Mariko Garza likes to eat her papaya fresh with a spoon and a squeeze of lime. She likes gardening flowers and going to indoor trampoline parks with her 4-year-old daughter, Skye. She describes herself as hapa, a Hawaiian word meaning “part” or “half”, referring to her Japanese and European mixed heritage. Garza spent some of her summer visiting family on Oahu. Her opinion on island food? She’s anti-poi, but she loves the tropical fruits, the peanut butter mochi, and, of course, the malasadas.
Above all, she’s always had a passion for people.
“I like to get to know people on an in-depth level,” Garza stated. “I like figuring out how people work.”
During her high school days in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Garza was constantly active within her community. She was president of her school’s Honor Society, she participated in student government and ASB, and she took part in Japanese dance performances at the Oxnard Buddhist Temple. It’s no surprise that Garza now works directly with people.
However, her initial plan wasn’t to be a school psychologist. After getting her Bachelor’s in Elementary Education at California State University, Northridge, Garza began looking towards a school counseling degree. It was during her college tours when she fell in love with psychology.
“We toured the psych program and I said, ‘This is so cool!’ recalled Garza. “I loved it so much. From that one tour, I completely changed my mind on what I wanted to do. On a whim decision, I changed my major.”
Garza earned her Master’s in School Psychology at Phillips Graduate Institute. She loves being a school psychologist because it allows her to understand students on a greater level.
“When you’re a school psychologist, you get to have one-on-one conversations [with students],” Garza explained, “you get to really know people and figure out how to best utilize their strengths.”
Garza has been working in the Ventura Unified School District for eight years, and she’s noticed that there is a common misconception about what a school psychologist does.
“Most people think I’m here just for mental health purposes,” she said, “but I’m actually employed through the Department of Special Education. The majority of students we see come in because they have learning challenges. While I’m here to support all students, the kids that I try to really know the most are the students who maybe have learning challenges—who maybe are on the autism spectrum. My job is to try to figure out the best way that they learn.”
Still, Garza is here to help any student who needs it. She notes that “it takes a village” to help anyone who is struggling with their mental health.
Garza also emphasizes the importance of abolishing the harmful stigma around mental illness, stating “it’s important to not make people feel bad for wanting help, or to feel like there’s something wrong with them.”
Garza works at three different schools, so her schedule can be quite dynamic. Most weeks she is in her office on Tuesdays, but one week a month she’ll be here on a Wednesday instead. She leaves a calendar on her office window in the H-Pod so that students and staff can view her schedule to know when and where they can reach her.
“If things get so bad that someone needs to escape, they can always see me,” said Garza.
No matter the student, Garza is always ready to help when someone is struggling.