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Meet Edgar Lopez of University of Southern California in South Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Edgar Lopez.

Edgar, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My life story has taken many interesting twists and turns. As a Mexican-American living in a tiny, low-income apartment, I imagined my life opportunities to be limited and stagnated. My peers and I were labeled as delinquents and uneducated as we resorted to our native Spanish language as our primary form of community. My elementary school initially placed in Speech therapy for having a heavy lisp/accent when speaking English, which made my schooling experience much more difficult. I was in English Language Development courses throughout elementary and middle school, which also slowed my learning progress in class.

I was regularly bullied for being short in height, low-income, having non-English speaking parents, and appearing unattractive. I learned hand-to-hand combat to survive my school’s playground, supposedly one of the safest places in the community. Throughout my K-12 school experience, several educators considered me as an underachiever, delinquent and failure. A middle school English teacher would call me out for speaking Spanish with my friends because she could not understand it and immediately assumed we were bad-mouthing her; I was intimidated and did not speak Spanish at school for a few years, which later caused my Spanish language proficiency to gradually decay. I faced more rejections than acceptances of all types. These situations made me more pessimistic and depressed, slowly building up anger and frustration towards my community.

However, my family recognized the battles I endured and continued to pour endless amounts of faith into me. They supported my ambitious and hardworking traits so they helped me stay up late as I worked on my homework and additional work to catch up to my peers. All of my hard work allowed me to enroll into honors and AP courses in high school. My parents only had a middle school education so high school was my form of higher education. I have come to appreciate the few empowering teachers who I used to backtalk and disrespect, knowing now that they were pushing me to surpass and overcome the negative stereotypes and statistics placed on Latino students in communities like Inglewood and Los Angeles. Several family members and other peers fell into the school-to-prison pipeline but I was able to shift my pathway to pursue higher education. I went through the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), and now I attend the University of Southern California (USC). As a Ph.D. student, I am committed to promote social justice and equity in access and retention of people of color in higher education institutions. I want to help support the young people who live in similar conditions as I once did. I desire to be a positive and active role model in my community, someone I wish I had when I was younger.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
My life journey has not been easy. There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel and give up on school, especially as I was going to be the first in my family to pursue college. I overcame a multitude of challenges to successfully obtain the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship and enrolled at UCLA. However, new challenges arose and I was on a new battlefield. I faced discrimination, racism, and stereotype threats from colleagues, faculty, and staff. As a first-generation Latino college student, it was difficult to navigate a predominantly White institution (PWI). Thankfully, several other Latina/o students and I formed a small group called “the Dream Team” where we came together to vent and lean on each other when possible. It was a form of resistance to challenge the stigma of people of color and helped us from failing due to the academic pressures of the institution. Though I didn’t end with a strong grade point average, I completed my undergraduate education at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and another in Chicana/o Studies with a minor in Education. Then, I made a difficult choice of leaving my community to pursue my Master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin for two years. I grew exponentially and constructed my community in Austin from scratch, which to this day I am grateful for each and every one of them. Now, I am back at USC to continue to lead the effort to make positive change and inspire other students of color to achieve beyond their limits like I did.

Yes, I have overcome the low-expectations set by societal norms and overachieved much more than many of my high school peers have. I recognize my educational career as a privileged pathway. However, a friend of mine once told me, “what is the purpose of all your success when you end up leaving behind family, friends, and your community?” There is a need for strong Latino role models in my community and better access to culturally-competent teachers. After graduating from high school, I have been an empowering mentor to many, someone who I wish I had when I was younger. As a first-generation Mexican-American college student, I continue to walk this educational journey to represent those who were unable to break the systematic oppression. I currently represent a small portion of educated Latino males from my neighborhood but I am reframing this negative perception to encourage and inspire more students of color to pursue higher education. Leaving your hood does not define success. It is what you do afterward to help out that matters more. We must give more support and resources to our communities, not to spread harm and hatred just as it was before. We must show the youth that we care by giving back to them and not abandon them just as those before us have and decided not to return to mentor us.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am currently a research assistant at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Here, I am advised by Dr. Adrian H. Huerta and Dr. Adrianna Kezar. In my program, my concentration is in higher education. Currently, I am working on a couple of research projects that focus on student-parents, improving faculty-student interactions, creating better effort strategies to serve Black and Latino college students, and exploring the experiences of first-generation college students. It has been an inspiration to work with amazing colleagues in the Pullias Center for Higher Education that conduct innovating work on student access and success in higher education along with solutions to improve college outcomes and equity on campuses. I get excited whenever I have conversations about the work being done. I love it when I also get new ideas that eventually come to fruition.

I am proud of the current achievements I have made as a student and research assistant here at USC. I have traveled to several conferences to share my research work and gain professional development in hopes to become a faculty member myself in the future. I aspire to pursue this career as I have had several empowering faculty members, especially my advisors, who have mentored and guided me throughout my higher education experience.

I am thankful to come across numerous individuals who have asked me to help guide them in their academic and career pathways, which is my form of giving back to my community. I have come to learn how much more work is needed in this field; yet, I am thrilled for what is in store for the future. My cohort members, faculty, and I are constantly working to ensure we create a brighter future for the next generation.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
My social skills have been an important quality that I feel was most important to my success. At an early age, my parents taught me to greet every family member whenever we attended a family gathering. This social skill later helped me approach people and create amazing friendships. Though I did not have high grades in my undergraduate career, I made sure to capitalize on my social skills by networking at conferences, improving my resume and curriculum vitae, and applying to opportunities I heard through word of mouth or online searches. This built my confidence and later propelled me to take numerous chances in my academic career as I applied to travel grants, fellowships, and graduate school.

Social skills are necessary as I believe it is who you know that will care about what you know. Therefore, I emphasize the importance of networking and professional development. Also, there are countless people waiting to meet you throughout your life. The world is a large place but it becomes smaller with the more people you meet.

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