History professor receives prestigious Phi Beta Kappa award

Laura Gutierrez

Laura Gutierrez 

University of the Pacific Assistant Professor of History Laura Gutierrez is being lauded for teaching excellence with a prestigious Phi Beta Kappa award from the Northern California Association, one of only four professors honored in 2022.

The award recognizes teachers who have made an impact on students as mentors or through engaging courses. Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest academic honor society. Only faculty members from one of eight Northern California universities and colleges with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter are eligible. This year’s other recipients are from University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Davis. 

Gutierrez, who teaches Latin American history, brings the material to life for her students with interactive projects. 

“It's not about memorizing facts. It's about making students critical readers,” said Gutierrez. “I think that's a skill that everyone can get, but I think there's also something really beautiful about being able to take a bunch of sources and understand that there's a story behind that.”

Her assignments encourage students to look at history through different perspectives using a variety of sources, from political cartoons to podcasts.

“She has a talent for making her students think deeply about issues,” said Jennifer Helgren, chair of the Department of History. “She’s also innovative, creating assignments that have included digital mapping of labor strikes and Wikipedia editing.” 

A project in her American Immigration class, in which students explore their own family’s immigration histories, was especially memorable for Sarah Hess ’21, who nominated Gutierrez for the award. Through interviewing family members, Hess learned about the risks her grandmother took to leave Japan after World War II.

“This project added a personalized element to my education, something that cemented and furthered my passion for history,” Hess wrote in her nomination letter. 

“It was a beautiful way for them to understand the different ways of looking at archives,” explained Gutierrez. “We don't typically think of family history as being a form of archive, but it absolutely is.”

As someone whose high school teacher once discouraged her from enrolling in an advanced history class, Gutierrez is flipping the script—encouraging students to appreciate history in a new way. 

“A lot of my students are from underrepresented backgrounds, and they always tell me, ‘I've never learned about this, I never understood when my parents came to the United States,’” Gutierrez said. “They often talk about the trauma that their parents never wanted to discuss, so for them, it is a way to understand their own life.”

Gutierrez joins four esteemed Pacific professors previously recognized by Phi Beta Kappa:  Professor of English Courtney Lehmann and Professor of History Bill Swagerty (2021), Professor of Political Science Dari Sylvester (2014) and Professor of Political Science Cynthia Ostberg (2012).

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776 and its members include 17 United States presidents, 42 Supreme Court justices and more than 150 Nobel Laureates. Only 10% of colleges and universities in the United States have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. The seven other institutions in Northern California are Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, Mills College and Santa Clara University.