They worked hard, and they prevailed. Please join us as we celebrate our 136th graduating class of world-changing graduates. We’re highlighting several outstanding Longhorns who have made the most of their undergraduate experience here on the Forty Acres and are working toward making the world a better, more equitable place.
Alexis Allen, Plan II Honors/Government
Just before the start of the fall semester, Alexis Allen immersed herself in the Longhorn experience at Camp Texas, a three-day event hosted by the Texas Exes that shows incoming Longhorns what it means to be a UT Austin student. Surrounded by excited soon-to-be Longhorns, Allen found herself feeling less than enthused.
“I didn’t see many people who looked like me and I got the sense that I wasn’t supposed to be there,” says Allen, a Plan II Honors/government senior. “I later had a talk with my mom about transferring and she insisted that I stick it out. Looking back, I’m so glad that I did.”
Coming from a small, predominately white high school in Houston, Texas, Allen was ready for a change. Yet when she arrived on campus, she saw an all too familiar scene.
“Back in high school, I was used to the lack of diversity and accepted that this is just how things are,” Allen says. “In college, I expected to see a lot of different faces only to realize that more work needs to be done.”
Later into the fall semester, Allen found a counselor recruitment ad for Camp Texas and immediately knew what she had to do.
“When I saw that flyer, I knew I had to apply,” Allen says. “If I could make one person feel like they could find their place at UT, that’s what I wanted to do.”
During her time on campus, Allen has participated in several student groups to inspire more of her peers to join as well.
“I remember meeting an African American student at Camp Texas who told me I was the reason why she joined the Texas Orange Jackets,” Allen says. “Now the Orange Jackets is growing in diversity a lot, but when I first joined I didn’t feel like it was necessarily a space for me.”
Allen is also highly involved in several groups that advocate for underrepresented student populations including the Multicultural Engagement Center’s Afrikan American Affairs student agency and Student Government’s Diversity and Inclusion agency. She is especially proud of her efforts in co-founding the Black Honors Student Association, which works to give students a sense of community through discussions about the minority experience. The idea for this new endeavor, she says, was sparked in her Plan II Honors classes.
“I was one of two Black students in Plan II,” Allen says. “Back when I was a freshman, it was an eye-opening experience sitting in a classroom and not seeing any faculty or students who looked like me.”
Allen credits her encouraging professors and staff members— especially Plan II Admission Director Kerry Pasquale—for helping her bring this idea into fruition. She also gives a special nod to her Black Student Alliance adviser, Richard Reddick, who supported her every step of the way. Since the association was launched, the numbers of African American and Latinx students have been slowly but steadily increasing.
“We have recruitment events to be honest and candid with students about diversity issues on campus, and to show them that programs like Plan II really care,” Allen says. “Many of us in the association attend the freshman recruitment event with Plan II every year to talk to new and prospective students about the space we can offer them.”
Since she was in high school, Allen has always been involved in campus advocacy. Now as she prepares to graduate this May, she plans to take her political pursuits to the next level by attending law school and later working in the public policy arena.
“I’m going to take a gap year so I can get some work experience in the area of public policy,” says Allen. “I’m passionate about education policy, so I want to learn more about affirmative action and how it affects the college pipeline.”
Her best advice to new and returning Longhorns is to take advantage of the university’s resources—including the many professors and advisers who go above and beyond to help students succeed.
“Try everything—and don’t be afraid to do things on your own,” Allen says. “Make college your experience and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Someone knows more than you; that’s something I learned the hard way.”
Evelin Caro Gutierrez, Government/Philosophy
When Evelin Caro Gutierrez came to the United States by way of Havana, Cuba, she didn’t know the English language and had to catch up quickly in her high school ESL classes. While assimilating to a new culture, she and her family bounced from one home to the next until they settled into a permanent home in Houston, Texas.
Despite the setbacks she faced along the way, Gutierrez put in the work, applied for every scholarship and grant she could find and got accepted into UT Austin. Upon arrival on the Forty Acres, she set just one goal for herself.
“During my freshman year, my first and only question was, ‘Is it possible to pass in college?’” says Gutierrez, a government and philosophy senior. “I had this idea that college was an unreachable goal, so I all I wanted to accomplish was to just finish school.”
