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Curb Spotlight: Lia Okenkova

Posted by on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 in .


Curb Scholar Lia Okenkova has a passion for teaching, creative arts and performance. Writing Fellow Chris Ketchum caught up with Lia to talk about how her academic interests as a student, leader, and academic is influenced by the ways the arts can be used in education to motivate, teach, and shape students of all capabilities.

Chris Ketchum: You’ve chosen to major in both Cognitive Studies and Educational Studies. What interests or aspects of your background drew you to those majors?

Lia Okenkova: I’ve always had a love for learning, no matter what subject it happened to be. However, my path to pursue a major in Cognitive Studies started my sophomore year of high school. I was taking AP Psychology and had a class on savants, people who are autistic or have an intellectual disability but demonstrate incredible mastery in a particular field. The video we were watching was of a musical savant who engaged with music in such a mesmerizing, fascinating, natural way. This lesson served as an epiphany to me that set me down a journey that originally took me to look into music therapy as a career. Now four years later, my interests in cognition have broadened to include the scientific basis of learning I so desire and the real-world applicability of education. I have such vast interests that I can’t be tied down to such a niche field as music therapy, but I always approach my studies through a creative lens, continuously motivated to bridge science, education, and the arts in beautiful interdisciplinary harmony.


CK: You also have a history in performance art, specifically theatre and voice. Would you tell us about your creative background and how it interacts with your academic interests?

LO: I first started singing in the children’s choir at my church. I feel as though the majority of people who have come to love performance or singing found their start at church because there is such a comfort in community worship as a mode of expression. Then I continued to sing whether it was at school, cantoring at mass, or through the Naples Philharmonic Select Youth Choir. Around the same time, I started acting in musical theatre camps during the summers and then moving on to perform straight plays throughout high school. My parents have always been supportive of my involvement in the arts, which I’m incredibly grateful for. My dad kids that he’d want nothing more than for me to be the musical director at my church one day.

What I always notice about my “creative side” is the impact it has on my academic interests. So much of myself as a student, leader, and academic is influenced by my artistic involvement. I am fascinated by the ways the arts can be used in education to motivate, teach, and shape students of all capabilities. From a policy standpoint, the arts are always the first to go when school budgets are cut or tight. Yet, just look at the impact the arts have on the economy, on shaping culture, or just making people happy. This pandemic has really shown how much we rely on the arts to bring us together–whether it be watching a movie, going to a concert, or having a jam session with friends. I am particularly interested in cross-domain integration of the arts in education. This area of study brings together my love of arts on their own, as well as evidence-based practices in cognitive science and education.


CK: What other extracurriculars are you involved with at Vanderbilt or off-campus, and what do those activities entail?

LO: I love having a full calendar. Keeping busy and involved is kind of my lifeblood. Besides being a Curb Scholar, I am also a Peabody Scholar with which I take part in cohort-wide and individual service projects, research with a Peabody faculty member, and a variety of other initiatives. I’m currently serving as the social chair of the Vanderbilt QuestBridge Chapter, a group of scholars admitted to Vanderbilt through QuestBridge, a highly selective program for low income, typically first-generation students. This upcoming academic year, I am excited to serve as co-president of the chapter. Besides those endeavors, I am also a member of Vanderbilt Off-Broadway, Vanderbilt University Theatre, and University Catholic. On top of all of that, I am a front desk assistant for the Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships and an 11th grade college advising coach through Prepory College Group. I meant what I said about staying busy!


CK: What kind of hopes, dreams, and ambitions do you have for life after graduation?

LO: While I feel as though my career goals continue to fluctuate as time goes on, currently I aspire to be an education director at a community-based organization. I desire to cultivate life-long learning in and out of schools through the arts, particularly for underserved and underrepresented populations of children, teens, and adults. One day I hope to go back to school and perhaps pursue a Doctorate degree of Education or a Ph.D. What else the future holds, I’m not so sure. More near-sighted, I just want to be able to enjoy live theatre, performances, and be able to explore the world.


CK: How has being a Curb Scholar shaped your experience at Vanderbilt?

LO: The Curb Scholars were the first group of students I met in person at Vanderbilt. The upperclassmen welcomed me with open arms and made my first weeks at Vanderbilt unforgettable. Since then, my time as a Curb Scholar has been nothing but wonderful. There’s nothing like being surrounded by an incredible array of creative peers who constantly raise the bar for talent, hard work, and passion. My five roommates can vouch for me when I say that there’s always something quirky, fun, unique, and creative that I’m doing because of the Curb Scholars Program. Currently that’s toying with my Cricut Joy, a die-cutting and drawing machine that lets me design stickers, labels, signs, banners, and even iron-on decals. I can’t wait for the day when we can embark on our creative explorations and field trips once again, but for now I relish the tools at my disposal and the friends and colleagues I’ve made in my short time as a Curb Scholar.


CK: What else should we know to get an understanding of who you are as a student, artist, and individual?

LO: I’m really not sure. So much of my life revolves around my academics and my artistic involvement and yet I struggle to put a label on how I fit within the creative or artistic community. I equally love consuming the arts as a patron, audience member, and advocate as well as an actor, crew member, performer, and idea generator. I approach the arts in a very rational, prescribed sense that sometimes leaves me questioning whether I can call myself a creative or an artist. Though I think that’s why I’m able to so clearly see how the arts are a necessary and useful part of life, not just for art’s sake but in so many different capacities. On another level, I am a first-generation American and college student, “mom friend,” musical theatre cast album lover, Catholic, and hopefully a decent human being.

Lia Okenkova
Class of 2023
Cognitive & Educational Studies
Naples, Florida