Hank Gutierrez credits Fresno State for saving his life.
Gutierrez graduated with a doctorate in educational leadership this year but has a long history with Fresno State. He was awarded the graduate dean’s medal and currently serves as the deputy superintendent for the Fresno County Office of Education.
But he wasn’t always a top performing student.
Gutierrez admits he struggled with his academics. After graduating from Fowler High School with a 2.6 GPA, he was admitted to Fresno State through the university’s educational opportunity program.
“Fresno State took a chance on me,” Gutierrez said. “I started my career at Fresno State with a 2.0 GPA and here I am graduating with the highest honor. I want to thank everyone that supported me.”
Gutierrez did not intend to pursue his doctorate, but he said his wife pushed him to chase this achievement.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t even have even thought of getting a doctorate degree. And, you know, here I am three years later as the dean’s medalist, so it’s been crazy,” Gutierrez said.
On Friday morning, graduates like Gutierrez from the 2020 and 2021 Kremen School of Education and Human Development class got the opportunity to graduate in front of loved ones.
Initially, an in-person graduation wasn’t always going to be the plan.
On March 5, Fresno State said it planned to hold a virtual commencement ceremony similar to the one held last year. But after students pushed back against a virtual ceremony and COVID-19 cases declined in Fresno County, the university made the decision to hold in-person commencements at Bulldog Stadium, the first time the celebration was held there since 2003.
Each graduate was limited to four tickets and had to sit socially distanced. Instead of walking the stage, their name was called and their photo was displayed on a video board.
Friday morning’s ceremony highlighted the Kremen school, where close to 1,200 students took part in this combined graduation.
Graduates were surprised during a video message from Lynda Resnick of the Wonderful Company when she announced that she and her husband raised a $1 million fund to motivate graduates to get involved within their community.
The Wonderful Butterfly Project will provide up to $500 for students to complete pre-approved volunteer work for two days. Resnick said that this will be available for the first 2,000 students to sign up and will create 32,000 hours of volunteer work.
“Never underestimate the powerful impact you can have in your own backyard,” Resnick said. “We hope that this million-dollar gift to your classes will inspire you. Flap your wings, kick up dust and bring a tornado of change down on anyone who tells you that it’s impossible to fix the world. You are the ones who will take to the air and inspire us all to fly higher once again.”
Lizbeth Cortez Villa graduated from the Kremen School with a liberal studies degree and received the dean’s undergraduate medal. She is the first member of her family to graduate from college and said she had to balance many things outside of her education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My mom got sick in the beginning, so that was really tough because we just focused on getting better. And I really didn’t have time to focus on my education,” Cortez Villa said. “It was hard to deal with time management. I had to take care of my siblings, work on my school work. Then, I had to go to class and then work. It was hard to fit everything together.”
At one point, Cortez Villa accepted that her class might not get a graduation but was overjoyed when she found out her family were going to see her graduate.
“Knowing that we had a commencement and being able to have our parents see us was very special to me because I was the first one to graduate in my family,” she said.
Interim Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval presided the ceremony with the help of Kremen School dean Randy Yerrick and interim provost Xuanning Fu. Fresno State Associated Students Inc. President Elizabeth Rocha Zuñiga also addressed the graduating class.
Former Fresno State president and current California State University Chancellor Dr. Joseph I. Castro was in attendance to confer degrees on all the graduating students.
As for Gutierrez, he continues to work with the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. Recently, he helped establish the rural teacher residency partnership, which allows new teachers to begin their career in rural Fresno County communities like Mendota and Firebaugh. Additionally, Gutierrez said he is currently working with the Kremen School to create the first African American teacher pipeline in the Central Valley.
“Educators from the valley definitely have a chance to work with kids that are going to be coming from many different cultural backgrounds,” Gutierrez said. “The beauty of teaching in the valley is you get to see these cultures and really use the students’ culture to be an asset to their learning abilities.”