At the age of 12, Ernesto Gutiérrez Topete ’17 emigrated from his native Colima, Mexico with his family to the United States. Looking for a better life and more economic opportunities, his family ended up settling in a small rural town in Northern California where his father worked as a mechanic and his mother as an agricultural worker, and he and his three siblings went through the public school system.
“My parents knew that the only thing they could offer us for a better future was an education. The best way they could give it to us was to bring us to the U.S. to allow us to study. My parents were always strict about school, even if we were sick. Since elementary school, my mom would be over my shoulder telling me that I needed to finish my homework and go to bed early. They always motivated us to get good grades and to keep studying.”
As an undocumented immigrant (now with DACA status), there would be challenges ahead for Gutiérrez Topete but that didn’t stop him from setting big goals and a high bar for achievement.
So he began to study Spanish in earnest in high school. “I was looking for a career that would get me through college as quickly as possible. I thought because I already spoke Spanish, I could get my credentials quickly and teach at the high school level.”
As he studied more, he says he became fond of Spanish grammar, realizing that the Spanish he spoke at home was not the same to what was being taught in the formal classroom.
"I began noticing other people’s Spanish. I would hear them speak and I would think ‘They did or didn’t do this one thing, in comparison to academic Spanish.’ Or I would compare their Spanish with someone else's Spanish."
He says, “This is how I started thinking linguistics without knowing this field existed.”
Gutiérrez Topete went on to attend Sacramento City College, and it was there that his goals changed. He decided he wanted to teach at the college level and that meant getting a Ph.D.
UC Berkeley was at the top of his list until his English professor recommended Pomona – and, because she was writing his letters of recommendation and helping him with his admissions essays, he sent in one more application to a school he’d never heard about before.
“When I got my acceptance letter from Pomona it was very personalized and a lot of the correspondence was hand signed and that really impressed me,” he recalls. “No other school had done that.”
With a handwritten invitation to visit the campus, Gutiérrez Topete made the trip and that’s what helped seal the deal.
“After talking to a Latina psychology major, she told me about Pomona and her experience as a person of color and first-generation student. She told me all the great things about Pomona but also told me about what I may encounter that is not so great. I really appreciated her honesty.”
For Gutiérrez Topete, being able to talk to a current student and getting this honest review of the College was more valuable than reading something off a website or hearing a speech from a staff member. “It was from a student who lived the same experience I was about to live.”
After he submitted his potential academic interests, Gutiérrez Topete was paired with Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures David Divita as his faculty advisor.
One of the first classes Gutiérrez Topete took was Divita’s Introduction to Hispanic Linguistics. “I was fascinated by this course; it was my favorite,” he recalls. “The following semester he offered a class on bilingualism and our discussions were really amazing. … After that second class, I knew this was the thing. I didn't want to study anything else.”
Gutiérrez Topete is now double majoring in Spanish and linguistics and minoring in French, and has taken advantage of the many resources and opportunities available to him on campus, including the funded research opportunities made possible by the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP).
“I’ve been able to do research these past two summers and that’s reinforced my decision to go to graduate school.”
Gutiérrez Topete is also part of the inaugural Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF) cohort at The Claremont Colleges. The program is designed to identify and support underrepresented students interested in earning a doctorate in the core fields of arts and social sciences and becoming future faculty.
“I have faced a lot of challenges to achieve my DACA status but coming to Pomona was really a blessing. Pomona is perhaps one of the most DACA-friendly schools—if not the most—in the nation.”
His family is proud of him and very happy about all the opportunities at Pomona that he’s taken advantage of, he says. And with two other siblings also finishing their bachelor’s degrees, there’s much to be proud of in the Gutiérrez Topete family.
Currently, Gutiérrez Topete is working on his thesis and on his graduate school applications to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Spanish linguistics.
“I think that the resources Pomona offered me throughout my three years have helped me get much closer to my career goals than any other school could have done.”