From Fear to Fulfillment: A Journey of Growth


Photo credit: Rosemary Montalvo

An organized trio of third grade girls approach an 8-year-old Stephania Tovar Vargas on the basketball court of Lucille J. Smith Elementary School.

“What are you doing, Stephania?” Imani, the main childhood villain perpetuating Stephania’s torment asked in a sarcastic tone.

Stephania was playing basketball with a third grade friend at the time, a filipino girl named Lauren.

“I’m playing with Lauren…what is this?” Stephania would inquire timidly

Imani was a fellow 8-year-old, was an African American girl whose hair consisted of braids with pink hair clips, and a wardrobe consisting Bobby Jack T-Shirts. She also liked to bully Stephania frequently.

Imani would taunt Stephania with her hands on her hips, snickering, and pursing her lips together when said an insult that she thought was particularly good.

“Oh, you look dumb today.” Imani would declare “You’re throwing that so dumb!”

These would be crude critiques referring to Stephania’s appearance and her basketball jumper.

Stephania wouldn’t respond, instead she decided to just shoot the basketball in fear that if she does not occupy her mind with activity, she would start crying in front of everyone.

Instances of bullying like this would play a big role in Stephania’s early anxiety toward public speaking but also play a part in her drive to overcome that anxiety and eventually become a truly confident person.

Stephania Tovar Vargas is a 20-year-old, nursing major who is also a student ambassador at El Camino.

Student ambassadors are students who are eager to connect students and visitors to El Camino College staff, faculty, programs, and services.

Standing at only 5’1″ Stephania doesn’t take up much space physically, nonetheless along with her brown eyes, and straight waist length hair with the tips dyed golden brown, she exudes a helpful can-do demeanor as a student ambassador.

Today, Stephania has on a navy blue polo shirt with the El Camino insignia embroidered on the upper right side of the shirt. Baby blue jeans and a pair of tan colored vans sneakers. Her fellow student ambassador, Gabby Lopez, 18, Nursing major, has on similar attire.

This is because of the college fair happening at the Holy Lutheran Church on Crenshaw Boulevard.

Stephania eagerly awaits in her chair ready to promote El Camino amongst a colorful assortment of EC fliers that lay adroitly across a table cloth that reads “El Camino College”.

“Do you have any questions?” Stephania asks a young woman wearing a black tank top, gray leggings, UGG boots along with a black-and-white- bandana wrapped around her head. She peruses the cornucopia of fliers advertising the many programs that EC has to offer.

The young woman remarks that she used to attend EC and then inquires about College Night at El Camino as advertised on one of the fliers on the table.

Stephania promptly begins to inform the curious attendee about the event. Her words sharp and concise, offering just the right amount of information without being overwhelming. Her voice at an appropriate volume for a college event with a million voices chattering away in the background.

Yet, as sociable as Stephania is now, it took many different experiences in public speaking to help her go from a quiet, introverted caterpillar to a communicative, social butterfly.

When Stephania was around eight-years-old she would start experiencing a great deal of bullying in elementary school due to her being a soft-spoken and shy child growing up.

The bullying started in the third grade and ended after the fifth grade. She would go on to describe the bullies as “fake friends” meaning she would routinely hang out with the same people who would actually turn around and terrorize her.

Along with Imani, there were two other girls who partook in the bullying as well. Erinn, another young girl around the same age, wore glasses, had pigtails, and was shorter than the average third grader. She, in addition to Zamia, a girl who was the opposite of Erinn and taller as well as wider than the rest of the third graders formed a hate group centered on Stephania.

“The Stephania Hate Club” is what they called it.

“They named the club, yes. They called it a club to hate on me,” Stephania says, “I would miss the after school program sometimes. I would go home early, so that’s when they would meet within themselves and I guess talk bad about me,”

Despite having a third grade legion of doom centered on her, Stephania never really took the bullying to heart at the time. however she would later acknowledge that it did affect her public speaking skills.

