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The Best Example

As an honor student and community volunteer, Omar Gutierrez finds opportunities everywhere

By Arthur Evenchik

Published in fall 2010

Omar Gutierrez, a junior majoring in health science anthropology, began doing volunteer work through the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning during his freshman year. Photo by Daniel Milner.

Omar Gutierrez, a junior majoring in health science anthropology, began doing volunteer work through the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning during his freshman year. Photo by Daniel Milner.

On an evening in late September, cloudy but not yet dark, two young men with book bags dangling from their shoulders arrived at Esperanza, an educational nonprofit on Cleveland’s West Side. At that hour, they could have been eating dinner with their families or hanging out with friends. But instead, they sat down across from each other at a small conference table and started their homework. One of them took notes on a history essay filled with unfamiliar words and phrases: divination, de facto, forensic. The other tackled math problems in an SAT prep book the size of a telephone directory.

A tutor wearing a Case Western Reserve University t-shirt was already at the table when they came in. He, too, could have been doing other things that evening, but he didn’t seem to be thinking about them. As he answered the students’ questions and asked a few of his own, he gave the impression that he had all the time in the world.

Although the young men had never worked with him before, they were clearly at ease in his presence. Before the session ended, he made sure he knew their names and that they knew his.

Omar Gutierrez has been volunteering at Esperanza since the spring of his freshman year. Several students he first met when they were high school sophomores or juniors have graduated and gone on to college, thanks in part to his involvement in their lives.

“I love having the interaction with students,” Gutierrez says. “I talk with them about my experiences with my education, and how I ended up where I am.” Like many of these students, Gutierrez grew up in an immigrant family in an inner-city neighborhood. And he struggled with the same challenges—a language barrier, peer pressure, a scarcity of educational role models—that Esperanza seeks to address with its programs for the city’s Hispanic youth.

Mentors like Gutierrez have a powerful impact on their “near peers,” says Victor Ruiz, the organization’s executive director. “They can say to them: You know what? I’m doing it; you can, too.” It’s a message Gutierrez conveys even to students who may not know the full extent of his achievements.

Countless Hours

Twice a week, Gutierrez works with high school students in a leadership development program at Esperanza. Top, from left: Ariana Latimer, Kayla Mendez, Angelica Southwick, Yadira Cortes, India Eaton, Omar Gutierrez, Victor Ruiz Jr., Digna Lewis, Jennifer Sanchez, Eliza Semidei. Bottom, from left: Arelis Latimer, Jean Caraballo, Erica Rivera, Kiara Kuratomi, Rafael Jose Castro.

Twice a week, Gutierrez works with high school students in a leadership development program at Esperanza. Top, from left: Ariana Latimer, Kayla Mendez, Angelica Southwick, Yadira Cortes, India Eaton, Omar Gutierrez, Victor Ruiz Jr., Digna Lewis, Jennifer Sanchez, Eliza Semidei. Bottom, from left: Arelis Latimer, Jean Caraballo, Erica Rivera, Kiara Kuratomi, Rafael Jose Castro. Photo by Daniel Milner.

In 2008, as he was about to graduate from a magnet high school in Dayton, Ohio, Gutierrez was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend the university of his choice. The scholarship covers the entire cost of his undergraduate education and would carry him through to a doctorate if he wanted one. (At this point, though, he is planning on a medical degree instead.) When he enrolled at Case Western Reserve, he worried about “coming into college from an inner-city school and being unprepared for the level of work that you suddenly get thrust into.” But Gutierrez proved himself academically by the end of his first semester, and this year he received a “3.5 and Up” award from the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), which honored him at its 2010 Unity Banquet.

Since declaring a major in health science anthropology, Gutierrez has engaged in biomedical and social science research addressing health disparities within the United States and around the world. In addition, he has devoted countless hours to organizations and initiatives across the university. When the Office of Undergraduate Admission hosts events to recruit students from underrepresented minorities, Gutierrez steps to the microphone. He has planned cultural and community service activities for the student group La Alianza, and he has assumed a leadership role in virtually every service program conducted by the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning (CCEL). Last May, in recognition of his “significant contributions to campus life, scholarship and community service,” he received OMA’s Stephanie Tubbs Jones Award.

Even Gutierrez’s friends and supervisors do not claim to know everything he is involved in. “Omar doesn’t broadcast what he does,” says Angela Lowery, CCEL’s student service coordinator. She recalls a conversation with a colleague in the admission office: “Somehow, Omar’s name came up, and she said, ‘Oh, he helps us so much with our diversity panels.” And I thought, ‘He’s never mentioned any of that to me!’

