Rachel Ticotin Has High Praise for the School of General Studies

Georgette Jasen
May 09, 2019

At age 53, Rachel Ticotin decided to go to college.

“When I graduated from high school I was 16 years old and it just wasn’t possible to go to college,” said the Bronx native, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a father of Russian-Jewish descent who was a used-car salesman. “I was one of six siblings, and in my family, taking out loans was not something you did.”

Besides, she wanted to be an actor. She took babysitting jobs and worked as an usher and theater manager at New York’s Public Theater to pay for acting lessons. Later, she was a production assistant on films shot in New York, such as Raging Bull before landing her first acting role in Fort Apache, The Bronx, as the love interest to Paul Newman, in 1981.

In 2013, with a long list of film, television and theater credits to her name, including roles in the films Man on Fire, Con Air, Something’s Gotta Give, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the television series Law and Order: LA, Ticotin was in New York, wondering what else she wanted to achieve in her life, while her husband, actor Peter Strauss, was in a play. After a friend told her about Columbia’s School of General Studies, she decided to apply.

On May 22, Ticotin, now 60, will be the first of her siblings to finish college. “It has been one of the greatest experiences in my life, and may be the greatest accomplishment of my life,” she said.

As a General Studies student, she was able to take spring and summer courses  while keeping up with her acting career in the fall. Most recently, she has appeared in four episodes in the Hulu series The Act, in the role of Detective Flores.

The School of General Studies, was created for just such non-traditional students, who may have interrupted their education, never went to college and or can only attend part time. They take classes with traditional Columbia students and can participate fully in campus life.

“Just being in the room with these incredible professors, inspiring their students to think differently, is exciting,” said Ticotin. An English major, she studied Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Auden and women playwrights, among others, and took courses in gospel music, religion, and politics. She says she will never look at the Hudson River again without thinking of Kenneth Jackson’s “History of the City of New York” course,  where she learned about Henry Hudson’s futile journey northward to get to China.

This spring she took “Shakespeare in America” taught by James Shapiro and wrote a paper about the New York Shakespeare Festival’s mobile unit, which stages performances around the city. While doing research in the archives of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she found the program for the 1968 production of Hamlet she saw in the Bronx when she was 9 years old. “I didn’t really understand the play but I loved it. It’s what made me want to be an actor,” she said.

It was the same year that Ticotin’s mother enrolled her and her siblings in a federally funded program called Operation High Hopes, where she learned different forms of dance and singing. Its director was Tina Ramirez, who later founded Ballet Hispánico, where Ticotin continued to dance until she was 18. She graduated from the Professional Children’s School in New York.

Now passionate about arts education, Ticotin has co-directed the annual Rising Stars show at New York’s LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts since 2010, where she mentors and guides students in their performance skills.

Graduating from Columbia, she said, “makes you feel like you’ve climbed Mt. Everest. But I could do this for the rest of my life. Going to college in your 50s is a gift.”