Outstanding Islander Kristin Gutierrez ’23 Earns Psychology Degree as Nontraditional Student

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — For Kristin Gutierrez ’23, the road to completing her undergraduate degree was not easy.

“Nothing ever worth having is easy to obtain,” she said. “I see my education as a privilege because not everyone gets the opportunity to pursue higher education.”

It was a road that began for Gutierrez more than 20 years ago at Del Mar College and continued through jobs, her marriage, and the birth of three children. She will accomplish a big milestone when she receives her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology as the Outstanding Islander Graduate for the College of Liberal Arts during the Summer 2023 Commencement Ceremony. The Aug. 12 ceremony is breaking records with 740 students earning their degrees, making it the largest summer class in the university’s 76-year history.

A native of Gregory, Texas, Gutierrez was called to counseling at a young age.

“I fell in love with the field of psychology at the age of 16,” Gutierrez said. “I took my first psych class and was hooked. It was then that I knew what I wanted to study for the rest of my life.”

After a couple of semesters at Del Mar College, “life happened,” she said. She pushed aside her dreams of higher education to raise her family. She also took a job in the service industry — a job she lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was that twist of fate that brought her back to her childhood dream.

 “People always say that once you stop going to school, you won’t want to go back, but that was never true for me,” Gutierrez said. “I love learning, and I knew I wanted to be a counselor.”

With the support of her friends and family, Gutierrez began to explore her options. Since her family lived in the area, the idea of remaining in the Coastal Bend was appealing.

“I have had friends and relatives graduate from TAMU-CC, and they were happy with the quality of their education, so I was confident in my decision that I would also be getting a great education,” she said. “Everyone at TAMU-CC was so welcoming, and becoming a part of the Islander community was effortless.”

Equipped with a Regent’s Access Scholarship and the Behmann Brothers Foundation Scholarship, Gutierrez became an Islander in fall 2021. Because of her scholarships, she was able to balance school and family obligations without having to take an outside job. At the same time, she found flexibility with her course schedule. 

“I would take classes during the day and have time in the evenings to be with my children,” Gutierrez said. “There were a lot of nights when we all did our homework together. At one point, I even took homework with me while I waited to hear my daughter play in the band at a football game. In summer, I took online classes so that I could fully enjoy time off with my kids.”

On campus, Gutierrez also met Islanders who would become family, cheering her on as she worked to complete her goals.

One day on campus, she encountered Dr. Peggy Valdes, who was recruiting for the McNair Scholars Program, a federal TRIO program that helps undergraduate students gain research experience and prepare for graduate school.

A first-generation college student, Gutierrez said she initially dodged the question when Valdes asked her about her graduate school plans. But Valdes persisted, over a period of several days, reminding Gutierrez to apply. 

“When I recruited Kristin to be a McNair Scholar, I actually was more persistent than I am when I recruit other students,” Valdes said. “I saw her potential as a McNair Scholar and wanted to support her to get into graduate school — just like others supported me.”

Gutierrez applied to the program. Within a week, she was accepted, and the course of her life was again changed.

“I was immediately thrown into seminars with other scholars who were also first-gen students,” Gutierrez said. “We all had a lot in common. Being a McNair Scholar has been an invaluable experience and has given me the knowledge I need to succeed in graduate school and beyond. I have made lifelong friends and professional connections. Going to conferences and presenting my research was surreal.”

As a requirement of the McNair Program, she conducted her own original research. She did that work under the mentorship of Dr. Steven Seidel, Professor of Psychology, and Dr. Daniel Bartholomay, Assistant Professor of Sociology, on “Mindsets and Attitudes Toward Alternative Relationship Styles,” which she presented at the McNair Research Conference in August 2022. 

“Drs. Steven Seidel and Daniel Bartholomay have been instrumental in my success as a student and McNair Scholar,” she said. “Through their mentorship, I have learned the necessary skills for conducting research and how to navigate the professional world.”

Beyond academics, Gutierrez has made an impact in the local community as the founder of Comunidad Corpus Christi, a nonprofit that helps people get back into higher education.

“I want everyone to have access to higher education, especially those who are in first-generation households,” she said. “I have helped a couple of people in my community get back into school by showing them how to navigate the admissions process of higher education. Through education, I believe we can uplift entire communities.”

Gutierrez also serves as chief financial officer of The Free Store Corpus Christi, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing houselessness.

“I am on multiple committees within the nonprofit,” she said. “I’ve also encouraged other Islanders to volunteer with our organization or other organizations in the community that are a better fit for them.”

She did it all while balancing her academics and family responsibilities and will graduate Magna Cum Laude with a 3.86 GPA. She will start graduate school at TAMU-CC this fall in pursuit of a Master of Science in Professional Counseling. Following graduate school, Gutierrez hopes to remain in the Coastal Bend, serving those in the community who are not traditionally supported with mental health care.

“My future practice will be committed to treating such populations with compassion, respect, and empathy,” she said. “I am incredibly lucky to have had the support of my family, my husband, my professors, my mentors, and my friends. Without them, none of this is possible.”