“I feel like [the bullying] played a big role because l felt like everyone was always judging me. Doesn’t matter [if] people were paying attention or not.” Stephania says, “In terms of public speaking, obviously, all eyes on you. And so for me it always felt like either people are critiquing the way I’m standing, people don’t maybe like the way I look, people think that maybe like I’m overweight and stuff like that. And it would always get to me. It would always get to my head. You could really see it when like when I would do public speaking, like I would shake, my voice was very shaky”

Public speaking is a common fear, in fact, according to a survey done by Chapman University 20 percent of American reported as being “Afraid or Very Afraid” of public speaking.

Colleen Keough, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California, who has a doctorate in communication and has served as the course director for COMM 204: Public Speaking, for nearly 20 years, explains why public speaking takes time to develop as a skill.

“You’re putting yourself out in front of an audience, you’re the center of attention during that time. People are going to be listening to your content ‘How smart are you?’ ‘Do you make sense?'” Keough says, “It seems to be a harder skill to learn, but with practice people overcome their fears of public speaking, quite easily in fact”.

Stephania would eventually overcome this fear as well, and one presentation project in eighth grade became the catalyst for her to change for the better.

During the eighth grade, Stephania was assigned a group project and was left to do the lion’s share of the work as she was seen as “The Smart Girl” by her classmates.

Stephania knew her group would just stand there as she presented and not lift a finger to participate. Couple that with the fact that her teacher at the time, Ms. Hauser had a very strict, by the book teaching style. She had shoulder length red hair, brown eyes and a very serious face, almost like she was frowning all the time. She never smiled Stephania says.

So at this point, a 14-year-old Stephania in eighth grade was starring in a feature length film called “The group presentation” with her actual group members as non dialogue extras and co-starring the eighth grade teacher who never smiled. Stephania became more and more nervous the closer presentation day came.

“The night before I remember feeling very anxious and you know like those butterflies in your stomach? And then like the feeling of wanting to throw up” Stephania says “I really didn’t want to do that by myself. I really felt like I need peer support and I wasn’t going to get it.”

The morning of the presentation in June of 2012, Stephania was driven to Jane Addams Middle School in Lawndale, California by her father, Jose Tovar, in his white Nissan truck.

Jose Tovar is a hard worker, having worked two jobs for the past eight years yet still is sociable and has a positive attitude toward life in general.

He’s 6’1″ with a big wide chest, brown eyes, and little gray and black hairs on his head that signify his 48 years of age. He has tough hands filled with small cuts that bespeaks the years of arduous labor he has had to undergo to support himself and his family. These cuts reflect the effort he puts in detailing cars as his profession.

When the truck turned onto Marine Avenue, approaching Jane Addams Middle School, Stephania started to feel sharp, nervous pains in her stomach. Her body started to warm up like popcorn in a microwave, and the knots and the butterflies on her insides began to multiply.

She hadn’t even set foot on school campus.

Jose noticed his daughter’s distress and said that he too used to get nervous around her age when he would go to school.

Jose grew up with a strict father. Jose and his siblings would need permission to open their mouths, especially if any adult were in the household. This contributed to his shyness as a youth. He saw himself in Stephania’s nervous state.

“I was relating to her because when I was a young kid I think that I mentioned that my Dad was very strict, [so] I was [as shy as] her. So, I kinda related to her, put myself in her shoes,” Jose says, “We were [in] the car driving, I was trying to explain and even encourage her [to know that] there’s nothing wrong to talk to people, to open up, to let them know how you really are, the way you think, not to be afraid.”

In spite of that, Stephania still arrived at Jane Addams about as wound up as a coiled rattlesnake.

As she approached her first period class that day, each step closer and closer to the classroom, her feet felt heavier. It was if someone were attaching weights to her ankles the more she approached the door of the teacher who never smiled.

“It was the last presentation of the semester, it was worth a lot and I just remember I did not want to go to class. When I got there, I wanted to be as little as possible” Stephania says, “I was trying to hide behind the projector”.

