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An Opportunity Multiplied

group discusses research while sitting on couch
Indira Gutierrez, second from right, honed her research skills as part of Mary Haskett's study on food and housing insecurity among NC State students.

When she arrived at NC State, Indira Gutierrez ’19 told herself she could succeed on her own. 

She didn’t want to ask for help. She had gotten this far. She was working. The situation should be manageable, she thought, and the last thing she wanted was to be open about the fact that it wasn’t.

But then Sarah Wright, her adviser with TRIO – which offers programs that help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to education – provided some tough-love advice that motivated Gutierrez to acknowledge she needed help.

“Things got so much better,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I put myself through that. I can’t believe I let myself struggle.”

The transformation helped shape Gutierrez’s approach to encouraging others to seek assistance through campus resources. “After experiencing how much easier and better my life was once I reached out, I wanted to be an advocate. Whether you need clothes, you can’t get food or your housing is messed up – there are so many ways we can make our lives better. Why be ashamed of saying you’re human?”

Wright was also instrumental in connecting Gutierrez with a role in psychology professor Mary Haskett’s research study on food and housing insecurity at NC State. 

Preparation for the study involved reading about the issue across states and at the national level. “As I was reading these articles and seeing this research specifically on neuro-nutrition, I started really understanding how food affects cognitive abilities,” Gutierrez said. 

The readings reminded her of the food insecurity she herself had experienced and of the children she worked with in after-school care programs, both as an NC State student and when she was in high school in Charlotte. “You could see the difference in cognitive stamina between students who had balanced and regular eating schedules and students who only ate at school or ate a lot of junk food because those options were faster and cheaper. It was always in the back of my mind as I was reading for the project.”

The study helped shape Gutierrez’s multidimensional research interests. “I was thinking about neuro-nutrition but also public health, because that’s a huge part of what we worked on, and also public policy,” she said. The literature review inspired her to add cognitive sciences and biology minors to her psychology major.

During the qualitative portion of the study, Gutierrez and the research team would provide student interviewees with a list of resources and contact information. She continued to be an advocate outside of the interviews, telling “anyone who would listen” about opportunities for assistance, like Pack Essentials.

“These resources can really make life easier for students. Honestly, if we make it to college, we’re there because we want to be there. It’s so heartbreaking when people are struggling, and they have to choose between food or paying rent,” she said.

She witnessed the immediate impact of Pack Essentials on a classmate whose energy and engagement seemed to have dropped as the semester wore on. The classmate revealed that she faced a difficult housing situation, and Gutierrez shared that helpful resources might be available.

The next time she saw her classmate, the young woman met her with hugs and thanks. The issue hadn’t been completely fixed, but she had received quick assistance that made her situation much more manageable. 

“Pack Essentials makes a difference,” Gutierrez said. “As we continue to get funding for those resources, our students will definitely continue to succeed and be able to focus on school, which is what we’re there for.” She notes that she herself might have dropped out if she hadn’t had access to help through TRIO, Pack Essentials and Feed the Pack Food Pantry.

Need-based scholarships and aid, such as the package provided through the Pack Promise program, were also critical to Gutierrez’s experience. When reflecting on what that support meant, she can distill it down to a single, emotional sentence: “Pack Promise is the reason I could go to college.”

The weight behind her words is striking, and not only because of where Gutierrez is today – the youngest person in her Ph.D. cohort at the University of South Carolina, studying the social determinants of health.

Having the support to attend NC State empowered her to pursue her interests – and make the path easier for others.

She’s excited by the way the university transformed its commitment to under-resourced students during her time as an undergraduate and looks forward to seeing how donors enable these efforts to grow and help more people.

And above all, helping people is what motivates Gutierrez. Whether that’s as a researcher continuing to study neuro-nutrition, a graduate teaching assistant who knows how to ask students questions like “Did you eat today?” or a friend who is open about inviting classmates on a trip to the food pantry, she’s committed to finding ways to connect those around her with the resources they need. 

“Without Pack Promise, I really wouldn’t have come to NC State and experienced all these things, learned about myself and met my after-school kids. I wouldn’t have been able to be an influence with the passion that I have. I already had a passion for education and for helping people, and at NC State, it blossomed. It made me want to make change and come to grad school and continue working.”

Gutierrez sees a direct path from her work at NC State to her pursuit of graduate studies. 

“If our research hadn’t had the financial support it had and hadn’t come to fruition, I wouldn’t be here in grad school today,” she said. “It was the research that helped me become a competitive applicant, and now I’m here.”

And not stopping.  

“I am going to continue to do work in this area,” she said. “I’m going to be a professor, and I am going to continue teaching people on top of doing research in whatever area I end up in. It’s all about wanting to better the lives of as many people as possible.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.