Lizbeth Cortez Villa is a first-generation college student and immigrant who came to the United States in hopes of achieving her parents’ dream – pursuing higher education. She instilled within herself a strong drive to excel in education. Because of this, Villa was able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies while working her way through college.
During summer and winter breaks, she would work in the fields and during the semester she found jobs that allowed her to prioritize education. Being dedicated to her education resulted in receiving multiple scholarships which helped make her educational journey possible.
Villa is the oldest sibling in her family. She grew up caring and helping those around her, not only in the home but also in the classroom. “As a young student, most of my teachers paired me off with students who were non-English speakers,” said Villa. “And I would be in charge of translating what we were learning.”
At first Villa enjoyed the opportunity to help her peers but she realized it was jeopardizing her own education. Now that Villa has graduated, she plans to enroll in Fresno State’s Multiple Subject Teaching Credential program to bring awareness into the classroom and better the education system when it comes to working with migrant students who face language barriers.
While pursuing her undergraduate degree, Villa became a Scholar in Service with the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning. She completed over 640 community service hours, most of which at the Wesley United Methodist Church. At Wesley she worked on many events with the community, doing blood pressure checks, handing out food, and bridging the gap with law enforcement. Now she has been offered a job as a Sunday School teacher at Wesley.
“Her ability to adapt, leadership skills, and self-motivation, prepare her beautifully,” said Mayra Cubos, Wesley Non-Profit Administrator. “I know she will excel in her field and go on to change many lives for the better.”
In addition to being a Scholar in Service, Villa also received the Undergraduate Dean’s Medalist award from the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. She is a distinguished graduate who strives far.
“My goal is to open a nonprofit organization that will provide support for families and students in the Valley,” said Villa. “I hope to inspire the young minds of our generations and prove to them that we are capable of so much in this world.”
The journey for the only son of a single mother from Fowler who battled poverty to raise him while he excelled in basketball – but barely kept afloat on his grades – reached a major plateau Friday (May 14) morning when Henry ‘Hank’ Gutiérrez received his doctorate in education at Bulldog Stadium.
He went from entering Fresno State as a special admit through the Educational Opportunities Programs (EOP) to earning a 4.0 GPA and the graduate level dean’s medal from the Kremen School of Education.
“EOP will always be a part of my educational heritage,” said Gutiérrez, a 50-year-old father of two. “I want to thank Fresno State because they took a chance on the right kid.”
Twenty years ago, he earned his master’s at Fresno State.
Gutiérrez, the Fresno County deputy superintendent of educational services, helps provide services for 32 school districts and numerous charter schools that serve almost 198,000 students.
He wants his doctorate to serve as an incentive for kids like him. He remembers very well “standing in line for that long block of cheese with my grandmother or paying for our milk and bread with stamps used as money.”
The doctorate, he said, “boils down to showing kids, showing Hispanic kids, that we can achieve at the highest level.”
“I want to be a role model at the very core of my existence,” said Gutiérrez, a 1988 graduate of Fowler High School where he was a basketball standout and once ran against the vaunted McFarland High cross country teams during their heyday.
“I just want to be a role model to all kids – that particular kid from Fowler where I grew up – to show that no matter how you grew up, no matter your trials and tribulations that education is our key out of poverty.”
Gutiérrez decided to get into education when he became a junior high basketball coach.
“I really fell in love with the interaction with kids,” he said. “I really thought my path would evolve into some sort of leadership role and leadership capacity with kids.”
Being raised without a father probably made Gutiérrez take a liking to providing coaching and teaching lessons to children that he never got at home from a dad.
Coaching Experience Motivated Him to Get Into Education
“I told myself that if I wanted to continue coaching basketball, I probably should pursue a teaching credential so that I can really stay involved in the educational system,” said Gutiérrez, who has served as principal of Fowler High and later Washington Union.
His first teaching job was at Lane Elementary. His first administrative position came in 1999 when Sunnyside High opened.
In 2014, he was honored as the Fresno County administrator of the year when he was at Fowler. Leaving his alma mater for Washington Union was difficult, but it was part of his plan to build his leadership skills.
