Stories

"Your voice can make a change"

College enables connections for Arlene Lopez.

One intense day during senior year captures what college has been like for first-generation college student Arlene Lopez '18, '22G.

A big paper was due for her legal studies senior seminar course. Arlene spent about 24 hours straight in a campus computer lab, writing dozens of pages. And right alongside her were her college friends, encouraging her.

Arlene Lopez
Arlene Lopez

Arlene Lopez (in foreground in group photo) at a Black Student Union bowling night in her undergrad years, and now working on her master's degree (outdoor photo, studying at a coffee shop), which she expects to complete in 2022.

"They did rounds, taking shifts with me, even overnight," Arlene says. "The largest takeaway from my undergraduate career is the friendships I made." Not only fellow students, she adds, but her staff mentors: "They looked out for me and gave me a different type of love I have never experienced."

Her family was glad that she was studious and chose to pursue a higher education. However, she didn't have people at home whom she could talk to about college, since others in her family hadn't been to college. Her parents separated when she was about 7, and due to financial difficulties, she and her siblings had to move in with their grandmother. Suddenly Arlene founded herself in foreign territory — Brooklyn's Marcy Projects public housing.

Arlene Lopez in kindergarten

Arlene in kindergarten.

Arlene Lopez

Breast cancer walk with friends as a first-year college student.

While her cousins asked for toys, Arlene asked for math books. Her mind was set at a young age that she wanted more than what she saw around her. She was on the honor roll all through school. Her high school student counselor encouraged her to go to college and told her about Nazareth College’s Young Scholars program for high-achieving, underrepresented students.

“She said, ‘It’s in Rochester.’ And I said, ‘Where’s Rochester?’”

Arlene applied without having visited campus. When she moved to campus, “Everything was just completely foreign to me.” That included seeing wild deer and turkeys on campus, figuring out the “ridiculous” regional bus system, adjusting to a different cuisine, and realizing she didn’t need the aggressive communication style that is common in New York City. 

“Everybody in Rochester was so nice,” says Arlene. “I had to learn to code switch.”

Arlene Lopez

During Nazareth's Summer Start program

Arlene Lopez

First-year day of service

Nazareth’s Young Scholars and HEOP students arrive on campus in the summer for a four-week Summer Start program of intensive academic, social, and cultural experiences to ease the transition to college.

Arlene arrived without a declared major; Nazareth has multiple efforts in place to help students find their path. Taking core courses helped Arlene figure out what she liked, and by the end of the first year she majored in legal studies with the idea of working in the corrections system. Arlene herself, and people she knew, had experienced injustices growing up, and she sees law and criminal justice as a path to improving the system.

An eyesight challenge has caused her to adjust her future plans, but, she adds, “One of my ultimate goals is to go back to my community and set up something different — set up a recreation center or some type of program for kids, so they don’t think the world has given up on them.”

College has been more than Arlene ever expected, including life lessons such as how to open up, hear people out, connect with others, and let go of friend relationships that don’t work out.

Arlene Lopez

Sophomore selfie

Arlene Lopez

First trip to Canada

She learned to balance fun and work. “Procrastinating is not going to be your best friend,” she says. “Getting ahead is better.”

She is grateful for the connections she’s made, such as:

  • Her academic adviser — who understood that Arlene didn’t want to be a lawyer — connected her with an internship at the Monroe County sheriff’s office downtown. From road patrol to horse patrol to the court system, “I was able to experience a little bit of everything.”
  • Fellow students stepped up alongside her in leading the Black Student Union, at a time when it had been discontinued on campus. They advocated for the club, saying students of color need a safe place on campus for support and for conversations they didn’t feel they could have elsewhere. They cherished the group and put time into building it, including organizing a fashion show to celebrate self-empowerment and the beauty and strength of Black culture.
  • Professor Kim McGann, Ph.D. (sociology), inspired a new career idea: teaching college students. “I absolutely love her and how she teaches,” says Arlene. “Every day in her class there was something new that I learned. It made me love the idea of being a professor — someone like her, teaching potential leaders in the world.”
Arlene Lopez

Graduation 2018

Arlene Lopez

Working at Campus Safety — and pursuing a master's degree

Arlene's student job in Campus Safety led to getting hired as a full-time dispatcher when she graduated. After getting accepted into Nazareth's American Studies master's program, she is using an employee benefit to take two graduate classes per semester at no charge. She chose to focus on diversity and contemporary American life.

Arlene envisions teaching college students either about sociology or race and gender studies — something that addresses injustice and shows the importance of giving everyone a voice. "Your voice can make a change," she says.