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Erika Gutierrez

Student | San Bernardino

“No matter where I go or what I do, CSUSB is my university. It has helped me learn who I am.”

CSU San Bernardino computer science student Erika Gutierrez wants to create robotics that transform the lives of people with disabilities. But it wasn’t so long ago she had trouble even picturing herself at college.

Shy. Timid. Full of self-doubt. Just two years ago, Erika Gutierrez might have used these words to describe herself.

As a freshman at California State University, San Bernardino, Gutierrez enrolled in business courses, thinking her skill in math might lead to a career in finance or accounting. It didn't take long for her to figure out that her talents — and interests — lay elsewhere.

Specifically, she wanted to write code, something she knew she'd need to learn in the School of Computer Science and Engineering at CSU San Bernardino.

"I explained [to a faculty advisor] my worries and nerves about switching into the major," remembers Gutierrez, a Student Assistance In Learning (SAIL) student. The advisor assured the straight-A student that she could definitely learn how to program and code. "[He] brought up my self-esteem and within a matter of days … I switched my major."

That turned out to be just one of many encounters with supportive professors and peer mentors at CSUSB. These are the people on which the 20-year-old computer science student says she relies: "The faculty and staff see my capabilities even when I don't. They push me even when I don't feel that I am good enough ... No matter where I go or what I do, CSUSB is my university. It has helped me learn who I am."

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Breaking New Ground

Born and raised in San Bernardino, Gutierrez didn't plan on going to college. It wasn't that she and her family avoided talking about higher education; they were simply unsure how to begin the process or how they would pay for Erika's education.

It was only through college workshops and conversations with a high school counselor that Gutierrez became intrigued by what a bachelor's degree offered. In fall 2015, she enrolled at CSUSB.

"There is a lot of trial and error involved as a first-generation student," she notes. "But I also feel like this makes [first-generation students] more independent — we have to go out there and find these resources because we don't have our parents or anyone else to turn to for advice or help."

Still, Gutierrez counts her mother and father, Carmen and Mario, as her biggest supporters and her inspiration. When learning coding seemed daunting, she summoned up an example set by Carmen. "My mom was able to teach herself English, so I figured I could teach myself how to use and create these computer programs," she says.

 

​Real-Life Research with Robots

In April 2017, Gutierrez found out she'd earned a spot in Harvard's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, to take place over 10 weeks in summer 2017. Though she was overjoyed to be accepted, the trip would mark the first time she'd ever been away from home. With the encouragement of CSUSB faculty and staff, she accepted. 

While in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gutierrez participated in hands-on computational robotics research, working to create robots that could function well outdoors.

The experience wasn't just fun; it helped cement her post-graduation goal: to work in biomechatronics and develop robotic prosthetics to help people with disabilities, like those with amputated limbs, or stroke victims.

"I find it fascinating to be able to give human capabilities to robots. This could lead to something bigger, to something that could possibly enhance human life," Gutierrez explains.

"I love to help others and am looking forward to seeing how the things I construct and program will help other people throughout my career."

 

I did not let my fears take over. Instead, I challenged them and I came out better and wiser.



A Village of Support

Asked to name those on campus who have helped her, Gutierrez quickly lists over a dozen and then stops. There are just too many, she says, who have made an impact on her these past two years.

"The atmosphere here is so overwhelmingly welcoming and helpful," she says of CSUSB, where 80 percent of students are first-generation and 63 percent are low-income. "We all come from very similar backgrounds and understand each other's struggles."

What she calls "a village of people who have supported me" has given Gutierrez the confidence to succeed. "It is such a great feeling to know that there are all of these people standing behind you, who want to help you reach your goals and dreams," she enthuses.

Clearly, that shy freshman is no more. The self-described extrovert is now president of CSUSB's University Honors Program, special projects coordinator for Associated Students Incorporatedand a member of numerous groups, including the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

And while she's proud of what she has accomplished, the eldest of three daughters wants to be sure that her experience smooths her sisters' —  Monica, 19, and Angelica, 17 — college experiences. 

"College isn't easy, but it is helping to shape who I want to be and where I want to go," she says. "CSU San Bernardino has changed me. I did not let my fears take over. Instead, I challenged them. And I came out better and wiser.

"My experiences have shown me that the road to where I want to go won't be easy, but it will definitely be worth it."



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