TRIO Achiever Award
The TRIO Achiever candidate must:
- The TRIO Achiever candidate must be a former TRIO Project participant who was enrolled in and successfully completed a TRIO program in the ASPIRE region.
- The TRIO Achiever candidate must have enrolled in and successfully completed a post-secondary program of study resulting in a baccalaureate or terminal degree from an accredited institution of higher education.
- The TRIO Achiever candidate must be a person of high stature within his/her profession or has received recognition for outstanding academic achievement.
- The TRIO Achiever candidate must currently be employed above the entry level designation for his/her profession or enrolled in a program for a degree above the baccalaureate degree.
- The TRIO Achiever candidate must have made significant civic, community, or professional contributions.
- Participation in the TRIO project must have had a significant impact upon the candidate in obtaining his/her educational and/or professional objectives (as acknowledged by the participant).
TRIO Achievers who are selected should be prepared to present a five minute address to the ASPIRE membership during the TRIO Achievers’ Luncheon at the 2023 conference in Park City, UT.
2023 ASPIRE TRIO Achievers
In this world, we process an infinite amount of information daily, and most, at face value, without the need to dive deeper into the story or details carried within. Whether it’s a face on the street, a name on a diploma, or a career title, we often lack the full picture. It’s the same reason why the following statement may seem ordinary for most in a professional field. Cristian has a master’s degree in clinical social work and recently became a licensed mental health clinician. It’s an accomplishment, without question, as is any post-secondary degree. The difference here is, Cristian should have never made it that far. According to teachers from his time in the K-12 system and societal stereotypes about his identity, he would have been fortunate to graduate high school, much less be a productive member of the community. They were all wrong, including him. I know this because I am Cristian Gutierrez and Weber State University’s Upward Bound program took me in when all others had closed the door.
Everything that has come to pass, every sight, emotion, and accomplishment connects to that fateful autumn morning when I was called to the office instead of going to second period to meet an individual from Weber State. Little did I know, that conversation was about to influence the rest of my life. I was offered the opportunity to join Upward Bound and they made me a promise that changed everything that day. The emotions engulfed me and I ran to the bathroom, collapsing on the wall, bawling. As I called my mom, all I could mutter was, “I’m going to college mom. Tell dad we did it.” I was 14 years old and someone finally saw me. More than that, they believed in me and wanted to help. Upward Bound changed my life, teaching me to dream bigger and to not only navigate barriers, but push past them when met with resistance. Our American Dream finally felt possible; my family and I are forever grateful because, without Upward Bound, my story would have a different ending.
That call I made to my mom was 15 years ago. At that point, I had accepted the treatment, comments, and directions given to me by my educational gatekeepers as to what my life would amount to. I would love to give you every detail from my past, but you would be reading for 28 years to understand where my pain and joy stem from. There are still days where I feel like this dream will end and I’ll be back in that desk waiting for the bell to ring. As mentioned before, I was told from a young age that I would never be where I am today. At an early age, I impressed teachers with my vocabulary skills and behavior: “You don’t have an accent. You behave differently; you aren’t like the others.” The “others” here are minority students. Whatever their reasoning, imagine being that seven-year-old, trying everything you can to survive and be accepted. I was forced to love nicknames such as “coconut,” because, to them, I was brown on the outside but white on the inside since I was a “good” student.
Countless times, I swallowed my pride, my self-respect, and my innocence as a child, all in an effort to be welcome. I grew to understand that the only people who prize purity of ignorance are those who profit from a monopoly on knowledge. I share this as a taste of what I endured just to be considered worthy of someone’s time. It was a pain I felt every time I worked up the courage to ask for help while bracing for the usual answers, that is, until Upward Bound came into my life. The change was instant and my family learned what kindness and compassion felt like.
My parents moved to this country in search of a better life and future for their children. They had limited access to resources, education, and opportunities to climb any career ladder. They fled El Salvador’s civil war, as refugees, for the United States, leaving behind their careers to work in kitchens, housekeeping, and production. They sacrificed everything to get away from the violence and death, an environment where their child’s first word was, “BOOM!” after the explosions outside instead of, “Mom,” or, “Dad.” El Salvador was a place where they would circumvent bodies of friends and strangers as they went out in search of food, endless stories of trauma that nobody cared about.
