Naomi Gutierrez earns 2021 Karl S. Pister Leadership Awardby Jan Janes on Jun 11, 2021
Transferring to UCSC this fall, Hollister resident Naomi Gutierrez has been awarded the Karl S. Pister scholarship.
President/Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Rose and retired history instructor Leah Halper
join Pister Scholarship winner Naomi Gutierrez and her mother, Nancy Olivares.
Named for former UCSC Chancellor Pister, the scholarship is open to students from 13 Bay Area community colleges who overcame economic obstacles, demonstrated a commitment to helping others, and are eligible for financial aid. Recipients receive $10,000 in each of two years.
“Naomi’s career at Gavilan has been one of pushing herself to take on challenges,” said Dr. Kathleen Rose, Superintendent/President of Gavilan College. “She had several hurdles to overcome, including financial struggles and mental health issues. She has devoted her time to the study of people and policy, and to the liberation of marginalized communities.”
Headed for UC Riverside as a freshman in Fall 2019, her world temporarily cratered under the stress. Returning to the Central Coast, she enrolled at Gavilan and combined her interests in environmental science and social justice.
The scholarship journey
“One of my instructors, Leah Halper, recommended that I apply for the scholarship,” said Gutierrez.
“She and a few others helped me brainstorm what I have lived through,” said Gutierrez. “Especially with family, immigration issues, and struggles with continuous employment.”
“I don’t believe I have ever met a student who better qualifies for the Pister Scholarship and exemplifies the values underlying it,” said Halper.
COVID changes the scholarship interview
Previously, students from Gavilan traveled to UCSC to interview with the Pister Scholarship team. The pandemic required that students submit video interviews instead, highlighting information about how they coped during the pandemic’s quarantine, their volunteer service and future goals.
“I almost didn’t get past this step,” said Gutierrez. In all, she recorded a dozen takes on her cell phone. “I got so frustrated, crying.”
Leah Halper, former instructor, with Naomi Gutierrez, who recommended her to
apply for the Karl Pister scholarship.
Halper reviewed a few of the recordings, offering advice with camera angle and height.
“For my last recording, I stayed in my hoodie, hair in a bun, no script and got through it,” said Gutierrez.
Fall 2019: an entirely different path
Gutierrez attended San Benito High School as a freshman, switched to Sobrato High School her sophomore year, then returned to SBHS for her final two years of high school.
“I earned a 5 on the AP environmental science test, and I was interested in doing research related to the major,” said Gutierrez. She headed to UC Riverside. “But those math and science courses can be intense.”
During that term, Gutierrez was admitted to a mental health facility twice and diagnosed with major depressive disorder as a result of sexual abuse when she was a teen.
Return home, enroll at Gavilan College
“I chose Gavilan because it is a second home,” she said. “My mom took ESL classes when I was three years old.”
She tagged along, meeting some of her mom’s counselors and people in the Puente Project.
“It took my mom several years,” said Gutierrez, “This spring she graduated with her AA in Business Administration.”
Gutierrez knew Gavilan College would have the resources she needed to succeed.
“I selected Social Justice as a major because I have always been interested in laws and the legal system,” she said.
Her first class, Women’s Studies, was with Halper. “This was a favorite class, and her impact on my life has been huge,” said Gutierrez.
Navigating the pandemic, she gravitated to yoga. And she confessed to an iced caffeine habit.
“The desire to taste coffee got me out of bed,” said Gutierrez. “It powered me through the day.”
Support from EOPS
Enrolled in Gavilan, Gutierrez was accepted into the EOPS program.
“My counselor was skillful at planning out my classes,” Gutierrez said. “I credit getting accepted to UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz to her.”
“Naomi is a brilliant student, hardworking, and poised to achieve any goal she sets,” said EOPS Counselor Simone Reyes. “I’ve been continuously impressed by her ability to overcome challenges with grace and tenacity.”
Reyes knew Gutierrez wanted to graduate in two years. Preparing for the fourth and final semester, Reyes had to let her know: you don’t have enough units.
“That’s how I ended up with six classes,” said Gutierrez. “It was school overtime and work full time.”
Professor Marilyn Chap, Gutierrez’s sociology instructor, observed, “Naomi has overcome much in her life that might have proved discouraging to most, even to her. But she has continually striven to overcome. She has been succeeding in ways I am not sure even she yet fully realizes.”
Transfer to UCSC and career aspirations
Gutierrez will pursue a double major – sociology and history – at UCSC, work toward her MA in environmental science at UC Berkeley.
“Naomi’s academic work and perceptive insight were expressed in discussion forums,” said Chap. “She shared deeply personal experiences to help classmates understand situations and circumstances they may not have, themselves, encountered.”
Gutierrez recalled watching a video in class about Steve Jobs, living a privileged life. Then Jobs got cancer. The instructor commented that cancer doesn’t discriminate.
She offered another perspective. “The people most likely to get cancer get exposed to contaminants,” Gutierrez said. “Superfund sites, all the wastes are still there. And houses are constructed near toxic areas.”
“My personal hope, because of her appealing and penetrating mind,” said Halper, “Is that Ms. Gutierrez will get a doctorate and return to teach undergraduates. She can do anything she wishes, and what she chooses will be social-justice related.”
“I want to be an immigration attorney in the future,” said Gutierrez. “Let’s address environmental racism, the toxic waste sites in neighborhoods with the poor, and people of color.”
“She is extremely deserving of the Pister Scholarship,” said Reyes. “This is just the start. She will use her education to improve the lives of those around her.”