Cloverdale native Stephanie Malagon is currently in the first year of the three-year program in counseling psychology at USF Santa Rosa, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Stephanie’s studies are sustained in part by a scholarship from the Healthcare Foundation’s Mental Health Talent Pipeline, which is designed to support local aspiring bilingual and bicultural mental health professionals who want to stay in northern Sonoma County to provide access to mental health services for the local community.
Stephanie’s first language is Spanish, which she spoke at home with her parents, who immigrated from Mexico. A little later at school she became proficient in English as well. As the first in her family to graduate from college, and now to be pursuing an advanced degree, Stephanie says she feels a particular responsibility to give back to her community.
“In Cloverdale, and in most of Sonoma County from what I’ve experienced, there are not a lot of Spanish-speaking therapists or mental health resources for the Spanish-speaking community,” she explains in a recent phone conversation. “Growing up I never had an opportunity to go to therapy, let alone my parents, who speak Spanish—they were never given the opportunity or the resources related to mental health. I always understood there was a need for that. It’s what has inspired me to, hopefully, be one of those resources for my community and to be able to provide therapy for those who speak Spanish or English or both. Just to help out.”
Stephanie says that Marriage and Family Therapy was already one of the career paths she was exploring when she learned of the USF program, which had some additional attractions as well.
“What drew me to the USF program were a few things,” she says. “The cohort model is different. I had never heard of it before, and I thought it was really cool to be able to have a close group of people going through the program with you. Also, the way that the program is tailored to students who are working was important, because I do work full-time, so I needed to find a program that allowed me to do that while also going to school.”
In fact, Stephanie’s day job is directly related to her studies. She works as a behavioral therapist at Kyo Autism Therapy.
“I work with children with autism, using ABA [Applied Behavioral Analysis] therapy—which, it’s funny, we were just learning about in a previous class. I work at schools and I work at their homes as well, just working on behaviors and helping them become independent. I enjoy it. I’ve been doing that for about three years now.”
Stephanie’s interest in psychology and therapy began much earlier, she says, with the positive reinforcement she received as a child. “Growing up I was always told that I was a really good listener,” she remembers. “Ever since I was young, everyone would always say, you’d be a good therapist!” Then her studies began in earnest while in college.
“I was initially a biology major,” she relates. “I was looking into being pre-med. But things didn’t work out the way I wanted, so I decided to try psychology. It was always something I was interested in, but I never really got a good sense of what it was in high school. I wanted to explore that a little more, and I ended up loving it.”
She soon graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology, afterward taking a couple of years off to work and save up money with the hope of going back to school in a masters program.
“I came across the scholarship opportunity for the program in Santa Rosa, which is something that I had actually looked into before Covid started. Then Covid hit, and I was like, ‘I’ll just wait until next year. Everything should be fine by then.’ Cleary not, but it all worked out in the end. I applied for the scholarship, and for the program, and I was able to get both, which was amazing.”
When asked about the people who helped inspire her along her chosen career path, Stephanie doesn’t hesitate.
“My mom has been my role model, and someone who has supported me through every decision I’ve made in my journey, including switching majors in undergrad, she was really supportive about it. Psychology was actually something that she had been interested in when she was younger, but she never got the opportunity to pursue it. Luckily, I was able to, and that’s largely because she has inspired me to be where I am today.”