Now as she prepares for the next exciting phase in her academic journey—Yale Law School—she has accomplished more than she could have ever imagined. In addition to getting accepted into the Ivy League, she was recently named a Dean’s Distinguished Graduate—the highest honor awarded to students in the College of Liberal Arts.
“UT has given me so much access to so many things,” says Gutierrez, who is the president of Minority Women Pursuing Law. “Even in my classes, I don’t feel like I have less of a chance to succeed because of my background.”
In a word, Gutierrez is grateful. She seizes every opportunity that comes her way and has made it her mission to inspire others to do the same.
“Here, we have so many opportunities that so many people would die to have,” Gutierrez says. “I’ve learned to take nothing for granted and to help others as much as I can.”
Early into her undergraduate career, Gutierrez discovered her strengths when she learned how to speak her voice—a freedom that she didn’t have back in her home country.
“At first it was hard for me to challenge other people’s ideas or something we were reading in class,”Gutierrez says. “Growing up, I learned to not question authority and it’s taken a while for me to break out of this mentality of just accepting everything I hear as the truth.”
Now Gutierrez is devoted to helping more refugees who have escaped political oppression. As a Rapoport Service Scholar, she interned at several nonprofits including Sewa International and Refugee Services of Texas. She also spent a semester in Washington DC, where she interned at the Organization of American States as an Archer Fellow. Through this work, she grew more passionate about giving back to the refugee community and ultimately making improvements to the U.S. immigration system.
“I want to help people who are victims of social problems and political oppression,” Gutierrez says. “I can see myself doing a range of things to help underserved communities, but I’m not sure where I’ll end up just yet. As long as I’m helping people, I’ll be happy.”
After completing a challenging yet rewarding five weeks of law school training in the College-to-Career Explore Law program, Gutierrez is ready to become a Yale Bulldog and study at a top-raking law school. She’s especially grateful for her mentor and instructor, Meg Clifford, who motivated her every step of the way.
“I value the people who see things in me that I don’t see myself,” says Gutierrez , who participated in the 2016 cohort led by the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence. “Meg Clifford helped me see that it really is possible to be a lawyer—and that this profession can be used as an avenue for change.”
She also attributes much of her success to her supportive professors and advisers who helped her along her path to law school. She gives a special shout-out to Eric McDaniel, professor of government; Raul Madrid, Government Honors thesis advisor; and Eric Bowles, Rapoport Scholars supervisor.
“I’ve achieved so much because of the people who believed in me,” Gutierrez says. “Having someone say, ‘Yes, you are capable!’ can be life changing.”
Many years from now, Gutierrez will always look at the university’s iconic tower as a beacon of hope for future generations of immigrant students.
“I’m really thankful for this university and the resources it offers me; it has truly changed my life and my family’s life,” Gutierrez says. “I also want to say thank you on behalf of all first-gen students who have benefitted from all of these empowering professors and staff members.”
Steven Santoyo, Communication Studies
As president and founder of Type Texas, UT Austin’s first chapter of the College Diabetes Network, Steven Santoyo has been advocating for disability rights and awareness throughout his undergraduate career. Now as he closes in on his senior year, he has taken his advocacy work to Capitol Hill, where he is interning for U.S. Rep Marc Veasey on the Congressional Diabetes Caucus.
“I’m so excited to experience life on the hill while working for someone who shares a parallel passion,” says Santoyo, a communication studies senior. “I’m fascinated at the prospect of sitting in on hearings as an intern and getting to see what’s happening behind closed doors.”
Santoyo is one of several Explore Law graduates who have been accepted into the competitive Archer Fellowship program offered by the university. During the summer of 2017, Santoyo immersed himself in the intensive law school preparatory program (formerly named DiscoverLaw) offered by the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence.
“That summer I discovered the importance of having all my ducks in a row,” Santoyo says. “I learned that If you want something, there’s a way to get it. At a place like UT there has never been one person who has turned down my request for advice. I am who I am today because of that step forward I made in Discover Law.”
