When Johnson first began teaching at Minnehaha she connected with Van Pilsum because of her openness and kindness. Since then, Johnson and Van Pilsum have remained close friends inside and outside of school. Saying goodbye will be hard Johnson said, but she is excited for the chances that await Van Pilsum in the Dominican Republic.
Even those who no longer work at Minnehaha will miss her presence. Sixteen years ago, David Glenn, former social studies teacher and coach, hired Van Pilsum and saw great potential in her. Her kind spirit and easy going manner seemed to be a perfect fit and he was excited to hire her, said Glenn.
“I love her to death and she is just one of my favorite people,” said Glenn.
Along with Glenn, the Minnehaha community values Van Pilsum and will miss having her in the school, but it won’t be easy for her either.
“There are the best kids here,” said Van Pilsum smiling, “Those kids [in the Dominican Republic] have big shoes to fill, I wish them luck.”