The two-decade break between his master’s and doctorate degrees also allowed him to build up his leadership skills.
“I just immersed in all kinds of leadership experiences and life experiences that really prepared me to take that leap of faith to get into the doctoral program,” said Gutiérrez. “It really made the rigor of the program and the focus for me that much easier.”
The doctorate (his thesis was ‘The Enactment of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: A Case Study of One Elementary School’) should open more opportunities for him in education.
“I’m just learning how to lead an organization, and I’m happy leading and assisting,” he said about his current job. “I don’t know what my future holds. Only time will tell, but I know that with this doctoral degree I’m better equipped.
“I put myself in the driver’s seat for any leadership role that I aspire to.”
Jim Yovino, the elected superintendent in Fresno County, first met Gutiérrez when he was principal at Fowler High.
“There was something special about him,” said Yovino. “It’s that quality to get people to move in a direction that’s going to help kids and families.”
Yovino praised Gutiérrez’s confidence while remaining kind and compassionate.
“That’s really hard to do, and he does it really well,” said Yovino, who hired Gutiérrez as an assistant superintendent and about a year ago elevated him to the deputy superintendent position.
“I’m just incredibly proud of him,” said Yovino. “I just think he’s got all the right qualities a leader should have.”
Mother, Wife Have Influenced Him
Gutiérrez, in previous interviews and in public appearances, has mentioned the critical role that his mother, Henrietta, played in his life.
He remembers graduating from Fresno State in 1993 and spotting his mother in the audience.
“I still remember that moment, walking into Bulldog Stadium and finding her in the crowd. I saw her standing up,” he said in 2014. “That type of emotion she had drives you to keep on reaching for the next successful eclipse in your life.
“My accomplishments were a testament to what her aspirations for herself were, but maybe she didn’t have the means because she was raising me. I need to achieve these goals because I’m kind of living for my mother and myself at the same time.”
His wife, Lisa, a financial consultant, has kept him motivated. Gutiérrez compares her to what Mary Castro is to CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro.
“She’s my First Lady,” he said.
In his dissertation, he praises her support.
“You inspired me to be brave and conquer this dream. I simply could not have finished this dissertation and the entire program without your sacrifice, love, and support,” he wrote. “My life’s dreams and future goals are centered around you and for you. Together, we can do anything and we “always win!”
The late Justin Garza – the Central High football coach whose name will grace that district’s newest high school – introduced Gutiérrez to her.
Gutiérrez remains a big fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and of superstar Michael Jordan. As a 6-foot-3 center at Fowler, he led the Redcats to the Valley finals before they lost to Immanuel.
He received an email from the dean of the School of Education notifying him of the dean’s medal.
“When I first read the email, I had to leave a few times and make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it. It was like a moment frozen in time where I realized all my hard work had been recognized.”
Misty Her remembers walking her son Ryan, then only 2 years old, from their apartment across the street from Fresno State toward the Kremen Education Building to meet her husband after he finished class.
She told Ryan that he could attend Fresno State someday.
She and her husband, Phong Yang, met at the University. She earned a degree in liberal studies. He earned a French degree. They got married, started a family and supported each other through master’s programs also at Fresno State — Her in school supervision and administration while Yang studied linguistics.
Fresno State was the obvious choice when it was time for Ryan to choose a college, he said. It was close to home, it has a good reputation and he could catch a ride with his dad, who works at the University.
While their Fresno State ties are strong, Ryan’s parents insist they never pressured him to become a Bulldog. Yang, now director of admissions and recruitment at Fresno State, jokes that he would have been the first to recruit his son. But their children, including daughter Grace who is a Fresno State sophomore, and youngest son Gabriel, a fifth-grader in the Fresno Unified School District, have the opportunity to go anywhere and discover themselves, their parents said.
Ryan graduates Fresno State in May with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. In the fall, he heads to the University of Nebraska for law school with a goal of working for an organization where he can defend First Amendment rights.
“These last two years went by really fast,” Ryan said. “I’m very excited to be graduating, particularly because I’ve been accepted to law school where the stuff I want to learn and what I want to work in will be at. Let me go, already!”
