Just a Montanan with an accent

Hailing from South Africa, Ilse-Marie Lee began playing the cello at the age of eight. Her mom was a pianist, and wanted to be able to play chamber music with her family. “My mother was a pianist, a very good pianist, and she loved chamber music. She had two daughters and my brother came later. I was the big daughter who was tall with the big hands, and so I got the cello and my sister got the violin so that we could play chamber music,” she said.

Experience on the cello first led Lee to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg where she got her bachelor’s degree in music. “Everyone calls it Wits,” she said. She then earned her master’s degree in cello performance and in theory and composition at Northern Illinois University, and would go on to earn her doctorate in cello performance and pedagogy from the University of Arizona. “The year I finished my doctorate in Arizona, this was one of three positions in the country for a cellist. I interviewed here in Bozeman and also at another institution. I landed in Bozeman June 30. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was green and had mountains and a little bit of snow; and then I met the people, the search committee and the students … and I fell in love with the place.”

Lee is now the Dean of the Honors College, and Bozeman has come to hold a special place in the spunky professor’s heart: “Now I think of myself as a Montanan with an accent.” Her favorite place in Bozeman is “The alpine run in Bridger, with the vista and just being able to see so far. I don’t know why, but that is the place that just makes me feel so, so blessed.”

On her journey to Bozeman and through her time at Montana State, Lee says “I have learned that I absolutely love teaching … because I think teaching is such a multi-faceted thing. Yes, I love being in the classroom and I’m not going to give up teaching there. I love teaching very, very much. There’s a lot else to teaching.” She adds that, “Creating opportunities for students or getting to know students … That’s teaching too. I love everything about being a professor and about being a teacher.”

In her free time, Lee enjoys cooking and sitting down with a good book. The one thing she will do anything to get out of doing is “Cleaning the garage. I’ve been known to do that, but if I do anything it’ll be the last on my list.” She enjoys going on walks with her golden doodle, Sophie. She says that “Sophie is the world’s best dog … She’s eight years old, and she knows every member of our family so well. My favorite thing is that students know that if they want to go for a run and they want a dog to take, they can text me and take Sophie.”

She would advise all students to find a mentor in their time at college. “I know what all students will do is to form really beautiful friendships and to enjoy Bozeman, but to get to know a professor really, really well is to seek out a mentor. The mentors in my life, and there are several… but the mentors over time are the people who showed me possibilities that I didn’t even dream of myself.”

She believes that education is, “After a class to be able to walk out and say, ‘You know, I learned something I didn’t know before,’ that meant that that time was spent beautifully … To have a mentor is a wonderful gift,” she said, “And then to go through life with open, gracious arms as if to say ‘I’m going to learn something in the next hour that I didn’t know before,’ and then at the end of the hour you learn six things that you didn’t know before, that’s education.”

One of her greatest lessons about education came when she was a young cellist. She says, “One of the cellists I studied with was a very famous cellist and I wanted so badly to impress them with all the work I had done with week before… My professor would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? If you know that there’s something you should improve, that’s your happiest day.’ And that changed my whole attitude. And it actually made me welcome constructive criticism, and I learned and I grew. Always assume a position of ‘I want to learn more, and I don’t know it all,’ and when you have that kind of intellectual humility, you will go further than you ever imagined.”