“He’s one of those people who is always there for us,” Lowery adds. “Many times we have last-minute situations come up, a need for a student representative to go request funding for a program of ours, and he is always willing and able to do that. It’s mysterious to me; I don’t know how he manages to find the time. He is the best example we have of a student who got engaged early on and has stayed connected on all kinds of levels. He’s really one of our models.”

A Cascade of Events

Gutierrez has lived in the United States since he was seven years old. Born in Mexico City, he came to this country with his parents and two older siblings, joining relatives who had already settled in Ohio. Two months after his arrival, he started kindergarten along with a cousin who had been born in the United States. Unlike Gutierrez, she was fluent in English as well as in Spanish.

Gutierrez was honored for academic excellence at this year's Unity Banquet, sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Gutierrez was honored for academic excellence at this year’s Unity Banquet, sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Photo by Eric Benson.

“I remember going to class and not knowing what anybody was saying; it was like hearing all these noises,” Gutierrez says. “And we felt really alone, because we were the only two non-American students, period—there were no other foreign students in the class. Kids would pick on me because I couldn’t speak English. By the time the school year was over, I must have been a little traumatized, because I was scared to speak Spanish in front of anybody who wasn’t Mexican. I didn’t even say I was Mexican.”

That summer, Gutierrez was determined to learn English. “I remember going around and refusing to speak Spanish to anybody, and using the little bit of English that I knew,” he recalls. “I picked up a lot from my cousins. The next year, I ended up getting the highest grades in the class.”

Still, Gutierrez says, it took years to overcome his fear of being seen as non-American. “We had other Mexican students come into our school who were in the same position that I was in before,” he says. “The teacher would know that I knew how to speak Spanish, and she would try to match us up. But I would do everything to avoid it. That’s kind of sad, now that I think about it.”

By the time he reached middle school, Gutierrez was no longer at the top of his class. “I had a hard time maintaining my schoolwork,” he recalls. “I was very unfocused; I was hanging around with the wrong people. But eventually, around my junior year of high school, there was a cascade of events that led me to contemplate: ‘What am I doing with my life? And what is really important to me?’ I actually started looking ahead to college, and I worked really hard to get myself prepared to make that transition.”

Gutierrez was aided in his efforts by a parishioner at his church. Yvette Kelly-Fields, director of development for the Dayton Urban League, stepped forward and became his mentor. “She made me a binder with a list of things I should think about—financial aid, schools I should start researching, what majors interested me,” Gutierrez says. “We sat down once a week, looked online and picked out scholarships that I could get. And at the top of the list was the Gates Millennium Scholarship, because it was the biggest and the one that could help me go to some other place. I was looking to go somewhere else, somewhere far from the city, and that scholarship would give me the ability to do so.”

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by the United Negro College Fund, the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program makes awards to 1,000 minority students nationally each year. Candidates must demonstrate not only academic excellence, but also dedication to community service. So Kelly-Fields connected Gutierrez with the Urban League’s tutoring program, where he began volunteering two or three days a week.

“I kept putting more hours in, because it was really engaging,” he says. “I even got an award for the impact I was having with the kids.” In addition, he joined an Urban League service group called Youth Forum, which enabled him to work on community projects along with other motivated students.

When Gutierrez discusses his mentor’s influence, he recalls her practical advice and the start she gave him in community service. But more than anything, she convinced him that a college education would change his life. For years, he and his friends had been told that education was important, but they didn’t believe it. Part of the trouble, he says, was “a disconnection between what we were doing in school and what it was supposed to prepare us for. It was like learning random information; it was never anything that seemed valuable to us, anything that seemed like it would help us in the long run.” Since no one in their families had gone to college, the opportunities that people kept talking about didn’t seem real to them.

Now, when Gutierrez visits his younger siblings, ages 13 and 8, he sees the difference it makes that they have a college student in the family. (In fact, they have two; Gutierrez’s older brother, Manuel, is a senior at Wright State University.) “When I talk to them, I always ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ My little brother is always messing with me: ‘I want to be a doctor, and I also want to be an astronaut.’ The fact he is even bringing up those ideas is phenomenal. And he knows that in order to do something like these big grand ideas, he has to go and get an education.”

