Penn Social Work Student Learns Lessons of Hard Work and Justice for Immigrants

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820March 28, 2013

It began at age 5, long before she came to the University of Pennsylvania.

During school breaks, while other students vacationed or went to camp, Jennifer Gutierrez was working.  At first, she worked as an interpreter for her mother who did not speak English.  And as she got older, she helped her mother clean houses.

“My older sister and I managed her growing business and set up estimates and anything else that required communicating with clients,” Gutierrez remembers.

Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Gutierrez is the daughter of immigrant parents.  Her mother is from Mexico, her father from El Salvador.  Both left their native countries in search of better opportunities. 

“I have gotten firsthand experience of how underserved certain communities are,” she says. “Growing up I did not understand why the schools I attended were underfunded and crowded nor did I understand why my family did not have health care; what I did know was that something was not right about this all.”

She completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a legal-studies concentration and political science at Bucknell University, where a professor introduced her to the idea of social work as a profession.

But, Gutierrez was looking for a graduate school that would immerse her among strong, open-minded students like herself, who were committed to bringing social change.  And Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice did just that.

Her mentor at Bucknell reassured her that not only would Penn’s Social Policy & Practice deliver a top-notch education in the field of social work, but also it would be a place where Gutierrez could feel comfortable.

“With the quality of social work training the School offers, I knew I would become a knowledgeable, well-trained social worker who would gain the skills to advocate for communities that are neglected and deprived of opportunities to better their current situations,” Gutierrez explains.

Now 23, Gutierrez is a full-time student who will walk down the aisle in May with a masters of social work degree.  Her area of study focuses on the “macro track,” examining the bigger picture of public service programming and policies that impact marginalized communities.

As a social-work student with an intimate knowledge of the challenges and opportunities facing this particular population, Gutierrez has chosen to work with and advocate on behalf of immigrants and their families.

As a graduate student at Penn, she holds leadership positions in the student government and Hispanic Alliance for Change and is an active member of Equity, Social Work Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Students for International Social Work

Her experience at Penn is the Ivy League icing on the accomplishment cake, but the basic ingredients came from the many years she worked alongside her mother, learning many practical lessons:

  1. Be proud of who you are and where you come from.  “My mother has taught me that what we do for a living does not define us; it is what we do to help others and how we overcome in very difficult times that truly sets us apart,” she says.
  2. Do everything to the best of your ability. “It is difficult work, however, my mother has taught me to apply that same mentality of not giving up in everything that I do.”
  3. Persevere and be determined to succeed. This is the most important lesson, she says. “Had I listened to some of the hurtful things I heard while working with my mom, I probably would not be where I am today.  I feel like I have been part of many worlds, which ultimately prepares me to be the best social worker I can be.”

Gutierrez has been honored with a Women of Color at Penn Award for her volunteer activities and her work with the Latino and African-American communities in Philadelphia. 

Specifically, Gutierrez was honored for her work with the 2012 Obama re-election campaign to register voters and served as a staging location director in West Philadelphia, as well as for her work with Philadelphia’s immigrant communities.  Not only does she work in her field placement with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, but also she has planned a day of lobbying against anti-immigrant legislation; she’s planned and participated in public actions for immigrants’ rights; and she is the program manager for “Know Your Rights,” a training program to educate immigrants about their rights.  In addition, she continues to support women through women’s ministry at her church and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

“No social worker does the work that they do for the acknowledgement or recognition,” Gutierrez explains. “So it felt amazing to be recognized for the work that I do.”

In fact, at the Women of Color luncheon, Gutierrez was reminded about how selfless professional caregivers, like herself, can be.  “At the luncheon, one of the honorees mentioned that we do not take enough time to just sit and process what we do or the impact of our work.  We just constantly do,” she says.  “This award helped me to take a step back and look at what it is that I am doing and I feel like I am working in the right direction.  I want to be a role model for young women of color and the award made me see that I am.”

Looking forward, Gutierrez plans to continue her quest for social justice.  She hopes to find a position where she can influence social policy in some way, so that her work can have a larger impact on the immigrant populations she serves.