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Portrait of a Graduate


An SPSG Graduate is...An innovative thinker with the skills and knowledge to ask compelling questions, seek multiple perspectives, and create original work.

Many of my peers were terrified to talk to our professors at Parsons School of Design at first. But St. Paul’s School for Girls fosters this idea that you can have a close relationship with your teachers. That’s hugely important in this setting, because you can’t just turn to the student next to you and say, ‘How do you build a lampshade?’ They have no idea either!

Ella Kingston ’15 has always been a carve-your-own-path kind of girl, including her decision to transfer to SPSG in the 10th grade.

“It’s an unusual year to transfer, but I was fortunate to already have great friends at St. Paul’s School for Girls—and I knew that’s where I’d be happiest as a student and an artist,” says the rising sophomore at Parsons School of Design, who is also an avid painter and the daughter of a needlepoint designer. “At my previous school, I could only take two art classes—and, in terms of portfolio building, I knew that would put me so far behind. So I rolled down Falls Road and never looked back.”

That healthy, risk-taking spirit comes through loud and clear on “Freckles in the City,” the blog Ella started last year to document her innovative work at Parsons, along with her sometimes zany adventures in the Big Apple. She posts recaps of personal triumphs—from finding the best Duane Reade in town to weathering the first big snowstorm—along with adorable photos from her part-time job as a dog walker, which she found on an Uber-like app called Wag. (Now that’s a true millennial.)

“Some people pledge fraternities and sororities, I feel like I pledged New York City,” says the now 18-year-old alumna. “At first it was like I had been dropped in an international fishbowl of adults, but I was determined to figure it out.”

The fishbowl analogy also holds true for Parsons, which is renowned for its challenging foundation year. Students either sink or learn to swim in a sea of foreign materials, tough feedback, and stiff competition. To some, it feels more like a shark tank.

“I saw fear become a downfall for many students,” says Ella, noting that five or six freshmen from her dorm just packed up and left. “But SPSG instilled enough confidence in me that I was able to keep my head above water.”

So Ella stuck it out, even after nearly cutting off a finger during her first big project. It was for a course called Space/Materiality, a hands-on intensive in 3D building where students are first exposed to the woodshop and laser cutters.

The assignment: To build a giant ball inspired by ancient geometry out of a tubular material. Ella chose copper pipes and string. “It was brutal. The only thing I’d ever constructed before was a pinch-pot out of clay, and I struggled for so many hours that my fingers were bleeding,” she says. “I was mortified, but I emailed my professor a photo of my hand and asked him for help, even if I had to take an F for the assignment.”

When Ella walked into class the next day with bandaged fingers and a sphere that would have made Archimedes turn over in his grave, the professor neither coddled nor scolded her. He just said, “We’re going to finish this together right now.” And three hours later they did.

“Many of my peers were terrified to talk to our professors at first. But SPSG fosters this idea that you can have a close relationship with your teachers,” she says. “That’s hugely important in this setting, because you can’t just turn to the student next to you and say, ‘How do you build a lampshade?’ They have no idea either!”

What could have been a colossal failure ended up being one of Ella’s most formative college experiences. She nailed her next 3D design assignment—still has the funky light fixture to prove it—and started tapping more into the part of her brain that lights up when tackling new challenges and finding innovative solutions for everyday problems.

In Sustainable Systems the following semester, she created a still life out of trash that she collected from recycling bins for a week. She also mastered the bandsaw to craft a wooden comb stained with coffee for a faux-aged look.

But it was Making Meaningful Things that solidified Ella’s professional passion and prompted her to change majors, which is both common and encouraged at Parsons. Originally, she thought she wanted to be a graphic designer based on some great classes she took with Mrs. Speaks in Upper School. She actually won the art show senior year with a typography-inspired project where she meticulously handcrafted an ornate alphabet.

But it turns out Ella’s happy place lies at the intersection of form and function, so she’s now officially a Product Design major. Her favorite invention so far? A blue lucite nightstand that folds up like a drawbridge when you’re not using it—perfect for small spaces. It also has a hole for a USB cord, so you can charge your mobile phone at night. Brilliant.

“I’m not sure exactly where I’m going, since sophomore year is the first time you really get to dig in and explore a specific discipline. But I’m taking classes called Tools and Furniture Design, so who knows? I could end up working for Stanley Black & Decker or West Elm,” she says.

Switching majors was a bit of an I-told-you-so moment, as Ella remembers a common thread from the SPSG speakers series, where nearly all the notable women talked about twists and turns in their career paths. She also strongly believes SPSG prepared her well for learning and potentially working in a creative culture.

“We had a great group dynamic in Mrs. Waller’s AP Art Studio class, where students learned to give and receive feedback,” she says. “I learned when to trust my own voice, but also that nobody’s work is untouchable. Today, I’m not looking for my professors to say my project is the best they’ve ever seen, but the best I’ve ever done. Now go do something even better.”

Ella’s favorite tradition last year was sitting around the kitchen table with her roommates, swapping creative ideas and feedback. Hopefully she’ll learn how to build a kitchen table soon, since her new apartment currently has no furniture. Ah, college.

11232 Falls Road
P.O. Box 8000
Brooklandville, Maryland 21022
TEL: 410-823-6323
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