A Whole New World: Student Finds New Role in Life Through Theatre, Education

Southwestern College theatre arts student Cynthia Ochoa outside the Old Globe’s Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre where she works as a house manager.

Inside the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Cynthia Ochoa feels as much a part of the theatre as the seats, the sets and the stage. She walks through the halls with the stories of artists, actors and directors she’s worked with. She mentions the technical challenges she’s faced on the many productions she’s worked on as an Old Globe house manager for the past year. The magic of the theatre, to her, is both on stage and behind the scenes, and Ochoa does everything she can to protect each performance.

“Sometimes I hug the walls before a performance,” she said. “Being a part of the theatre is to live. This is who I am. This is where I belong.”

The theatre, however, wasn’t always a home to Ochoa, a 49-year-old theatre student at Southwestern College. Growing up in Querétaro, Mexico, Ochoa was only ever able to admire the theatre and performances from the audience. Being a part of a real production was just a childhood fantasy.

“In Querétaro, theatre is so ingrained in our culture,” she said. “Instead of going to the movies, you go to the theatre. I was always an observer, I never had the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. My dream was always to be a part of the stage.”

After an entire life of loving theatre, Ochoa found the role of a lifetime: A Southwestern College student – no audition needed. The theatre program here, she says, gave her the opportunity to stop just observing theatre but to finally be a part of it. Under the guidance of theatre professors Michael Buckley, Sandra Cortez and Ruff Yeager, Ochoa’s dream finally came true. She has gone on to act in Southwestern College productions like the “The Vagina Monologues,” “The Time of the Butterflies,” “Anna in the Tropics” and “Blood Wedding.” She even wrote a short play that was produced for the “Southwestern Student Short Plays Festival.”

“Southwestern College has been a great support in what I now get to call my career,” she said. “I not only learned the basics but I was able to go deeper into character development, the technicalities of theatre, how to develop stories. Southwestern College gave me everything.”

In 2016, Ocha was honored with the Student of Distinction Award – the highest honor a student can receive at Southwestern College. Her professors, Ochoa said, were the ones who inspired her, motivated her and lifted her up to become the best person and student she could be. Ochoa even performed in the “Plays by Young Writers” festival (her first professional production) produced annually by the Playwrights Project at the Old Globe and directed by Professor Yeager.

“I am so grateful to my theatre professors,” she said. “From them, I learned to own a character. I learned to be prepared. I learned how to develop my creativity. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am as an actor, as a theatre student or as a human being.”

Growing up in Mexico, Ochoa dreamed of a life on stage. Now, she’s been a part of student and professional productions as an actress and house manager.

Ochoa’s next role after she graduates Southwestern College this spring is as a UC San Diego student. Ochoa will transfer this fall to UC San Diego with a full-ride scholarship through the Chancellor’s Associates Scholarship program.

Ochoa’s journey back into education was a challenge. Because English is her second language and because she never finished high school in Mexico, she lacked confidence in her skills as a student. When she moved to San Diego in her early 30s, she was preoccupied with providing her three children the best life possible and didn’t really have time to think about herself.

“I’ve always believed in education,” she said. “I went through so much trauma growing up, that I didn’t get a chance to get my education and I wanted more for my children. I wanted them to reach higher goals than me.”

Then, one by one, each of her children started to develop their own futures and lives. One of her daughters was attending UCLA, the other was about to attend San Diego State University and her son moved back to Mexico to start his career as a chef. Ochoa was finally able to ask herself, “what about me?”

“I found myself with a little sting in my soul,” she said. “I never had my education and I honestly felt ignorant in many aspects of my life. I wasn’t confident in myself.”

Because Ochoa dropped out of high school at age 16 to help provide for her family, her first step back to education was to receive her GED. Four years ago, Ochoa enrolled in a GED program through Montgomery Adult School and finished in four quick months. Now through Southwestern College, she will receive her associate degree before she transfers to UC San Diego to finish her bachelor’s degree in theatre arts.

“I wanted my children to feel proud of me because I was so proud of them when they got their education,” she said. “I use to feel so small without my education, and not everyone knew that about me. My whole life I was portraying a character who was confident and educated. I had to be a good actress.”

Today, Ochoa says she’s been completely transformed by education, both as a person and as an artist.

“Education gives you the power to make decisions for yourself,” she said. “It gives you the power to value yourself, to believe in yourself, to earn your confidence.”