Stephania and her group were the first ones to present. During the walk to the front of the classroom, all eyes, including her own group mates’, were locked on Stephania. It was as if to nonverbally say “Where is our grade? Smart girl.”

During the presentation, Stephania had to explain a drawing by putting it on the projector. She looked back at her group for moral support and in that moment it seemed like they were bored already. Distraught, Stephania turn back toward the class, who were blankly staring back at her.

“I wanted to almost run out of the class, like I felt like I needed to throw up, I felt hot like I was gonna get a fever, I felt like I was going to get something,” Stephania says, “In order for me not to be as scared, I just decided ‘look down’, the whole time, just don’t look at anyone don’t make eye contact, don’t look at the teacher”.

Amid her feeble attempts to explain a picture to her classmates, her voice volume out of control as she would realize her voice was too low, get loud and then get quiet again, hands shaking as if they were in the middle of an earthquake, a distinct watery mouth akin to when a person is a about to vomit, and a rising internal body temperature as if she was being cooked alive.

As soon as the five minute mark was up and Stephania’s teacher called time on the presentation, a revelation would reveal itself internally to Stephania, forever changing how she approached public speaking situations.

Back at the college fair in the Holy Lutheran Church, the host of the event lets the attendees know via microphone that two students from El Camino are here to tell them about the college and what it has to offer.

The audience applauds as Stephania and Gabby go in front of the crowd. After brief introductions, Stephania and Gabby begin to talk about the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services program at El Camino.

Stephania is the complete opposite of her eighth grade self. She is confident and engaged. Her voice clear and controlled. Her expertise on the topic regarding one of El Camino’s most helpful programs is unmistakable.

The contrast between eighth grade Stephania and present day Stephania is evident among her peer group.

Sara Reyes first met Stephania when they were both 13-years-old in Leadership Club in middle school. They, however, didn’t officially become close friends until freshmen year of high school where they had the same classes together. It was during these classes that Sara and Stephania’s other friends would give her pointers for her public speaking

“I would definitely tell her to like slow down a bit because she would get really nervous. And she would also stare at one point instead of looking around so we’d have to remind her like to look around to everybody you know just don’t stare at us,” Sara said. “Throughout the years I’ve definitely seen how she has become a stronger, more independent young lady and it’s really cool to see, I mean we first met when we were [13] and now we’re both 20 and she’s thriving”.

Stephania’s flourishing realization to become a better public speaker came right after that faithful eighth grade presentation.

She promised herself that she would not allow a presentation to go as terribly as this eighth grade one went. And so through practice, advice from her peers, and through a personal commitment, she allowed herself to become more outgoing.

This resulted in her having an improved public speaking track record when compared to her eighth grade year. In fact, during her final presentation in her senior year of high school, one of the panel guests in attendance tapped her on the shoulder shortly after she was done with her speech and personally complimented Stephania on her strong eye contact as well as her expertise on her subject.

A group of people approach Stephania’s and Gabby’s table, inquiring about various programs at El Camino. Stephania and Gabby decisively answer the crowd’s surface, yet probing questions.

Eventually, the event begins to wind down as fewer and fewer people show up.

This is Stephania’s first year as a student ambassador, and her supervisor Veronica Palafox, student services specialist, notes the change in Stephania even just being in the student ambassador program.

“When she first began with the ambassador program she was a little bit more reserved, she wasn’t necessarily shy, but she was a little bit more hesitant to speak up, I think it took a little bit of time for her to adjust with the group” Palafox said, “It definitely has changed from July 1st till now and it’s only been a couple months. I’m confident in her sending her out to different events, I know that she’s going to be doing a great job presenting in front of prospective students and teachers.”

Stephania plans to transfer as a nursing major in the fall of 2019 to Cal State Long Beach. She will continue being a student ambassador through the spring of 2019.

If Stephania could give advice to her younger, eighth grade self it would be to just accept that people judging you is going to be apart of life. The important part is to really just believe in yourself above all else.

“Just be confident. Honestly, be confident. It’s the key,” Stephania says, “Even if you don’t feel like you’re confident in that moment, just be it.”