After graduating from The University of Pittsburgh with a degree in theater arts, Rachel Volpe Wagner decided she wanted to go a different route.
“Being involved in theater, acting, singing and directing had always been my passion, but after graduating, I realized that, while it was a passion, I didn’t necessarily want it to be my career,” Wagner said.
After graduating from Pitt in 2006, Wagner moved back to Altoona and took a job at Blair Family Solutions, where she worked with a young child, accompanying him to school and offering support and behavior interventions.
“This little boy I was placed with … I was really blessed that I started with him during his last year of preschool, and I was with him kindergarten through second grade at Frankstown Elementary,” Wagner said. “The job gave me a lot of experience in being that support with management for children, but it also immersed me in the primary workings of the classroom. It showed me that what I really wanted to do was be one of those educators.”
Wagner decided to ditch theater and start over as a non-traditional student at Mount Aloysius College, where, at 30, she went to study education.
“The opportunity to go to college as an adult was so special and life changing because I had such clarity in the pursuit of this degree,” Wagner said.
Going back to school was an easy adjustment, Wagner said, thanks to being in the right environment.
“I felt so seen and appreciated; I felt truly just a part of the community and had amazing professors who were my mentors, and I still think of them each and every day,” Wagner said.
Sara Rutledge, one of Wagner’s former professors at Mount Aloysius, said she remembers Wagner for her profound presence in the classroom.
“She was a leader in class; that was evident, and she was able to lead groups more effectively than other students,” Rutledge said. “She has hustle and grit and is very disciplined. I always appreciated her stick-with-it-ness and how empathetic she was.”
By the time graduation was approaching in 2014, Wagner was expecting her first child.
Her son was born shortly after graduation.
“Being in the middle of something so important when it happened was special because my professors and fellow students were so supportive and excited and it’s kind of like (the baby) got to finish that journey with me,” she said.
After a brief maternity leave, Wagner began her teaching career in the Altoona Area School District, where she taught second and fourth grades at Penn Lincoln Elementary School.
While there, she incorporated her love for theater and started a drama club, writing and directing a Christmas play with 70 students.
“I was able to take my first passion and first degree, and, even though I had gone in a completely different direction, I was able to bring that to my current career,” Wagner said.
Unfortunately, after Wagner left, Penn Lincoln discontinued its drama club, said Kristi Phillips, one of Wagner’s former colleagues.
Phillips hopes the school can bring the program back eventually.
“I hope we can build off what she started … We haven’t had any steady rhythm to get it back in place, but we can certainly look at it,” she said.
Phillips said she misses Wagner and what she brought to the elementary school.
“She was a delight to have on our team,” Phillips said. “Her enthusiastic joy for children and teaching is infectious. I was very impressed, as a seasoned teacher, with her rapport that she built with students and her strong work ethic. It was really exciting for me to have someone with such a fresh perspective and enthusiasm about working with children.”
After five years at Penn Lincoln, Wagner said she was ready for a change.
“I just felt like seeking new opportunities and a better fit for our family,” she said.
Wagner took a position in the Spring Cove School District.
“My time in Altoona was very valuable, but with deciding where we wanted to lay our roots, I wanted to explore different experiences. … Spring Cove had openings and I thought I’d see what could happen here,” she said.
Wagner said she quickly realized that Spring Cove was a good fit.
“I immediately knew it was the right decision,” Wagner said. “The culture in the district is just so supportive and it fosters such academic excellence, and it makes everyone feel respected and appreciated.”
Now working at what could be called her dream job, Wagner said she wants to encourage other nontraditional students, to let them know that it’s never too late.
“Choose what is right for you and what works for your life,” Wagner said.
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.
The Wagner File
Name: Rachel Volpe Wagner
Education: University of Pittsburgh, bachelor’s degree in theater arts; Mount Aloysius College, bachelor’s degree in education
Family: Husband, Sam; children, Richie and Betty