The ‘Heart of a Teacher’: Cypress College’s Monica Vargas Student Success Profile

January 23, 2019

The job of a Psychiatric Technician isn’t for the timid or the faint of heart. So when Jaime Ramos, Director of the Cypress College Psychiatric Technology Program, first saw “tiny,” unassuming Monica Vargas in action, he was skeptical.

“We were in community mental health, [doing] group education for people diagnosed with mental illnesses, some of them not fully stable,” says Ramos. “When I stand in front of them, I have to make myself as big as possible. Monica is a tiny woman… How’s she going to make it?”

He needn’t have worried. When it was her turn to address the group, Vargas stood up, cleared her throat, and belted her instructor’s preconceptions right to the back of the room.

“Her voice just projected – it was like something happened to her…just stood there with command,” says Ramos. “I said ‘Wow, I really respect that. Where does that come from?’”

For Vargas, it comes from within – An innate desire to use her gifts to help others and to improve the lives of people in her community. For some, the oft-frustrating work of a psychiatric worker – especially those working with addicts – would be a nightmare. For Vargas, it’s a calling.

“I realized the stigma behind mental health, and I didn’t want it to stay the same. I felt like I needed to do something about it,” says Vargas. “The thing I just love is really just being able to help people, and getting them the help that they need.”

Upon graduating high school in Los Alamitos, Vargas applied to Cypress College, looking for a way to build a profession around helping people. When she discovered the Cypress Psychiatric Tech Program, her future clicked into place.

In a way, Psychiatric Technology is something that can’t be taught in a classroom. It’s a unique mixture of art, science, and improvisation, in which charts and case studies only tell part of the story. For Vargas, it was the hands-on, career-focused nature of the Cypress College program that energized and inspired her.

“You’re learning crisis intervention and group therapy, and then you sit there and you’re the one giving the therapy,” she says. “It’s like, whoa — I’m actually using what I learned.”

Currently, Vargas is using what she learned as a professional Psychiatric Tech for an Orange County detox facility, earning a living while she maps out a broader future in the field. She has also taken on the role of teacher, working with her old Cypress College program to mentor new Psychiatric Tech students. 

Ramos is no longer surprised.

“She has the heart of a teacher,” says her instructor and mentor. “When she’s ready to qualify for a position in our program, we’ll be very happy to have her. Very professional, very bright…a team player.”

She’s also an avid dancer. And while it started as an elective – Vargas took one class with Cypress College Dance director Maha Afra and was hooked – it became a second major, and has even begun to sashay into her professional life. “Dance chose me,” she quips – and if you think about it, it fits. After all, both Dance and Psychiatric Tech are about self-expression and dealing with emotions.

“I’ve been integrating dance and movement into my group therapy,” says Vargas. “Just showing people how to build emotions and make it into a proper coping skill.”

But don’t expect a career pirouette from Vargas anytime soon. She’s still focused on her goal of helping as many people as possible, and someday passing her gift on as a professor…maybe even within the same Cypress College program that inspired her.

“I just made great connections here. My experience here has built a good foundation for my future,” says Vargas. “Cypress definitely prepares you in every sort of sense.”