Andrea Gutierrez didn’t always want to go to college, but now she’s heading to Stetson University’s competitive and prestigious Bonner Program with a $40,000 scholarship.
A first-generation Mexican-American and the first in her family to graduate from high school, Gutierrez enrolled at Polk State College “to see what this college thing was all about.” She finished her first semester with a 4.0 grade-point average (GPA) and an invitation to join Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society’s Xi Pi chapter.
“I thought, ‘this is awesome,’ and suddenly I had the guidance I needed to find areas of study I am passionate about and the potential paths I could take to pursue my goals,” said Gutierrez, who will receive an Associate in Arts degree May 2 during Polk State’s 120th commencement ceremony.
She plans to major in environmental studies and pre-law, with aspirations to work in environmental, education, and immigration policy.
“All I can think is, ‘mama, I made it,’” she said. “I’m the eldest of three siblings and I am proud to be a role model for my family.”
Stetson’s Bonner Program provides leadership development and social justice learning opportunities through student collaboration and service with local nonprofit organizations, making it the perfect fit for Gutierrez, who has learned the value of community service through her active involvement with Phi Theta Kappa, the Honors Program, and STEM Club.
“All I can think is, ‘mama, I made it.’ I’m the eldest of three siblings and I am proud to be a role model for my family.”
She was one of only 18 students chosen from more than 200 applicants.
As a Bonner Scholar, Gutierrez will intern eight to 10 hours a week with a nonprofit group whose mission aligns with her academic and career goals, which will provide her with the knowledge, skills, and experience she needs to complete her bachelor’s degree and pursue her future goals.
And she’s doing all of this with a full ride through Stetson University scholarships for her academic achievements and status as the first transfer student to become a Bonner Scholar.
“I am thrilled for this opportunity and it has created a new goal for me, and that is for my story to inspire others,” Gutierrez said. “There is a stigma that community college students don’t do well academically or in leadership positions, but that’s not true and I want to encourage students to be the best they can be – to accomplish even more than me.”
Gutierrez’s latest achievements include Phi Theta Kappa Xi Pi’s awards and recognitions at the state and international levels in April under her leadership as chapter president. Xi Pi ranked No. 1 out of 85 chapters in Florida and No. 7 out of approximately 1,300 chapters internationally. Additionally, Xi Pi received Distinguished Chapter Officer Team and Gutierrez received the Regional Award for Excellence in both Transfer Readiness and Career Readiness.
Her advice to students: get involved on campus and find faculty mentors.
Gutierrez, like many of Polk State’s 52 percent of students who are the first generation in their families to go to college, has supportive parents but did not have the resources at home to help navigate her through the academic process.
“There is a stigma that community college students don’t do well academically or in leadership positions, but that’s not true and I want to encourage students to be the best they can be – to accomplish even more than me.”
She credits Biology Professor Anthony Cornett, English Professor Earl Brown, and English Professor Maria Radford for giving her the extra support and guidance she needed to be successful.
“Their belief in me is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” she explained. “My parents are all for school and have pushed me because they want me to have a better quality of life, but my professors encouraged me to go even further by taking risks and breaking barriers that my parents didn’t fully understand at first.”
Professor Cornett, advisor of the Phi Theta Kappa Xi Pi chapter, brought out Gutierrez’s “inner tree hugger.”
“If our environment isn’t healthy, how can we be healthy?” she said. “I really want to make positive change in the world.”
She also plans to advocate for positive policy changes in immigration and education.
“I want to help in areas that will benefit from my personal experiences and knowledge,” said Gutierrez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico. “I want others to have the opportunities I have been fortunate enough to receive.”
She hopes her passion takes her all the way to the White House, where she aspires to work in an environmental policies and regulations position.
But first Gutierrez will take her first leap by moving out of her family’s home and living on her own for the first time at Stetson University’s campus. She will begin classes in fall 2019.
“It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and being open to new opportunities,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to learn about yourself, try new things, and follow what you’re passionate about once you figure it out. You will go far.”