What do you want most? At 21 years old, this was the question Lara Tenckhoff had to ask herself when posed with the decision of choosing a “serious” profession or living authentically through a profession she loved. Now 30 years old and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theatre, Tenckhoff has overcome the barrier of self-doubt, and the fear of pursuing a job within the arts.

“At 25, I had to ‘come out’ as an artist, and tell my parents to stop trying to change me or tell me what I should do. I didn’t want to keep spending my parents’ money on classes I didn’t want to take, and weren’t what sparked my passion,” Tenckhoff explained.

Matthew Miller (left), a professor in the department of music and theatre, has been a mentor to Lara Tenckhoff throughout her time at Chico State.

After years of hard work and dedication to the arts, Tenckhoff has proven you can be successful doing what you love, recently receiving the College of Humanities and Fine Arts Outstanding Student Leader Award, an honor given to a graduating senior who exemplifies leadership skills on campus and in the community. She was nominated by her longtime mentor Matthew Miller, a professor in the department of music and theatre.

But her success has not come easily.

Tenckhoff recalls how her parents were very “gendered” in the extracurricular activities they put her in, having never played sports as a child.

After living a very privileged childhood in rural Oregon, Tenckhoff’s parents announced they were getting divorced, news that turned the foundation of her world upside down. The family packed their bags and traveled down to Northern California to live in a hotel for an entire year while family affairs were sorted out.

After a rough transition through middle school, high school was where she found solace in the arts, and theater became her purpose and drive.

Tenckhoff works backstage during “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the newest play at Laxson Auditorium.

Despite this newfound purpose, once college came into the picture, her parents strongly urged her to pursue a “real career,” like becoming a doctor or an architect. With this in mind, Tenckhoff started her higher education journey in the community college system, with no particular goal in place other than to “become successful,” and fulfill her parents’ expectations.

Tenckhoff said she “kept going and failing [or withdrawing from]” her classes in an endless cycle of “not going to class, and not knowing what else to do.”

“When you’re a young artist, it’s really hammered into you to not pursue that as a career.”

As if such inner turmoil isn’t enough for a young adult to handle, a new challenge was thrown into the mix—parenthood.

At 21, Tenckhoff became pregnant with her first child. She and her partner (now husband) were two budding adults themselves, but were determined to create a life for their growing family.

“We had to ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ I felt that my best option for myself was to have the baby,” she said. “I didn’t really have any direction yet, so that’s where I wanted to take direction. Twenty-one was a real shift [for me] in learning how to manage my life.”

Knowing herself, and her tendency to do things to the extreme, Tenckhoff realized she would have to sacrifice her schooling to become a young parent.

“I was trying to work, and go to school, and then suddenly become a mom? If I tried to do all of these things at once at that point in my life, I was going to fail at all three. So, school became the disposable option. I needed to be committed to being a mom. I couldn’t mess up the child I was bringing into the world. It was a one-shot deal.”

After a few years of work, motherhood, and the birth of her second child, Tenckhoff came to the realization that maybe she could do it all. With new tools under her belt and a reignited fire in her heart, Tenckhoff went back to school and transferred to Chico State in the fall of 2014 with a dream of completing her education in theater, the area she knew she belongedShe did so knowing full-well that she would be judged not just for pursuing the arts, but also for being a mother going back to school.

“I get a lot of looks and comments like, ‘That’s brave,’ and ‘Won’t you miss your kids?’ when it comes to choosing between being a mom and taking steps to better myself in my field,” she said.

Tenckhoff, (right) reaches for student actor Eric Gateno (left) during the Department of Music and Theatre’s production of “Refer Madness, The Musical.”

After taking initiative in pursuing her career, Tenckhoff has landed numerous internships, directorships, and summer positions within the theater arts world, resulting in her leaving her family for several weeks and months at a time.

“My husband was really supportive, and although it has been tough at times, he knew that this was what I needed to do,” she said. “My daughters will realize one day that their mom went out and accomplished her dreams, and that they can do that, too.”

With 2017 Commencement in sight, Tenckhoff leaves with newfound strength and the knowledge of what it means to be a student, parent, and successful person.

“You have to be your own biggest advocate,” she said. “I realized that the thing holding me back was myself, and my uncertainty, and my perpetual self-destructiveness.”

“It’s a lot easier to choose to fail—to make the choice to fail—rather than actually trying and then failing. I learned to not be afraid of failure.”

As the outgoing president of the Theatre Arts Club, recipient of the Outstanding Student Leader Award, a promising director and actor, and inspiring mother of two beautiful children, Tenckhoff has proven to herself, to her family, and to her community that you can fulfill your dreams: wherever they may fall, whenever they may come to pass, and whoever you may be.