Henderson Middle School students greeted Rose Ann Gutierrez, ’12, warmly as she walked the school’s hallways on a recent afternoon. The diminutive young woman with a brilliant smile has become a fixture at Henderson and Boushall, two underserved Richmond public middle schools, where she volunteers three to four days a week.

Gutierrez’s desire to give back to the community and to improve educational outcomes—two themes that have resonated throughout her life—began in the Philippines, far from the halls of Richmond city schools.

Gutierrez’s father left his native Philippines before her birth, seeking better opportunities for his family. In his absence, Gutierrez’s mother worked hard to provide a meager existence for herself and her daughter, while Gutierrez’s father saved money to bring his family to the U.S. When she was seven, Gutierrez and her mother finally joined her father in the U.S.

But life was still not easy for the family.

Neither of Gutierrez’s parents attended college, and both have been working two to three jobs on little sleep for years to provide for Gutierrez and send money back to their struggling families in the Philippines.

The Filipino community in Hampton Roads, Va., where her family settled, offered support and helped care for Gutierrez while her parents were working.

“I was a latchkey kid by age nine and was trained not to answer the door,” Gutierrez said. “My parents didn’t attend many of my award events because they were working. The only thing they asked of me was to get a good education because that was how I could effect positive change for my family and me.

“Filipino culture emphasizes a thankful attitude toward God. Utang ng loob is a Filipino expression meaning, ‘to be indebted.’ My parents told me we should count our blessings and give back. I have an obligation to give back to the community because I have had the privilege of attending UR.”

And give back she does.

Her first year at UR, Gutierrez joined Build It, a Bonner Center for Civic Engagement initiative that places UR students as classroom aides, tutors, mentors, and administrative support in Northside Richmond schools and nonprofits. She began volunteering in a public middle school and has been working with middle school children ever since.

From co-founding a technology initiative at Henderson Middle School, with the aim of bridging the digital divide; to organizing a women’s leadership conference on UR’s campus for middle school girls in a mentoring program; to interning at Boushall Middle School with Higher Achievement, a nonprofit dedicated to the academic success of underserved youth, Gutierrez has been steadfast in her efforts to address educational inequities.

This year, as the Build It student liaison to Henderson, Gutierrez helps Build It program manager Cassie Price manage the 100 UR students currently volunteering weekly at Henderson.

“A lot of things I do in this role involve oversight and structural changes,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve implemented some new training. I think about what we can do to support the UR volunteers leading programs at Henderson.”

Her academic major in sociology and minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies have informed her work. “As a sociologist, I think about structures in our society that contribute to social inequities,” Gutierrez said. “WILL has taught me how to speak out and articulate my thoughts.”

This month the Chaplaincy named Gutierrez a recipient of the Debbie Barkley Spirit Award for her deep commitment to faith, courage in the face of personal adversity, and service to others.

Following her graduation this May, Gutierrez will continue working to improve educational outcomes for children. She has accepted a two-year appointment with Teach for America as an elementary school teacher in Miami, Fla., and plans to pursue a master’s in education and social change at the University of Miami.

“Ultimately I want to work in education policy and reform,” Gutierrez said. “But first I have to work in the community [to understand the issues]. I want to speak for the people who aren’t in the room when policy is being debated. I want to make an impact in every community where I live.”

Photo: Rose Ann Gutierrez, second from left, with Higher Achievement scholars at Boushall Middle School