For Her, she still sees little Ryan.
“I feel like I just brought him home. I still see him as this little boy. I can’t believe that he’s graduating,” she said. “He’s worked really hard. He said, ‘I’m going to go and finish in four years’ and before you know it, four years is already here.”
Ryan grew up in his mom’s Fresno Unified classrooms watching her decorate the boards on the wall for her students. Then he watched her climb through the administration ranks to her current post as the district’s deputy superintendent.
The Top Dog Alumni Awards has acknowledged exceptional alums since 1953. Fresno State honorees have included astronauts, politicians and U.S. Olympians. Over the years, the Kremen School of Education and Human Development has honored a variety of leaders in education and counseling. This year we are unable to celebrate our honorees in-person, but we can celebrate together virtually.
Watch the Awards Ceremony Live
Tune in for a one-hour televised special of Fresno State’s Top Dog Alumni Awards.
With a legacy of more than 355 recipients since 1953, the Top Dog Alumni Awards is a proud Fresno State tradition. This event honors alumni and friends who embrace the Bulldog spirit through dedication to their field and commitment to community.
Sunday, April 18 Live on ABC 30 at 7 p.m.
Live-stream also available at abc30.com and on all ABC connected apps.
Three Kremen School Alumni Are Among the 2021 Top Dogs
2021 marks a special year when three Kremen School graduates are being recognized for awards at the annual Top Dog event. Dr. Maria Maldonado is the Kremen School of Education and Human Development honoree, Dr. Robert Nelson is the Division of Research and Graduate Studies honoree and Frank Johnson Sr. is the Henry Madden Library honoree – all alumni of the Kremen School. Read more about these extraordinary graduates below.
Maria Maldonado, Ed.D.
Kremen School of Education and Human Development’s Top Dog
2000 – M.A. in Education, Administration and Supervision
2006 – Professional Administrative Services Credential
2016 – Doctorate in Educational Leadership, P-12
Maria Maldonado vividly remembers moving to the U.S. when she was 13: “It was summer and the sprinklers on both sides of the freeway were going and everything was green and beautiful and clean. In between all of the really difficult things that we were going through, it felt like this would be a good home, that we would eventually be OK.”
Now retired as assistant superintendent of English Learner Programs and Services at Fresno Unified School District, Maldonado was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. Her father was a migrant worker who often came to the U.S. for work, and when he passed away in this country, Maldonado’s mother came to the U.S. for her father’s services. She spent two weeks in Fresno with her brothers and fell in love with the city.
2004 – Professional Administrative Services Credential
As the superintendent of Fresno Unified School District, Nelson believes in the power of education to combat the negative connotations people associate with Fresno. He says, “We have systemic poverty in the Valley, and education is the ticket out … My job is to make sure that every single door is available to [students] to do the widest array of things. This is like a calling for me: to try and make things better.”
Nelson, originally from Sacramento, earned his bachelor’s degree at USC in 1991. He met his wife in Fresno that same year, while singing at his cousin’s wedding. Nelson moved to Fresno and began working as a sixth-grade teacher at Burroughs Elementary School that fall.
After earning his master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision from Fresno State in 1996, he held positions as a resource teacher, technology specialist, vice principal, principal and human resources administrator. In 2012, he became the superintendent of Chawanakee Unified School District in Madera County.
The sixth of ten children, Frank Johnson, Sr. was born near Hope, Arkansas in 1939. Very early in his life, Johnson learned to value education. In 1943, his parents, Irene and Odell Johnson, Sr., moved the family to Imperial, California, to escape racism and to seek better schools, colleges and jobs for their children. Five years later the Johnson family settled in Fresno, when his oldest brother Roland accepted a scholarship to play football for Fresno State College.
Johnson graduated from Fresno State in 1963 with a B.A. degree in education and holds several credentials in the field of education and counseling. After graduation he began a 16- year-career with the West Fresno School District and his roles included teacher, counselor, principal and most notably, the first African American superintendent in the Central Valley. In 1977, Johnson was honored as the “California School District Superintendent of the Year” by the members of the California Black School Board Association. The award honored his innovative changes in the West Fresno School District, including smaller classes, increased teachers’ pay and major renovations and repairs to buildings on campus. Additionally he was credited for improving the curriculum that resulted in increases in the students’ California Achievement test scores.