Throughout the rigorous summer course, Santoyo learned how to prep for the LSAT, deliver oral arguments before a panel of judges, and hone his legal writing skills. The greatest benefit of all, he says, was meeting Texas Law Fellow Meg Clifford, who inspired him to explore a new career trajectory.
“Meg Clifford did Teach for America before she went to law school at UT, and she planted that seed in my brain to do the same,” Santoyo says. “She has been a big supporter and I can’t wait to follow in her footsteps.”
After graduation this spring, Santoyo will complete his Teach for America training and return to his hometown of Dallas, Texas to engage students in their studies and help them discover their strengths and interests. As a first-generation male student of color, he hopes to show by example that anything is possible.
“A seventh-grade teacher once told me I could go to UT and Harvard Law,” Santoyo says. “That stuck with me my whole life. So often these students don’t hear these encouraging words enough. My best advice to them is to know yourself, ask for help and truly give it your all. I hope they remember that and think of me.”
As for the long-term future, Santoyo envisions himself back on the frontlines in DC with the goal of making a difference at the policy level.
“I see myself with a J.D. and running for office,” Santoyo adds. “What our country needs is more bipartisan people running for politics. Our country is divided in many ways, but I think only in America, you can have an incredible story and be a source of inspiration.”
Explore Law one of several career-prep programs in the center’s College to Career initiative. Visit this website for more information. Read more about his disability awareness advocacy work.
Kate Strickland, Plan II Honors/Government
When Kate Strickland left her hometown of Cypress, Texas to attend The University of Texas at Austin, she couldn’t wait to jump on her bike and traverse Austin’s hills and valleys.
“As an avid cyclist throughout high school, I was ecstatic to trade in the boring flatlands of Houston for the hilly rides in Austin, going for training rides every morning before school,” says Strickland, a Plan II Honors/Government senior.
Six weeks into her freshman year, everything changed when a car struck her from behind while she was waiting in a left-turn lane on her way back to campus from a morning ride. The impact from the crash left her with a spinal cord injury, rendering her body mostly paralyzed. Eleven days later, she celebrated her 19th birthday in a rehabilitation hospital, where she began to process her new reality.
One year later, she returned to school and rejoined several student groups only to find that her peers, too, had changed.
“When I first returned to UT, I found many of the friends that I had previously made, and even some friends from my high school that also went to UT, willfully ostracized me because they were uncomfortable with disability,” Strickland says.
In her classes, she often sat in the far back corner of the room, the only space relegated for her power wheelchair. Her feelings of isolation intensified during group activities where classmates actively avoided including her in discussions.
“As time went on, I found I could no longer accept this unequal and unfair status quo,” Strickland says. “I discovered my own resiliency and my own voice, in the process of accepting myself for who and what I am, disability and all.”
Knowing she wasn’t alone in her frustrations, Strickland joined several disability advocacy groups on campus including the DisABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition and—most recently—the Student Government Disabilities and Inclusion Agency. While working alongside her fellow group members on training sessions, research presentations and awareness events, she discovered an exciting new twist in her career path.
“Having experienced disability for the last five-and-a-half years, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of accessibility and inclusion,” Strickland adds. “Ideally, I would like to work within the realm of disability law, especially on an international stage.”
Looking back at her academic journey, she is grateful for her supportive government professor, Dr. Rhonda Evans, who offered her a research internship that spurred her interest in disability law.
“She continues to encourage and support me not only in my capacity as a research intern but also with my senior honors thesis exploring the connection between university accessibility standards and the experiences of students with disabilities,” Strickland says.
Strickland will also never forget her beloved world literature professor, Dr. Jerome Bump, who visited her at the hospital while she was recovering from the accident. He even gave extra credit to her classmates for dropping in for visits and showing their support.
“Professor Bump continued to visit and check in on me multiple times over the next year until I finally returned to finish his class, truly making me feel valued and appreciated,” Strickland says.
Now as she prepares to leave the Forty Acres this May, Strickland hopes to impart some wisdom upon new and returning Longhorns.
“I would tell them to be open and kind to everyone,” She notes. “Diversity is part of what makes our university great, and it is imperative to be inclusive of all students no matter who they are.”