Extending a Pathway

As an undergraduate, Gutierrez has been an active seeker of opportunities. In the spring of his freshman year, he applied to CCEL’s Civic Engagement Fellowship program and became one of eight first-year students placed as volunteers in community organizations. That is how he discovered Esperanza. As a sophomore, he spent an “alternative spring break” in a Nicaraguan village, where he and 13 other CCEL students helped parents build a kitchen for an elementary school and participated in activities with local children.

Each summer, Gutierrez devotes himself to science. In 2009, he was selected to participate in the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He spent 12 weeks at Cornell University’s biomedical research center in the Dominican Republic, conducting chemical assays of indigenous plants to find out whether they might have medical uses. The goal of such research is to help countries produce their own pharmaceuticals, instead of importing more expensive drugs from abroad.

This year, Gutierrez was awarded a summer fellowship in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of California, San Diego. He participated in seminars on health disparities and shadowed doctors from UCSD’s School of Medicine. On the research side, he worked on a new imaging tool that scientists can use to examine heart development and disease in an animal model—the zebrafish. “We made the zebrafish heart glow bright green, so that we could better study it,” he explains. In his spare time, he went surfing, a sport he first learned in Nicaragua. “It was a different type of water—cold, comparatively—but it was really fun.”

Back on campus, Gutierrez is involved in an NIH-funded project at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, where a research team is developing tools to teach minority patients to communicate effectively with their doctors. By engaging in a computer simulation of an office visit, these patients will learn to express concerns about their health, get their questions answered and obtain the information they need to manage chronic conditions.

In a recent video celebrating its community partnerships, Esperanza devoted a segment to its relationship with CWRU's Center for Civic Engagement and Learning. The video included an interview with Gutierrez. "It was a no-brainer to pick Omar," says Jessica Gonzalez, Esperanza's director of operations.

In a recent video celebrating its community partnerships, Esperanza devoted a segment to its relationship with CWRU’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning. The video included an interview with Gutierrez. “It was a no-brainer to pick Omar,” says Jessica Gonzalez, Esperanza’s director of operations. Photo by Daniel Milner.

Gutierrez was recruited for the project, known as Electronic Self-Management Resource Training to Reduce Health Disparities (eSMART-HD), by research associate Lisaann Gittner. During their first interview, he offered ideas from his study of cultural anthropology and discussed his commitment to health disparities research. Afterwards, Gittner called principal investigator John Clochesy, Independence Foundation Professor of Nursing Education, and said, “We need to hire Omar.”

Gutierrez joined the team as it was collecting data on patients’ experiences with the health care system. He proposed holding a focus group at Esperanza, where he translated the participants’ comments and asked follow-up questions. Later, he was fully engaged in the process of analyzing the data, identifying issues that the simulation would address and writing a script for the virtual office visit.

During meetings that sometimes went on until midnight or later, this script became more and more complicated. Each time patients were asked a question, the software had to present them with several responses to choose from. And each response, in turn, led down a different conversational pathway. As the team struggled with the wording of the responses and debated how many to offer at various points, Gutierrez wasn’t afraid to speak up, even if he was the only undergraduate in a roomful of PhDs.

“It was getting late one evening, and we were all getting a little punchy,” Gittner recalls. “Omar thought we were going in the wrong direction on this one pathway, and he just wouldn’t let up until we heard him. We were at the point where we were just fatigued and ready to stop. But Omar said, ‘No, you’re doing a disservice here; this pathway needs to keep going.’ He wanted to give the patients more choices; he wanted to include the breadth of things that people would actually say. And when we reflected on it, we realized that his idea was great. He was helping us make the script more real, so that people would see themselves in the simulation.”

Dedicated to Something

CCEL director Elizabeth Banks describes Gutierrez as “surprisingly even-keeled.” He shows up at 8 a.m. to take charge of a volunteer site for a Saturday of Service, makes a presentation to entering students or drives a group of fellow tutors to the West Side without seeming overburdened. “The other students are so jealous that he’s never stressed about his schoolwork,” Banks says.

Gutierrez thinks they have the wrong impression. “Last year, I was doing entirely too much,” he admits. “I was going over to Esperanza; I was taking a good number of classes and taking leadership roles in these other civic groups. So a lot of times, I found myself really stressed out. Three o’clock in the morning, I would be trying to get some work done, because the entire day I was gone doing all these other things. But I think that once you’re dedicated to something, you’ll find the time to do it. Because, in reality, it’s just time that you would normally use to just sit around.” Sitting around may be the only activity he hasn’t fitted into his schedule.

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