To say 2020 has been a stroll through the park would be an understatement. Our K-12 teachers have been forced to become tech-savvy educators and parents working from home have had to become homeschool teachers. Whether you are a teacher or a parent, this year has taught us that we are all educators.
Being an educator in this virtual environment is not easy. Most of us have found that the work never ends and our focus is permanently on the quality of the education. That is why we want to make this holiday season special. Whether you know a teacher or a parent, they deserve to be recognized.
A holiday gift to an educator can be from a spouse, a child, a principal, a student, or an entire class. Words of encouragement can be a gift alone that will put a smile on their face. If you would like to purchase a gift, below are unique Fresno State gift ideas. And remember, educators are true champions in our book and their educational impact can last a lifetime.
Commemorative Brick on the Teachers and Friends of Education Honor Wall
Since a teacher’s impact on a child’s education can last a lifetime, why not gift them with a permanent commemorative brick. Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development houses the Teachers and Friends of Education Honor Wall. It is here where educators in the Central Valley and around the world are honored with commemorative bricks. These personalized bricks showcase the impact educators have on all those around us.
Purchasing a brick is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only can you go visit the brick with the teacher you are commemorating, in addition, all of the proceeds go directly to funding educational technology for Fresno State students. As we know, technology is continuously changing, and staying current is important for our future Central Valley teachers.
Support a Fresno State alumna by purchasing “Fresno State: First Words/Primeras Palabras”. A bilingual children’s book aimed at increasing parent engagement and fostering college readiness for young children. The book takes readers on a tour of the Fresno State campus using introductory words in both English and Spanish.
A graduate of the School Counseling program, Perla Solorio, authored the book with the intention of promoting early biliteracy and showing all young children that they can go to college.
If you are teaching in a classroom or teaching in your kitchen, your morning starts the same, with a warm cup of coffee. The Fresno State Kennel Bookstore offers a variety of drinkware, from a mug to a water bottle, a tumbler, and more. Show your Fresno State spirit by providing an educator with a classic Fresno State coffee mug or holiday glitter thermal mug.
With some classes teaching in-person, the safety of teachers and students is of the utmost importance. However, finding a face mask that is comfortable is not always easy. These Fresno State face masks have three layers, including two layers of 100 percent cotton and a middle layer of a melt filter. Along with high quality elastic, fitting multiple face shapes, these masks are perfect for any Fresno State alum. Sold by the Kennel Bookstore, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to organizations supporting COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.
For Breanna Aivazian, a chance to save money on college by living at home felt like a gift to her future self.
For Byanca Leyva, a meaningful job at her high school alma mater felt too good to pass up.
Aivazian and Leyva are just two among dozens of Fresno State alumni this fall who have landed new jobs teaching English and language arts at area high schools. Aivazian teaches freshmen and juniors at Clovis East High School, and Leyva teaches sophomores at McLane High School.
They are among a steady stream of newly minted Fresno State graduates each year who earn a single subject teaching credential in English, and then within a year find themselves immersed in the day-to-day life of a high school classroom, doing the job they’ve trained for.
“Usually, they all get jobs right away,” said Dr. Alison Mandaville, a professor of English who serves as faculty adviser for the English credential program.
Although there were only 18 credential graduates in 2019-20 — “it was a weird spring,” Mandaville said, due to the coronavirus pandemic — the program typically graduates 30 to 40 credentialed English teachers each year. Area school districts remain eager to scoop them up.
Some students, like Aivazian, come to the English credential program through other majors. Most students, like Leyva, come through the undergraduate English education major.
Born and raised in Fresno, Aivazian said she sees herself living and teaching in the Central Valley “forever.” She appreciated the chance to stay close to home while affordably putting herself through college and starting her career. “My future self is very thankful for the decision,” she said.
As an undergrad, Aivazian wasn’t sure yet what grade level or subject she ultimately wanted to teach, so she majored in liberal studies through the Kremen School, before pursuing the English credential.
