Striving to allow all children to be their ‘authentic selves’

Alumna and lecturer Gloria E. Ciriza draws on her SDSU experience in becoming the first female San Diego County Superintendent of Schools.

Monday, April 22, 2024
A Hispanic woman with long, wavy hair, wearing a blue blazer is smiling, her hands brought together, and facing a redhaired woman in a print dress.
Gloria E. Ciriza

Gloria E. Ciriza (’18, Educational Leadership) keeps a special reminder of her San Diego State University experience on her desk. 

In her San Diego County Office of Education office sits a framed photo of her as a small child at Coronado Beach. The memento harks back to a conversation with one of her mentors during her SDSU doctoral program orientation — a brief but profound moment that still guides Ciriza as she prepares to take one of the top educational leadership positions in the region. 

During a reflection exercise, she was partnered with Nancy Frey, a professor of Educational Leadership. As they talked, Frey posed a seemingly simple question that unearthed complex emotions.

What would you tell little Gloria about where you are right now?

“It stopped me in my tracks because nobody had ever asked me that question before,” Ciriza recalls. “Like, what would I say to 6-year-old little Gloria — someone who is firmly aware of where she does not fit in?”

Nearly eight years later, the question resonates even more after being named the first female county superintendent in the history of the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) on April 15. Ciriza has spent the past three years as assistant superintendent of student services and programs at SDCOE, which directly educates 3,000 students at 20 sites and supports 500,000 students across 42 districts.

"Our kids need to know that they are amazing, that they are beautiful and that they have strengths and talents that we need as a community to thrive,” Ciriza said. “We have so much work to do to make sure that our kids in our systems know they can show up and be their true, authentic selves — to be accepted and not judged.”

Little Gloria did not have that luxury. 

Photo of Gloria E. Ciriza as a child at Coronado BeachOpen the image full screen.
Gloria E. Ciriza keeps this photo of her a child at Coronado Beach on her desk as a reminder of her own educational journey.

The importance of belonging

Ciriza’s mother came to the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico as a teenager, eventually finding work in a beauty salon in Coronado. She was only 17 when she gave birth to Gloria, later marrying a U.S. Navy sailor who moved the family to the small town of Meadville, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up in an area where no children looked like me or had the language that my mother and I had,” Ciriza recalls. “I knew that sense of not feeling connected, of not fitting in.” 

Ciriza resolved two things from a young age: She wanted to return to San Diego, and she wanted to make a positive difference for students like her.

Starting as a substitute teacher in National City, she then taught fifth grade in San Diego Unified School District before moving into associate principal roles in Poway and Chula Vista. She then served as principal of Chula Vista's high-performing Heritage Elementary School prior to taking on multiple leadership roles in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

In 2016, Ciriza was accepted into SDSU's Ed.D. in Educational Leadership (PK-12 Concentration) program. There she found mentors like Frey, and professors Douglas Fisher and Ian Pumpian, who helped shape her educational philosophy while encouraging her to unpack her past.

“They were a big part of me really getting a true, core understanding of what it means to be an equity-driven leader,” Ciriza said. “To recognize the barriers — the policies and practices — that are getting in the way of us being able to get access to resources for our kids. 

“They had a pretty profound impact on me as a young administrator learning the ropes.”

For the past three years, Ciriza has been putting those lessons into practice at SDCOE, working to advance its North Star goal to reduce poverty through public education. 

In a county in which more than 50% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the North Star goal seeks to build a sense of belonging for students and families through the community school model and by leveraging partnerships with service agencies such as the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency and Live Well San Diego.

"We still have a lot of kids who don't feel seen or heard,” Ciriza said. “Working with our adult care system, we need to see beauty in every single one of our children and activate that day-to-day in our classrooms."

Aztec for Life

Ciriza’s SDSU experience also created a lasting relationship with the university. 

She has returned as a lecturer to teach four courses in the Ed.D. program. This semester, she is helping teach a course for students seeking their administrative services credentials.

Meanwhile, her daughter Elena is following in her footsteps as a student in SDSU’s liberal studies major with plans to earn her teaching credential.

And then there’s that framed photo reminding her of Frey’s poignant question. 

So what would she say to her 6-year-old self now?

"I would tell her everything's going to be okay,” Ciriza says. “You have a heart and a spirit that people need. There is a place for you."

Categorized As