Kari Merkl, interior design faculty, exhibits two pieces from her Merkled furniture collection at the Museum of Contemporary Craft through January 2015.
Kristen Titko has been an actress, model and dancer. She was a guest judge for the 2008 season of FOX's So You Think You Can Dance. She owned and managed her own studio business for five years, resulting in a franchise that continues to operate today, and she has plans to write a memoir and screenplay.
She has experienced a lot of life in her 43 years. And now Kristen is at Marylhurst, earning her bachelor's degree in film and media.
Kristen's journey to college has been a long and winding one, marked with unexpected detours, ditches and milestones. Born in Los Angeles, California, she remembers a childhood filled with movies and red carpet premieres as she tagged along with her dad, who was a professional film critic. In her 20s, Kristen tried to break into the industry as an actress. Instead of finding a rewarding career, she experienced manipulation, dishonesty and cultural pressure to conform to Hollywood's "ideal" image. That pressure eventually led to her decision to get breast implants.
"As an actress in the 90s, if you did not get breast implants, you would not get hired," Kristen said. "It wasn't until the late 90s when Debra Messing came onto Will & Grace that there was a flat-chested star. I didn't have that role model. I had everyone around me getting surgery. I had people telling me, 'Well, if only you had bigger boobs, you'd get the job.' And guess what? After my surgery: I got the jobs."
Kristen suddenly had magazine cover shoots. She costarred in three films — all in a single year. She was about to sign a contract for a starring role on Melrose Place when she fell ill. At first, she only noticed flashes of panic and anxiety. Then chronic fatigue, debilitating stomach pain, psoriasis and depression set in. It took many years to figure out that her body was rejecting the implants and causing her illness.
The move to the Midwest
While she was still battling her illness, Kristen found herself in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and three children.
"In Ohio, I learned how incredibly different it is everywhere else in the world," Kristen said. "I discovered how women outside of L.A. really feel — their attitudes and behaviors."
It was in the Midwest where she had her implants removed and began her recovery process. She opened up dance studios and started a business that focused on helping women find confidence, strength and beauty. She poured herself into fighting the cultural pressures and low self-esteem that led to her own anxieties and past decisions.
While her efforts resulted in changed lives, they also came at a cost: She had not allowed herself the time to fully heal, a fact that became clear when she read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat Pray Love. Instead of Gilbert's India, Italy and Indonesia, Kristen turned to Portland. She decided to close her studios, focus on her own healing and return to the West Coast.
"It can be difficult when I think that I had been a business owner making over $75 an hour, and now I'm a federal work-study student working 17 hours a week," Kristen shared. "That's a huge life change, but I no longer have any of the stress of managing a business. I was working 80 to100 hours a week, and I was also doing all the 'mom things.' My stress levels were through the roof.
"At 40, I realized that I needed to step back and allow me to recover. My health will be damaged for the rest of my life. I've accepted that. I'm now finding a balance so that when I do give to people, it's coming from a healthier, more well-rounded perspective."
Returning to school is a part of that balance. Kristen recognizes that a degree will help her obtain work that she wants to do. Moreover, it will better prepare her for future endeavors: "If I get an education, I can give even more."
A new career path
Having experienced the manipulative power imbalance in Hollywood, Kristen wants to change the industry — from the outside. Originally, she planned to accomplish this transformation through her studios and workshops, yet she's finding that the market isn't as strong for her business services in Portland as they were in Ohio.
Through that roadblock, Kristen has discovered another path — an unexpected one. Her goal is to now become a professor of film and media with an emphasis on women's studies.
"My goal is to teach students that they can produce things and be talented and be real. The audience has more power than the filmmakers," she said. "[Through teaching], if I can help change how the audience receives Hollywood, that's more powerful than me going back to Hollywood as an actress where I had no voice. A collective voice can be powerful."
This isn't the career path she ever expected or planned on, but she's determined.
"I want to teach at the university level, and there is no way to achieve that without higher education," Kristen shared. "Because I've been so [financially] impoverished over the past year, I was eligible for full financial aid. I saw that as an opportunity to get my education."
Enter the BA in Media & Film Studies program at Marylhurst.
Already Kristen is finding inspiration and enthusiasm for a future in academia from her classes. She thrives in the small-class setting, where she can engage in substantial discussion with her peers and instructors. Course content is relevant — something she said she did not experience in classes at other universities — and she is becoming a stronger writer. She is amazed at the willingness of her professors to learn from students: "It's co-learning. I appreciate their honesty."
The decision to earn her college degree required financial sacrifice and bravery, but Kristen has no regrets:
"It takes courage to scrape the rust off the wheels. It does feel like: Why am I doing this at my age? But I've watched what happens to people who don't live. And I chose the other path. That decision meant that I moved to a new city where I was serving beer at Timbers' games, working at a pizza joint, doing whatever to just survive. But I made the choice. It's really important in middle age to really grasp the concept of not stopping. I needed to learn more."