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Five Questions With … Maria Garcia, ESOL Counselor

October 8, 2013

Five Questions With … Maria Garcia, ESOL CounselorThis week’s five-question interview is with Maria Garcia, who was born in New York, N.Y., but at nine years old moved with her family to Puerto Rico. At 22, after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico, she returned to New York, eventually relocating to Washington, D.C. at the urging of her sister-in-law. She later earned a master’s in counseling from George Mason University.

How long have you been with MCPS? How do you help students?

I started with MCPS in 1998 as an ESOL counselor. At the time, I had 17 schools—elementary, middle and high schools. … Now I have two, Gaithersburg and Watkins Mill high schools.

I work with students to help them become successful academically. I also try to meet their social and emotional needs. We work with teachers to advocate for students, and we work with students on culture and assimilation. I also hold workshops to help parents understand what is required by MCPS.

Many times, students ask me for help or for information. So I will bring in someone to speak to them or connect them with a resource. We do a lot to help them navigate the system and provide the tools necessary for graduation. We try to remove barriers so they can graduate.

The thing I do best is help students with understanding college expectations so they can pursue their dreams. We tell them the steps they have to follow—they have to learn English, they have to come to school every day, they have to learn to advocate for themselves, to learn how to get others to help them. It’s important to be part of school and participate in activities, to connect with the school community.

You’ve helped hundreds of students complete FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms and offered college and financial aid workshops to parents? Why do you do that?

My passion is with these kids. I see my job as a mission. … The only way to help is to provide information and to give them dignity.

As far as FAFSA, I invite 11th graders to talk about their vision after graduation. I talk to them about FAFSA then and all they need to do to complete the forms. I have helped hundreds of students fill out the forms. At night, we hold workshops for parents at schools or churches, sometimes the libraries. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years. January to March 1 is my busiest time of the year.

Did someone in your life provide you the kind of help you’re now trying to provide for others?

When I was 9, we moved to Puerto Rico. I was a D and F student in New York, because I had no one to help me. My mom only had a third grade education. When I left New York, I was in fourth grade. When I went to Puerto Rico, they put me in third grade. But by January of that year, they moved me up to the fourth grade. My uncle’s wife worked with me every day. Every single day. She was only 17 at the time. I never again had problems with education. My mom couldn’t believe I became a straight-A student.  I don’t know what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for my aunt.

I didn’t have to fear that I was undocumented. But I understand what it means to assimilate, what it’s like to be poor and wanting to do something else with your life … Sometimes, I would see a house or someone in a certain profession and I would think to myself, “Can I have that? Can I do that?”

What would surprise people about your job?

People say to me all the time, “I don’t know how you do it.” I want to help them. You have to really get to know the families and work from within. You can’t do anything from the outside. My greatest successes have been when I’ve been able to help the whole family.

For me, I’m touching the future. I know each child has a goal. I may not have eliminated all the barriers, but one day, they’ll see the light and say, ‘I can do this now.’ Because that’s what happened to me.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

Everyone has my cell. It rings constantly. Students have called me at 12 at night. … Parents call me a lot, having problems with their children.

On Friday night, I turn it off and spend time with my husband. We’ll go to dinner or the movies.

I have two children and three grandchildren. I have a brother who’s mentally disabled and lives in a group home, so I call often and check on him or will go pick him up for a few hours. I belong to a book club, so that’s time for me.

My husband retired after 33 years with the Federal Reserve Board. He says to me, “You know you can retire when you’re 62.” I’m 61. I don’t think I can. I love my job and I like going to work and to me, it’s not really a job.