Upward Bound became my home away from home. They cared and listened to our story, as it was more than just academics to them. We were more than brown faces. They knew of my struggles at home. My parents had lived in harsh conditions; their bodies had been disfigured. My father required amputation from how severe it got. They endured all of this so that I could have a normal childhood and chase my dreams. I haven’t forgotten how Upward Bound supported me though it all. I found myself and my voice with their help. I’m proud to be Latino. I’m proud to be first generation. I’m proud to be the product of migration and the son of immigrants. Upward Bound’s message to me on my first day, and to my peers, was profound. They taught me to embrace my story, that I was capable and deserving of success, regardless of my background or upbringing. They were going to be by my side through it all, every step of the way. I would never feel alone again.
I had a new sense of purpose and nothing could stop us. I finished high school with a 3.9 GPA and third in my class. I had over 20 college credits to my name and was accepted to multiple schools on scholarships. I didn’t lie when I called my mom all those years ago, and neither did Upward Bound when they committed to me. I was on my way to college and they kept helping me after high school whenever I needed it. As much as my family wanted to help, they couldn’t. We had no idea how to apply to college, let alone the process that continued after getting there. Upward Bound was the constant support and guidance I needed and would have crumbled without.
The dream continued and only got bigger. Every time I had a set back or needed reassurance my guardian angel Upward Bound was there, never asking for anything in return, a truly selfless program full of the greatest people. The staff has changed over time, but the heart and soul remain the same. Dreams do come true, but even I have to admit I never imagined what would follow after my time as a student in the program or the impact it would have on my family. Upward Bound is forever in our hearts; we have a total of four program graduates in my family now and another currently in the program. Upward Bound is responsible for the seven college degrees we share collectively as a family.
Looking back, I don’t think I could have made any of this up or attempted to write a better story.
I’m fortunate this program existed and took a chance on me when no else would. I was the first in my family to graduate from college when I completed my associate degree. That would have been enough to show my parents and Upward Bound that their sacrifices were worth it. However, they never stopped and neither have I. My present life keeps me busy, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have gone on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and this spring graduated with a master’s degree in clinical social work. I am now a therapist at Weber State University and Juvenile Justice Services. I founded Los Dreamers, a national 501(c)(3) with a fellow program graduate where we fundraise to provide scholarships for undocumented students. I created The Latinx Grad Ceremony, the first and only bilingual affinity graduation in any of the state’s institutions of higher education. I created programming which streamlined the admission and advising of undocumented college students, which is now used at all of the state’s institutions.
The most recent and proudest moment to date came this year, when the same school district that failed to protect me, asked if I would serve on their Board of Education. I didn’t hesitate because I owe it to seven-year-old Cristian and Upward Bound to give back to the next generation of students with dreams. I do not share this to brag or boast, instead I would hope that it shines the light on the importance of Upward Bound and how sacred this program has been for so many of us. The amount of lives touched by one program is not hard to see in our community, and words will never truly be able to catch the essence of what they have done for me. As we say in my family, “Da el que quiere, no el que tiene,” or in English, “You give because you have the will, not because you have the means.” And, as we say in Upward Bound, “U.B. GREAT!”
Growing up, education was always important to me. A naturally curious kid, my parents appreciated my questions and guided me to resources that would help me successfully quench my knowledge for learning. I
knew the only way to afford college was to receive scholarships based on my performance in classes and extracurricular activities. After completing high school in Casper, Wyoming, I attended the community college where I struggled to earn an associate of science in general studies in 2008.
I returned to the University of Wyoming in 2012 to complete my bachelor’s degree. While studying Physiology and preparing for medical school, I was invited to join the McNair Scholars Program. My research and this program changed the trajectory of my life. The instant support network and cohort of students navigating higher education as first-generation, non-traditional, or minority students was incredible. My research explored the effects of a high salt diet on pubertal onset in female rats; a study aimed to understand how a Western diet might impact the onset of puberty in human females. I worked with an amazing graduate student and other undergraduates. My experiments were exciting and intriguing. This project took me to Boston during my final year as an undergraduate to present my research at a national conference. I was also selected as one of ten McNair presenters in the nation to travel to Washington D.C. and present at a TRIO conference. Bolstered by these experiences, and with the aid of such amazing mentors at the University of Wyoming, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. so that I could help students like me be successful in college.
