First Gen Undergrad Making Big Difference In Community

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Britney Gutierrez Calderon ’24 grew up in the Canal neighborhood in San Rafael, located only a mile away from the Dominican University of California campus. However, for much of her childhood, attending college often seemed out of reach.

“My parents did not go to college and didn’t know how to advise me about college or help me navigate the system when I was applying to college,” she recalls. “It was something that I had to do myself.”

Good grades, the desire to focus on a career in which she could help others, and the tenacity to navigate the college process landed the San Rafael High School graduate at Dominican. The appeal of a direct-entry nursing program and the university’s location close to her family home – where she could remain close with her parents and three siblings – were the primary draws.

Once in college, however, Britney felt a sense of disconnect from others in her classes.

“At times I felt anxious about the way I thought people might view me,” she says. “I didn’t want people in my classes to think that because I am Latina, I can't do a certain thing or that my knowledge is limited compared to their knowledge.”
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An eye-opening experience her freshman year led Britney on a path of community engagement and a series of on- and off- campus connections and experiences that not only have helped her overcome her doubts, but also become a champion for others. She seized these opportunities during the pandemic.

“What really helped me start to feel connected to Dominican my freshman year was my Service-Learning class,” Britney says.

Britney’s first Service-Learning projects included working with adult students attending English as a Second Language (ESL) Zoom classes offered through Canal Alliance. She also worked with young school children participating in the Marin County Free Library’s Reading Buddies program, which pairs Dominican students with youth to read together weekly in a program aimed at improving literacy and closing the education gap in marginalized schools and communities in Marin.

Britney recalls feeling a strong connection with her students, as many of their issues and concerns mirrored those of her own family. 

“I was meeting different people and connecting what we learned in the class with the wider community. This really made me more aware of my surroundings, as well as of the structural issues around us. It really opened my eyes.”

When the class ended, Britney declared a Community Action and Social Change minor in order to remain connected to Dominican’s Service-Learning program.

Another Service-Learning experience also helped Britney view her own community in the Canal neighborhood in a new light.

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Last year, Britney worked with community leaders who are members of the group Voces del Canal on an advocacy project to improve safety by increasing public lighting throughout the Canal neighborhood. Under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Lucko, program director of Dominican’s master’s program in education, Britney and other Spanish bilingual Dominican students worked alongside Voces del Canal as they advocated for these – and other – Canal priorities.

“This work changed my view of my community,” Britney says. “Most of the time we are told that we are part of a ‘marginalized’ community and that term is used in a very negative way. But working with Voces del Canal on the street lighting project, I saw so many assets that my community has and how the members of my community were also leaders.”

“Many members of Voces del Canal are low income and speak only one language, yet they were able to bring this issue to the city and say that things needed to change. They are leaders, and they live in a community that cares for each other. I saw change in action. I was there when they presented to the San Rafael city council, and I saw how the council really listened and took all the issues presented into consideration.”

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During the academic year, while she was involved with the Voces del Canal project, Britney was enrolled in the two foundational Community Action and Social Change classes. Dr. Emily Wu, the instructor, shared that, “Britney displayed really strong analytical skills and a deep understanding of the structural inequities at play as well as the importance of centering the lived experience and knowledge of community members who are really the experts in what needs to change in their community.” Click here to read an excerpt of Britney’s final paper.

This realization, Britney says, was empowering. It also inspired her to deepen her own work in the Canal community. She was hired as a summer intern at Canal Alliance to work on a new project focused on increasing civic engagement in the Canal community and encouraging youth to register to vote.

During the internship, she helped to arrange outreach to local youth. The work included developing voter registration materials in both Spanish and English, tabling outside Canal Alliance every Tuesday and Saturday, producing videos to run on social media, and presenting to youth-focused organizations such as Huckleberry Youth Programs. Britney also organized and participated in canvassing several neighborhoods in San Rafael and beyond and, later in the summer, was invited to talk about voter registration on a local radio channel.

The work has changed Britney’s perception of voting.

“I used to feel that voting did not matter, but through this internship I have been able to see that voting is very important, especially for the Latino community. To receive the right education and to have to make your voices heard. We need to get the Latino community to realize that changes are possible, but they need to vote to make the changes happen. Voting is not just important to one person but also to the people around them.”

This fall Britney will continue with her work in the Canal as an EDJE Student Fellow, supporting Dr. Lucia León, assistant professor of Latino Studies and Social Justice, and the Latinx Studies Class in their ongoing partnership with Voces del Canal. Britney also is continuing to support voter outreach and civic engagement with Canal Alliance. Additionally, as an EDJE fellow she is sharing her experience and encouraging other Dominican students to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Service-Learning program to deeply engage and learn with community partners as she has.

Through her nursing major, Britney is working on a nursing clinical placement at Aldersly retirement home in San Rafael this fall. The experiences she has gained while connecting with the greater community have impacted the way she will view her own patients.

“I will take a holistic approach with my patients by looking at not just their physical health, but also their mental and spiritual health to understand their needs,” she says. “This is something I will continue to do as a nursing professional.”

Today, thanks to those earlier experiences, Britney is determined to show other first-generation students that “anything is possible.”

“I want to present my ethnicity and show people that Latinas and Latinos can also become nurses, engineers, doctors or whatever it is they want to become,” Britney says. “I do want others to understand that first-generation students have it harder in many ways. Not to undermine the hard work of others, but there are things that we must work at a little bit harder simply because we are the first in our family to do it and don’t have someone guiding us or handing something directly to us.”

Photo of Britney Gutierrez Calderon '24 posing in front of wall mural outside Canal Alliance

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