Jewelry and accessories by Isaiah Garza have been worn by stars Janet Jackson, Rihanna and Cardi B.
But just over a decade ago, Garza was a self-described “bad student” at Yakima’s Eisenhower High School.
On Friday, the 30-year-old returned to his alma mater for the second time since then to share how he turned his trajectory around.
Garza said he had been expelled from another local high school before transferring to Eisenhower, where he continued to get bad grades and get into fights.
“I was a terrible student,” he told an auditorium full of roughly 500 students. “At one point in my life, everything just changed.”
Garza said his family, who lived on the east side of Yakima at the time, went through financial hardship and family deaths that were sobering.
“That was really what sparked a change in me. I was like, ‘Man, we’re down to ground zero, and I have to do something.’ If I don’t, I’m going to become a loser for the rest of my life,” he said.
He pushed himself to become a straight-A student and began challenging himself to meet new personal goals, all with the support of one teacher who believed in him: physical education teacher Brad Ackerman.
Today, Garza is a jewelry designer, fashion designer, aspiring recording artist, marketer and activist fighting human trafficking.
Garza said the process from then to now had been a struggle. Before graduating he applied for countless scholarships to help fund a two-year degree in merchandise marketing at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, or FIDM, in Los Angeles. During his time at the college, he said he experienced homelessness several times. But he also accomplished great things, he said, such as winning an award in fashion design while at the school, even though it wasn’t his area of study.
“It just goes to show that work ethic and hard work will get you far in life. It doesn’t matter who you’re competing against,” he said. “Because I’m from a small town, you know what I mean? And I’m going against all these kids who have so many resources and their families have so much money, and I didn’t care. I was like, ‘I have heart, bro. I’m from Yakima, Wash.’ ”
Garza said some key lessons that led to his success were getting used to the word “no,” and using it as motivation to do great things and prove people wrong; to do away with negative people who don’t believe you can accomplish goals; and not to limit yourself.
His connection with Cardi B, for example, began with him cold-emailing her team to share his story and desire to style her jewelry, he said. The next day, they were arranging a meeting with him.
Garza also said it’s important to take what you’re good at in life and use it to help other people. In addition to doing work to help human trafficking victims — such as through an HP Computers sponsorship that allows him to give victims new computers to use for things like going back to school — Garza said he actively reaches out to homeless communities.
The event with Garza was the first in a new quarterly series of alumni spotlights, said Lori Benoit, a leadership adviser and career choices teacher at the high school. She and drama teacher Janey Peterson came up with the plan, and in the future they hope to invite graduates from a variety of backgrounds who might resonate with different student groups.
“It’s about time that we showcased what can come out of Yakima,” Benoit said.