Although Norma Gutierrez now lives 3,000 miles from her parents' Honduran homeland, she is living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. As she tells her family tale, "My father's father deserted the family. My dad was the oldest sibling, and he had to become the man of the house and work to support his family.
"He had a great work ethic. He came to the U.S. and served in the Merchant Marine at the end of World War II on the ships that brought home the soldiers. He never graduated high school, but he always told me education was the most important thing."
Any Cadet family that has worked with Gutierrez during her seven-plus years in the college counseling office will tell you that just like her father, her work ethic knows no bounds and she endlessly emphasizes the importance of education. Her main challenge at the Academy? "There are never enough hours in the day.”
"Trying to find time to meet with students is hard because they're so busy. I try to meet with them on weekends or Zoom with them in the evenings. I try to be creative and meet students where they are. Some of the boys are better with email than the others. Some think it's an antiquated way to communicate, so I have to tell them it's important to learn, because that's how their colleges will communicate with them."
Once her Cadets get that message, though, she is almost always impressed with how they appeal to college admissions officers who visit campus. "I'm impressed with how prepared the boys are," she said. "No individual or group or school is perfect, but our boys do what they're supposed to, when they're supposed to do it, and they show up well."
When Gutierrez is not working directly with students, she collaborates on their behalf with faculty, who, she is quick to say, "go above and beyond to ensure students' success." She discusses with teachers an individual students' choice of classes and works with them to enlist the most appropriate and impactful letters of recommendation.
Gutierrez even serves as a go-between for students and teachers to make sure Cadets register for A.P. tests. It seems no task is too small or too large and no number of hours too long. That energy level and commitment stems not just from the work ethic Gutierrez's father taught her, but the fact that she was practically born and raised to work at the Academy.
Her 17 years of Catholic school include graduation from the all-girls Archbishop Chapelle High School in Metairie, LA, and a bachelors in sociology from Loyola University New Orleans. Gutierrez also earned a master's in social work from Tulane University. She served as a medical social worker at Children's Hospital New Orleans, and her married life brought her up the Mississippi River to the Twin Cities.
In her role in undergraduate admissions at the University of Minnesota, Gutierrez learned of an opening at the Academy and made the jump in September 2014. "When I was in admissions at the U," she said, "I saw how well-mannered and polite the Saint Thomas Academy students were. And, having gone to a single-sex Catholic high school, I wanted to go somewhere that felt like home."
Gutierrez also realized that in her earlier years as a YMCA Day Camp counselor, she preferred working with groups of boys. "For example," she said, "when there was conflict between boys, they just spoke their piece and moved on, not like the girls with all their drama. I enjoy the all-male environment. Teenage boys are funny, entertaining characters. Some members of the hockey team have taken to hanging out in our office during flex-time, and there are just some ridiculous conversations."
As much as Gutierrez enjoys her work, it is also extremely serious. The college-application process carries high stakes, whether Cadets are competing for slots in Ivy League schools or striving to land anywhere as their family's first-generation college student.
Gutierrez goes to the wall for all. For example, one recent student who lacked parental guidance needed her help with essay preparation, calls to financial aid offices, and submissions to admissions offices. The project succeeded, putting that student onto a path he probably would never have known.
Between work ethic and belief in the importance of education, one can only think Norma Gutierrez makes her father proud.