PENDLETON --- The biggest life lesson Tara Lenertz learned in the last decade is that it's harder to make your way in the world with just a high school diploma.

At 31, she's a freshman in college -- for the second time.  After graduating from high school in 2001 in Minnesota, she entered Minnesota State University of Moorhead, where she stayed for just a year and dropped out.  "I had the capability but not the motivation back then," she said.  "I was immature and didn't take it seriously.  Personal dramas controlled me.  I didn't realize how lucky I was to be in a four-year college and to have that opportunity and a family who supported me."

She knew she would have to do it on her own if there was a next time.  So from age 19 until 30, she lived paycheck to paycheck, working clerical and restaurant jobs that barely paid the bills, and certainly not college tuition.  "I kept telling myself I'd go back when I saved some money but that was never fiscally attainable.  In my mind, I'd given myself a deadline of age 30 to return to college."

Last year it happened, at age 30, when she moved from Fargo, North Dakota, to South Carolina, where her boyfriend is a Ph. D. student in physics at Clemson University.  It was now or never.  She found Tri-County Technical College, and enrolled with zero college credits but the maturity and determination to be successful this time around.

Along with burying herself in the books, she decided to give public speaking a shot by joining the speech team and working with team advisor and English instructor Lane Hudson.  It led to her decision to compete in the 2015 South Carolina Speech and Theater Association's College Festival held at Newberry College earlier this year.  Tri-County Technical College placed second overall as a college and all five team members placed in at least one event.

It was her first time for public speaking, as well as a competition.  She won first place in the Storytelling category.  "It was exciting.  I felt like I earned it but didn't expect it.  Everyone who competed was so good.  Lane is so encouraging and he fosters creativity in people.  Every instructor has been great - their doors are always open."

Her goal is to compete in the triathlon - three categories -- at the 2016 Speech and Theatre Association College Festival next year.  "Winning gave me confidence," said Lenertz, who also performed at the Southern Stories event set held April 3 at Tri-County.

In his 10 years of working with Tri-County's speech team, Hudson says Tara really stands out.  "She is the most committed, most enthusiastic and most cooperative student I've ever worked with on the team," he said.  She has the ability to perform, as well as the dependability to be present and prepared, he added.  "I tell my students they are only truly educated when they take responsibility for their own education.  That's what Tara has done.  She is a serious and committed student and a natural storyteller."

Speech Team Coach and instructor Greg Toney agrees.  "Tara is very talented and creative and her participation on the speech team this year is one of the reasons for our success.  She has the ability to express herself well and she takes coaching direction well.  Tara is very proactive in her process.  She has natural ability and talent and is a very quick study.  You can give a little direction and she runs with it."

Toney added that it's evident that she appreciates the opportunity to advance her education.

Lenertz has gone from an "unmentionable" GPA from Minnesota to a 4.0 at Tri-County and a desire to learn as much as she can.  "Tri-County's smaller classes are great.  You can make eye contact with the instructors. I wish I had had this discipline at age 18."

She's grateful for second chances.

"I disappointed my parents when I dropped out of college," said Lenertz, a first-generation college student.  "They are happy for me now.  I'm doing all the things I should have done 10 years ago.  But I appreciate the experience so much more now."

Lenertz plans to earn an associate in arts degree and transfer to Clemson to study English education with the goal of teaching high school English.