“I’ve known since a young age that I wanted to be in the field of education,” Aivazian said. “I wanted to be able to explore different options before making a decision.”
Aivazian received several scholarships from the Armenian Studies Program that supported her undergraduate work. She took four “invaluable” Armenian Studies culture and language courses as part of her electives.
“Being Armenian, it was, and still is, important that I educate myself on the rich history of my people,” she said. “I am very thankful to have had that opportunity.”
Aivazian last year completed the student teaching component of her credential program at Clovis East High, leading to a full-time job there. She said “it feels very full-circle” to be teaching English in Clovis Unified, the same district as her alma mater, Buchanan High School.
Aivazian said the focused time in the credential program — spent working closely with her mentor teachers, department teachers and school site administration, during her student teaching and classroom observations — was meaningful to her professional development and also crucial to getting a quick employment offer.
“I treated every single day like it was a job interview,” she said, “and I got hired at the school where I student-taught.”
Mandaville said Aivazian is a “passionate and dedicated” educator who caught the attention of her assigned school’s administrators right away. She said that type of scenario tends to repeat itself as students like Aivazian progress toward their credential.
“Our students go from being ‘good students’ who like reading and writing, to being creative and active learners who realize they can be leaders in, not just recipients of, their educations,” she said.
Mandaville explained that the meta-cognitive work that English credential candidates and English education majors do — that is, learning and thinking about how and why they learn and think — is immediately transformative for many students. They get a chance to consider their own histories as readers and writers, and they appreciate the power that language and the language arts can have in people’s lives.
“They also think about learning from the other side,” Mandaville said. “They are given permission to critique not only the texts they are reading, but the ways in which they are being taught and have been taught. That literacy, and especially critical literacy, can be a part of making change in the world, in addressing issues of equity. That’s really powerful.”
Aivazian credits Mandaville — who received a 2019-20 Outstanding Advisor Award from the University — for having a big influence on her in the credential program. “I learned so many useful strategies from Dr. Mandaville that I apply in my own classroom today,” she said.
One activity Aivazian regularly uses with her own students is the creation of comic strips and graphic storyboards in order to summarize texts. This approach comes directly from Mandaville, who regularly teaches with graphic novels and other visual texts.
Student teaching taught Aivazian the importance of relationship building and creating a positive classroom culture. “Every student needs to feel safe, valued and respected in order for learning to take place,” she said. “It is so important to cultivate this culture of trust very early on in the school year.”
Aivazian said she tries to make conversation with her students every chance she gets, especially in a time dominated by remote instruction. It makes students feel important when they are able to share things about themselves and what they enjoy, she said.
“At the start of every class, I pose a fun question to everyone and have them respond to it in the chat box,” Aivazian said. “It’s usually something as silly as, ‘If you could ask your pet one question, and they would respond, what would you ask them?’ Relationship building like this has been a little more difficult with virtual learning, but I still make the time to make it work.”
Aivazian calls Dr. Barlow der Mugrdechian, a Fresno State professor of Armenian studies, an “amazing professor” and a master at building relationships with students. She also credits him for introducing her to the works of the late William Saroyan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Armenian American author and Fresno native, who was one of the most prominent international literary figures of the mid-20th century.
“I would love to incorporate a text by William Saroyan into our reading list,” she said. “I have a poster of Saroyan up in my classroom.”
Also born and raised in Fresno, Leyva’s deep connection to her Fresno Unified alma mater, McLane High, played a major role in her decision to attend Fresno State and study English education.
Leyva decided to stay local for college and “become part of the Fresno State family” when she got a job working for the after-school program at McLane right out of high school. A patchwork of federal and state grants, as well as a Dan Van Dyke scholarship for community service, provided her with full financial support.
She remembers feeling excited to work at McLane and to immediately give back to her community there, but she hasn’t always been sure about majoring in English. After years of disliking English classes, Leyva credits her 12th grade English teacher, Robert Hayes, for turning around her experience — by making learning fun and relevant, and by implementing choice in the classroom. Hayes later became her mentor teacher and is now her colleague.
