By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau
Kassandra Gutierrez knows all about trials and triumph.
She never had the chance to walk at her high school graduation with her classmates because of family circumstances. Five years later, the Redlands, Calif., native represented the College of Education when she delivered the student address Thursday night at Grand Canyon University’s spring commencement.
“My mom decided to leave my family on my graduation,” said Gutierrez. “So this is a huge accomplishment for me. I get to graduate from college, walk and speak. It’s a God-given gift.”
Despite the challenges she faced after high school, Gutierrez enrolled at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, Calif., soon after, with the hope of becoming a nurse. Gutierrez had more responsibilities than most teens – juggling school, taking care of her younger brother and filling in for her mother to help her father. Gutierrez said she often felt desperate for a change, and there were times she questioned her purpose. A turning point came when GCU representatives visited her community college.
“My childhood wasn’t easy. My home life wasn’t easy. Coming home, I didn’t know what I’d come home to. I had no stability. But when I went to school, that was my home, my church and my safe place,” Gutierrez said. “My mother struggled with mental health issues, so growing up I felt a very conditional love. It was always so up and down. We struggled a lot as a family. There would be times we didn’t have water or electricity and we’d be sitting in the dark …”
She went on, “I began to think, ‘Where would I be if I didn’t have those teachers that inspired me?’ Then I heard God say, ‘Trust me.’”
Gutierrez said she was fortunate to go to a private, Christian university that revealed God to her at a young age and showed her unconditional love. She said she knew that, going into the field of education, she could pay it forward to those professors who gave her hope.
Gutierrez graduated with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She plans to complete her student teaching at Saint Francis Xavier Elementary School in Phoenix, where she has been teaching preschool since January.
“My goal is to just be a person that they can rely on and for them to know that no matter what they do I will always love them,” she said. “I love education for the academics, but I love teaching for all the developmental reasons.”
Gutierrez’s said she has also felt inspired by her professor, Jena Akard, who led Gutierrez and 49 of her peers to Alfred F. Garcia Elementary School last fall, where they spent the semester teaching in one of the state’s most impoverished school districts.
“When I first met Ms. Akard, I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. She dips her toes in everything, and I have no excuses,’” said Gutierrez. “And all of the professors at GCU are like that. They’re not settling for what they have – they want to go further. In the Garcia experience I got to see how teaching can impact even the lowest of populations. Ms. Akard brought her light and her students’ light, which, ultimately, comes from God.”
In her speech, Gutierrez said of Akard, “Her energy was captivating. It was inspiring.”
It has inspired Gutierrez to bring that same energy to her teaching career: “I don’t want to teach forever, but I want to be in education forever. Whatever that may look like.”
GCU’s initiative at Garcia Elementary continues to prosper. Akard recently led a celebration of this semester’s student teachers there in which they prayed for the group coming next fall and also heard talks by Dr. Tacy Ashby, GCU’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Educational Alliances, and Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, dean of the College of Education.
Ashby complimented the students for the work that they had done and how their spirit of service really touched and warmed her heart. She also relayed that GCU President Mueller continuously praises their work and that he is very pleased with what they have accomplished.
In her speech, LaPrade also applauded the students’ hard work and dedication.
The teacher candidates presented Jena with some special and meaningful gifts: a framed copy of GCU Magazine with their appreciation messages; a hand painted painting of birds – a mama bird and little birdies (the teacher candidates indicated that Jena was the mama and they were her birdies flying away to make a change); and a children’s picture book that was inscribed by all of the students.
Despite a severe teacher shortage around the country, Gutierrez believes in fighting the fight for her current and future students.
“Unfortunately, there are teachers who are giving up and are frustrated, and I don’t blame them,” she said. “Teachers are obviously not given the respect they deserve. We understand the pay. We understand how people view us, but these children still need a teacher and that adult who is going to teach them to love to learn.
“If I could tell my students anything, I would tell them that I know how many of them want to be astronauts – and I’m all for dreaming big – but be ready because it might change. Regardless, there is a purpose for you out there and you will do great things.”