I was accepted into a doctoral program at Brigham Young University to study neural tube defects. My research focused on how maternal obesity and diet disrupted the closure of the embryonic structure that becomes the brain and spinal cord. I had many opportunities to work with undergraduate students. I worked as a teaching assistant in whatever capacity I could each semester. Determined to help students overcome the transition from high school to college, I began teaching concurrent enrollment Biology courses at Utah County Academy of Sciences upon my graduation from Brigham Young University in August of 2020. My position allowed me to teach vital skills to students as they took some of their first college science courses during their junior and senior years of high school. I taught an advisory course on college preparation and research, where students explored the many aspects of higher education and undergraduate research.
I recently accepted a tenure-track position at Utah Valley University to teach anatomy and physiology, as well as run a research lab focused on neural tube defects and environmental toxicants. This undergraduate institution is focused on teaching, and serves a large population of first generation, non-traditional, and minority students. I will be able to work with students in similar situations I was in during my time at the University of Wyoming. This job is the fulfillment of everything I set out to do when I decided to apply to graduate school: I get to help students be successful during their transition into higher education. I am so grateful for the opportunities I have to work with students, to watch their eyes light up as they realize they can do it, they can learn those concepts, they can be successful. Teaching and research allow me to ask questions and continue learning every day. My experiences with McNair and TRIO established a foundation of confidence and success that enriches my life and the lives of all the students I get to work with.
When I first enrolled at Snow College, I was very uncertain of my ability to be successful as a student there. I was older than the majority of my classmates and a single mother of a young boy. I was unsure if I would be able to juggle academics, working, and parenting. I worried about how to pay for this college education I was setting out to earn for myself. I felt very overwhelmed and very alone.
The Student Support Services staff at Snow College were a lifeline for me. They helped me with everything from how to apply for Financial Aid, to academic advisement, registering for classes, and helping out with textbooks. Most of all, they were my Badger family — cheering me on, helping me to explore my options for a major, finding daycare, and to look ahead to what I would do after I graduated from Snow College. They built up my confidence in my ability to do the academic work required of me and do it well!
I know without a doubt that the support I received helped me to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout the two years that I was at Snow College and become the Valedictorian of my graduating class. A proverb from my Samoan culture states, “E le sili le ta’i nai lo le tapua’i” which means that the leader in any endeavor is never more important than the community that is supporting him. I know that the encouragement, resources, and support that I received from the TRIO program, played an important part in my success.
When I left Snow College, I was able to transfer to Utah State University with a full tuition and fees waiver. I had guidance from Student Support Services in making that transition which was so helpful and much appreciated. At USU, I completed a Bachelors of Science degree in Mathematics Education with a minor in Biology. I successfully completed my student teaching and subsequently began a career of teaching mathematics.
I have been an educator now for 24 years. I have taught mathematics to students at the middle school and high school levels. I have served as department chair, instructional coach, mentored new teachers, led professional development for USBE and started a People of the Pacific leadership class for students. I earned a Masters of Science degree in Secondary Teaching with an emphasis in Mathematics from the University of Utah. I also have Administrative Supervisory Certification from USU which qualified me to receive licensure from the USBE to work in my current position as an Assistant Principal.
The seeds for the things that I have been able to accomplish, were first nourished and cultivated at Snow College when the Student Support Services program staff took a scared Samoan girl and helped her to see what was possible. In my chosen profession, I have been blessed to be able to pay forward the support and encouragement that I received as a participant in a TRIO program to the students with whom I have worked over the years. The value of the services that TRIO programs provide can never be adequately quantified because as they change the trajectory of just one student’s life, they also have a positive impact that student’s family and community. That impact continues to ripple onward and outward!
I am but one humble recipient of all that a TRIO program provides. However, I will always be very grateful for the ripple of positivity, support and affirmation that continues to bless my life and which has made my journey so rich and meaningful. I know that it has made such a difference to my family, my community and my life’s work.
Fa’afetai tele lava.