Student. Parent. Business owner. Stephanie Oppelaar does it all.
Stephanie Oppelaar studies in the SMATE library before class Tuesday, Oct. 16. // Photo by Zoe Deal
When Stephanie Oppelaar decided to go back to school, she wrote her goals on sticky notes and stuck them to her office mirror. As she accomplished them, her mirror became clearer, until just one sticky note remained.
Her last teal sticky note reads, in permanent capital letters: “end goal teaching degree.”
Oppelaar, a full-time Western student and business owner of the Black Drop Coffeehouse in downtown Bellingham, juggles it all to pursue her dream of becoming a high school biology teacher. However, she’s got a little something more on her plate: two kids.
At 1 p.m. on Wednesday Oct. 10, Oppelaar sits at the Black Drop counter working on her genetics homework. She tries to get a few things done around the coffeehouse before heading back to Western for another class. But it isn’t until dinner is served and her two daughters Beatrice and Edith are sent to bed that Oppelaar gets to relax and prepare for the following day.
Oppelaar, a self-identified workaholic, student, mother, craftista and nerd, came to Bellingham 17 years ago after ending a seven-year relationship with her then-fiance in Seattle. She said after moving in with a close friend, she decided to follow her dream of becoming a biology teacher and enrolled at Whatcom Community College.
“Teachers discouraged me from doing science because I was a girl, even though it was something I was really passionate about,” Oppelaar said.
After earning her associate degree at Whatcom, Oppelaar enrolled at Western to pursue a biology degree with a focus in secondary education. She said she wants to follow in the footsteps of her past teachers to hopefully encourage girls to like science and know that they too have a place in STEM fields.
After going to school on and off for 10 years, Oppelaar is a senior now. She took a long break between the birth of her first child, Beatrice, to when her second child, Edith, turned two. She also took a few quarters off to run the Black Drop.
Oppelaar said she loves the attitude of Bellingham, specifically the collection of unique individuals, many of whom adhere to the values she holds such as being environmentally conscious and being LGBTQ+ friendly.
Oppelaar worked as an employee at the Black Drop from its start in 2003 until 2009, when the owners offered to sell the shop to her. She said she jumped at the chance because of her love for the coffeehouse.
“They [the Black Drop employees and owners] became my surrogate family when I moved to Bellingham because I wasn’t close with my family, and the shop became the center of that,” Oppelaar said. “It’s a second home to me.”
Oppelaar’s two children are ages six and four. The older, Beatrice, is enrolled in public school. Her younger, Edith, goes to the Child Development Center on Western’s campus.
Keri Krout, the center manager, said that 18 of the 59 kids enrolled at the center are kids of student-parents.
“Our waitlist is generally two years long. In order to be accessible to student families we strive to leave some slots open for student families entering Western in the fall each school year.” Krout said. “Typically, students are unaware that we exist here to support them, therefore it has proved helpful to keep these slots open when possible.”
Oppelaar takes her responsibilities week by week, trying to check off as many boxes as she can each week as an attempt to keep up with all of her duties.
“Figuring out a schedule that works for me, that checks boxes off and still be present and aware in my classes is the biggest challenge,” said Oppelaar.
Oppelaar said her main goals when juggling all her responsibilities is to be sure her employees are taken care of and her business is running smoothly. Equally as important is that her children are taken care of and loved while also understanding the reason why the family is always on the go.
“I want to be an example for my daughters that you have to work hard to do the things that you want to do,” Oppelaar said. “It’s really hard to feel like I’m trying to be an example but also, I’m missing everything that’s important to them.”
In five years, Oppelaar said she wants to be teaching biology and possibly still owning the Black Drop if she can still keep her reliable and helpful staff alongside her.
Oppelaar finds support from her husband, John Oppelaar, who she said is her equal partner in all aspects in her life.
John works at the Black Drop with her and said he notices her hard work.
“I’m constantly amazed by Stephanie. She has so much responsibility and she handles it with such grace. I couldn’t be more proud of the hard work she is constantly putting in for our community, our business and our family,” he said.
Oppelaar also finds support through an online network of Bellingham mothers where she can vent her frustrations and not only feel heard, but also get the support from fellow mothers who want to help her situation.
Oppelaar said some of her professors at Western are pretty accommodating with her busy schedule but that she sometimes struggles to keep up with rigid expectations. She said there was one instance when a professor told her to suck it up because it was her choice to have kids before finishing school.
But she tells other student-parents that what they’re doing can be done. Her main tip: get a calendar and schedule and write everything down.
“Know there is an endpoint and that you can do anything for a short amount of time,” Oppelaar said.