I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, a Hispanic boy living in the shadow of USC. One would think that there could be no greater divide. On my side a poor working-class neighborhood; two blocks away, an enclave of students and professors with whom I had little in common. They seemed of a different race, class and educational level.
Those two blocks may have appeared to most as daunting as a castle’s moat. But not to me. I lived in the present — the real world. I chose to see past the obstacles inhabiting that divide to the opportunities that awaited on a campus I knew to be obtainable with enough fortitude.
I was aware of the difference an education could make in my life; my immigrant Nicaraguan parents drilled that value into me — and all of my siblings — from a very young age.
University was an important and necessary milestone that would allow us to achieve our potential. It offered our clearest route to realizing the American Dream.
But if attending university was a checkpoint on the road to the dream, the journey started well before that.
Financier Akir Gutierrez ’95. Photo courtesy of Akir Gutierrez.
My friends, siblings and I saw USC all around us during our childhood. We could glimpse it — the globe atop the Von KleinSmid Center — from our kitchen window; when we would step out into the street to play; when we went to buy groceries.
The university reached out to us in our elementary school classrooms through its students, some of them from USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. These students would deliver lessons and then they would tell us of the things they were doing and learning at the university.
Lectures, labs, projects, independence — it sounded awesome. The students always said USC was for us, too. That we, on the other side of the moat, could be there. Study hard and stay focused, which in retrospect I interpret as staying present, staying ready.
A group of us in the neighborhood took advantage of the offerings USC held for us — sports camps, the open campus, the fields, Heritage Hall. We would even sell programs at the Coliseum during football games. There, Trojans would buy us out of our wares and then invite us to join in the festivities. They would demand to know where we were going to college.
My answer was always clear: “USC.”
I worked hard through elementary and middle schools, earning a scholarship to a prestigious college-prep high school. There, I studied Russian. These were the days of the Cold War, after all, and I wanted to understand the world I lived in — to remain present. When representatives from USC visited my junior class, I sat at the front of the group, eager to learn how the university might help me stay focused as I ventured into that world.
They spoke about the School of International Relations and how a liberal arts education helps students visualize challenges and find effective solutions. I was a young man eager to make a positive impact, and this was USC offering me a path. My choice was sealed.
My studies in IR proved fortuitous, but in a way I could not have predicted. They exposed me to economics and, ultimately, to finance, and as global events led to the Cold War’s end, I was able to stay present, to stay focused.
I leveraged the knowledge IR had given me to forge a new journey. Four days after graduation, I found myself in San Francisco, embarking on a career in finance. That choice has since led me to New York City — across a moat infinitely larger than that of my childhood.
Here, I remain mindful of what has always been key for me in my journey — being present. With my family, my friends, my colleagues, that focus — that presence — underpins every interaction I have. As much as being a Trojan does. As deeply as the drive to Fight On.
Akir Gutierrez is director of research for Susquehanna Financial Group, a global finance company. He lives in New York City with his wife, Michelle, and children, Maya and Dylan. Gutierrez earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations from USC Dornsife in 1995.