By Hannah Pierangelo
Woodruff Auditorium bubbles with the chatter of the audience on a Wednesday night. Unsurprisingly, the crowd is almost entirely female. Tonight’s event is titled “Dare to Dream” and is targeted to the young women present—girls with stories, girls with dreams. Christie Garton, KU graduate, college expert and founder of the company U Chic and the 1000 Dreams Scholarship fund, speaks about her efforts to inspire young women and help them accomplish their professional and personal dreams. Accompanying Garton is Farrah Krenek, an actress known for her roles in Orange Is The New Black, Law & Order, Nurse Jackie and SNL, among others.
The point of the event is part advice, part inspiration and part gushing about Orange Is The New Black. But Krenek is more than just a celebrity speaker. Her experiences growing up and working in the entertainment industry tell the story of what it’s like to be different.
Krenek, who stands over six feet tall with short, spiky hair and dons typically masculine attire, says she was bullied as a kid for looking like a boy.
“I went through very bad bullying and very bad ridiculing,” Krenek says. “And I was from an era where there was no Google, no Youtube, no social media that I could report this to, so I just had to take it, which is why I became stronger.”
For Krenek, “Dare to Dream” means pursuing acting as a gay woman and trying to overcome her past, where she says she felt unaccepted. Now, as she has found her success story in the entertainment industry, Krenek values her craft more than ever.
“I am not an actress because I am looking for glamor [or] fame,” Krenek says. “The reason I’m doing it is because I want to represent girls that are like me. Or that were like me and had nobody to look up to. I’m not saying that there were not gay females that could be actresses that could be an example, but they really didn’t look like me. Being a girl that looked like a boy that wanted to be an actress that was auditioning for girl roles, they acted like, ‘What circus do you belong to?’”
“My message is: it wasn’t easy, but I didn’t give up,” Krenek says.
Krenek trained at a modeling school, but distinctly recalls hating makeup. When she auditioned for the massively popular Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black, Krenek says she could be herself.
Garton says she chose Krenek to speak at “Dare to Dream” because of the actress’ success at a young age and her inspiring story. Moreover, her campaign’s mission is about giving young women role models.
“This is a time to realize that there’s not just one type of girl out there,” Garton says. “This is a diverse generation of young women today.”
Garton reaches her audience of college-aged women primarily through U Chic, which sells items and also gathers college advice from girls across the country to include in the best selling college guide book, The College Girl’s Guide to Everything. The book has sold more than 100,000 copies and is now in its fourth edition. U Chic also launched the 1000 Dreams scholarship fund last year, which uses a portion of sales in its web store to contribute to funding the dreams of girls everywhere.
“This life stage is such an important life stage,” Garton says. “You’re in the midst of figuring out what your dreams are. This is a formative time of your life. I think to hear this information and these personal stories that we’re sharing about how their girls are funding themselves or using support from our company to go out and do things, it’s really about sharing.”
The book gives young women a voice, and also a platform to share experiences, advice, and support. She says the book not only deals with classroom issues, but also aids with relationships and the college lifestyle.
“My experience was very much driven by what I did outside the classroom,” Garton says. It’s the reason she started the 1000 Dreams Fund. While in college here at KU, Garton was involved with her sorority, the symphony, and started her first non-profit at nineteen years old. Music Mentors is still serving the Lawrence community through the KU Center for Community Outreach today. Garton says her extracurricular experiences helped make her a more well rounded student, and she wants to extend those opportunities to all young women.
Over the last year, her company surveyed 300 college women about their college experience. She found that more than half say that extracurricular activites are important to the future, but 95% lack an easy access to funding to pursue these activities.
Garton’s scholarship fund aims to change that. In the last year, it has already funded sixteen women. One scholarship recipient is also here tonight. Gracie Schram steps on stage with canary-yellow pumps and a guitar. The Kansas City high school student is just seventeen years old, but has already recorded a full-length album with a Grammy award-winning producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars, Brett Dennen) in Nashville. She donates a portion of her album sales to charities and has helped underprivileged children in Africa and Haiti, raising more than $30,000 for The Global Orphan Project.
Krenek, Garton, and Schram all take the stage to emphasize the importance of a person’s story and a person’s dreams.
“I have a story to tell, and just because I don’t cry about it every day, anymore, doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult,” Krenek says.
She spends the final part of her speech doling out words of advice, encouraging the audience to make friends with strangers, look up from their phone screens and interact with the world, and above all, value their self-worth.
“If I can hear the story of one girl that tells me, ‘I saw you on TV’ or ‘I got your message’ or ‘I heard your story and it inspired me,’ then mission accomplished.”
The 1000 Dreams Scholarship Fund is taking applications now. Apply here.
Photos by Hannah Pierangelo
Farrak Krenek and Christie Garton spoke at the Kansas Union September 23rd, 2015.