Cathy Gutierrez grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y., with a single, hard-working mother and a younger sister suffering from many health issues. They often had to rely on state assistance to get treated for common childhood illnesses because there just wasn’t any money to spare.

Come July, she’s headed to Harvard Medical School on a full scholarship with a dream of making healthcare more accessible to children in the United States and around the world.

“I never dreamed I would be attending Harvard,” said the 22-year-old University of Central Florida student. “My mom still can’t even believe it. Here is proof that hard work and perseverance really will open doors you never even knew existed.”

Gutierrez will graduate Saturday from UCF magna cum laude with a 3.96 GPA and two bachelor’s degrees in molecular biology and microbiology, and biotechnology during one of six UCF ceremonies this week. 

The Orlando resident attributes much of her success to supportive family, peers and the many influential mentors she met along her journey. It was these mentors who saw her potential, drive and determination and who helped the first-generation college student channel her efforts during some of the most challenging years of her life.

“I wouldn’t trade my experience at UCF for the world,” she said. “This is a place that holds something unique for everyone: For me, it meant countless opportunities, incredible faculty, and above all, great guidance from people who truly cared about me and my goals.”

It was one of her teachers at Osceola High School in Kissimmee who initially suggested she go to Valencia College, an affordable option that would still allow Gutierrez to remain close to her family.

Gutierrez earned her Associate in Arts degree one year after graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA, and was awarded the merit-based DirectConnect to UCF scholarship to use as a stepping-stone to UCF. Upon acceptance to UCF she earned numerous grants and scholarships, including the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship.

“That route really did make things a lot easier in terms of finances. It’s amazing to know that there are so many resources out there for good students from all walks of life,” she said.

At UCF, Gutierrez participated in numerous internships, such as the Surgical Internship Program and the PILOT Program (Peer Instruction and Laboratory Occupational Training), while simultaneously taking challenging courses, getting involved in extracurricular activities and working full- and part-time jobs.

She became a National Healthcareer Association certified phlebotomy technician in order to draw samples for her current research study, investigating the correlation between lead poisoning and neurological disorders among children in underserved areas of Colombia. She describes many of her professors and program mentors as being monumental in creating the path to her future.

Her impressive resume includes hundreds of community-service hours and numerous academic awards.

When she was first accepted at Harvard Medical School, Gutierrez said she had her reservations. Did she have what it takes to succeed at Harvard?

“I think this is a natural concern when facing some of the most intelligent students in the nation,” she said. “However, my orientation at Harvard put many of those fears to ease. I found that I was very well prepared for the modules covered and that my UCF education had definitely provided the foundation I needed to excel. I came back and thanked all of my professors for an amazing undergraduate experience, and I’m grateful to UCF for that, too.”

Much of her academic work and volunteer time has been spent on issues that relate to children’s health. She said she still remembers some tough days when her family had to wait for medical care because they couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor’s office.

“If it weren’t for Medicaid, or Medicare for my mom, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Gutierrez said. “It really made all the difference, and that’s one of the reasons why I want to become a doctor and why I want to help children.”

Among the most memorable activities while at UCF, she said, was helping to organize a barbecue for more than 100 children born with HIV/AIDS and their families in Central Florida. She enrolled in a service-learning class, which not only had her focus on a project to benefit the community but also gave her the opportunity to really connect and get to know how a disease goes beyond health implications. She met with families and saw first-hand the impact HIV/AIDS was having on their lives.

“It’s stuck with me,” Gutierrez said. “It was something we did for them to let them be kids, you know, just kids for a day.”

Making the delivery of healthcare better for children is one of her goals. That’s one reason she said she picked Harvard Medical School over others. They offer a top-rated medical-degree program and one of the best public-health degree programs in the nation. She plans to earn both.

“I’ll practice for sure, probably in pediatrics,” she said. “But I want to be part of healthcare policy changes nationally and internationally. I want to make a difference.”

In her spare time, Gutierrez loves to sing. In high school she was a member of the All-State Women’s Choir and she continued her singing at UCF through the College of Medicine’s a cappella group, where she is a soprano.

She’ll be humming songs of celebration Saturday as her mother and sister look on from the audience at the CFE Arena.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “I still can’t quite believe it.”

Cathy Gutierrez is scheduled to graduate during UCF’s College of Medicine commencement ceremony at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at the CFE Arena. For details about all of this week’s ceremonies, go to