“It only took one teacher to make me see things differently and motivate me to continue learning, growing and succeeding,” Leyva said. “Mr. Hayes was a huge inspiration to me, and he’s the reason why I decided to become an English education major.”
Mandaville said Leyva was a “truly amazing” student and student teacher at Fresno State. Like many students, Leyva started out in the major because she loved reading and writing herself. Students often attribute that love to a secondary school English teacher, Mandaville said, “someone who helped them feel their words and voices mattered.”
“As they move through our program, they begin to see how they can be that teacher for others,” Mandaville said, “and that they can, through literacy work, be agents for empowering others.”
Repaying the communities they grew from by serving them, like Leyva is doing, becomes perhaps the most powerful drive behind their education.
“Many of our students are first-generation college students and have seen firsthand the difference in opportunities they have through education,” Mandaville said. “They want to give back to their communities — and they do.”
Leyva also credits Mandaville as a big influence while studying at Fresno State, pushing her to achieve her full potential while gently but firmly “calling her out” when she fell behind on her work.
“Dr. Mandaville was the one adviser who always encouraged me to follow through and commit to my career goal,” Leyva said. “She was also the only faculty member that I felt believed in me from the moment I became an English education major, all the way until I reached my goal of becoming a teacher.”
Leyva said juggling school, work, student teaching and family responsibilities — including care for her younger school-age siblings — made it difficult to finish her credential. But after speaking with Mandaville, her student teaching coaches, and other mentor teachers, she decided she would not let any obstacles get in her way or break her.
“There was a point during the final stages of initial student teaching when I broke down and contemplated taking time off to gather myself,” Leyva said. “I needed to take a step back and breathe. I concluded that I needed to have patience with myself and keep pushing forward.”
Leyva said her student teaching experience last year was both rewarding and challenging. She had to learn and adapt quickly to multiple grade levels, schools and districts — working with freshmen and juniors at Clovis North High School in the fall, and then with seniors at McLane in the spring. Both experiences, she said, worked together to directly prepare her for the classroom.
“Luckily, I learned a lot about curriculum and most importantly, classroom management,” she said. “Teaching my awesome sophomores now at McLane, I’m loving every second of it.”
Fresno State’s Joyce M. Huggins Early Education Center is full of children laughing and playing as they engage and explore with the world around them. This is a typical day for Infant/Toddler Master Teacher – Connie Mosher. Mosher has been working at the Huggins Center since 2012 and she uses her educational expertise in early childhood education to fill each day with educational opportunities where curiosity is encouraged by the children.
The Huggins Center, known for its Reggio Emilia inspired approach to education, recognizes that collaborative and participatory relationships among children, parents, teachers and others not only create powerful and successful education and care programs but also improves the quality of life in the community.
“My co-teachers and I work to create secure relationships with each child and their families. Working at a Reggio inspired early education center, we view even our youngest learners, our infants and toddlers, as capable beings,” said Mosher. “As a teacher, I learn just as much, if not more from the children so I truly value the process of co-researching alongside the children to develop emergent curriculum throughout the year.”
Each year the TLLCCF awards fifty early educators from across the nation for their critical role in providing quality early care and education. Of those fifty awardees, one is awarded the Helen Marks Award and is named the National Child Care Teacher of the Year. This year Mosher was selected as one of the top fifty in the nation and was additionally named the National Child Care Teacher of the Year.
“Receiving the award was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was surreal sharing the news with my parents, friends and my fellow teachers. I cried telling my parents because I was absolutely blown away and it was such a special moment for all of us. My whole family is extremely proud of me so that is the icing on the cake,” said Mosher. “The award means a lot to me because it truly honors early education and the hard work and dedication that so many of us have to the children and families we serve.”
Mosher is the second teacher from Fresno State’s Huggins Center to be selected among the top fifty early educators in the nation. Last year, Chamroeun Yann was selected among the top fifty in the nation as well.
Along with Mosher’s National Child Care Teacher of the Year award, she was also gifted over $1,500. With that money, she plans to implement a portable light studio in her infant/toddler classroom.
“I can only hope that with this award I will inspire other infant/toddler and early educators to continually strive for the best for themselves, the children and their families,” said Mosher.