CMU graduate student upholds her Latino roots
Carnegie Mellon University alumna Lucero Lopez uses her Mexican heritage and passion for research to serve the Latino community and represent first-gen students
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First-generation college student, Lucero Lopez, is committed to supporting Latinx students in academia through her research work— hoping to serve the Latino community as a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan this fall because “no matter where I get to in life, my name will always be Lucero Lopez [and] that will be a name that would be published or put somewhere where people will see that” representation, assured Lopez, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and moved to Pittsburgh to start a Master’s degree in Material Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 2021.
As the first member of her family with a college degree, Lopez recalls that for her undergraduate graduation, approximately 50 family members showed up, noting “they were waving the Mexican flag and it was a very prideful moment, not just for myself, but for so many family members who did not get those opportunities.”
Lopez graduated from the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) with a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Business (2017), and recently from CMU—focusing her research on Computational Material Science, specifically mesoscale modeling of abnormal grain growth within materials.
“I get to build the simulations, and it’s helpful because [we need to know] and predict and validate how our materials behave,” she explained. “Everything around us is made of things like metal, ceramic, steels, alloys, so the better we understand those materials, the better we compare, preparing when those materials get older.”
But academia presented many challenges for the Mexican student: how to finance college, fill out FAFSA, taxes, student loans, and fund graduate school.
“Drastically affect my success”
In 2021, approximately 14.7% of CMU's first-year class (1,902 students) were Pell Grants recipients, of which out of the 1,902 students, 9.4% identified as Hispanic/ Latinx.
CMU offers a unique program, the FIRST Together program, which enhances the success of first-generation college students through intentional and proactive efforts by providing personal and professional mentoring opportunities and creating “a space where students feel heard, valued, and supported,” the CMU website states.
Despite CMU’s efforts to prepare first-generation students to succeed in academia, Lopez notes there are a plethora of things “that are going to drastically affect my success in my Ph.D., in my future career plans” because the challenges first-generation students face is “not even knowing the questions to ask because you don’t even know the obstacles that lie ahead of you.”
Lopez admits to not knowing she did not need a master’s degree to go into graduate school to pursue a Ph.D., explaining that “I thought you had to do a bachelor, master, and then a Ph.D.;” Information that would have saved her thousands of dollars. Therefore, she does not want to wait until she is in a position of power to help students navigate students.
“Let’s help each other now, not 20 or 30 years when we are already out of school and in our high powerful positions, but let’s try to make the disparity better while we still have time to talk to people,” Lopez assured.
She is involved in the Latino/a Graduate Student Association (LGSA), part of the Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Student Committee, where she extended her knowledge to first-generation students.
LGSA’s community helped Lopez navigate difficult times, especially going a whole month without speaking Spanish, unaware there were Spanish-speaking students on campus.
LGSA has reinforced her commitment to the Latino community and drawn her closer to her culture, “to who I am as a person, and so for me, this has been kind of like a labor of love, and I’m sad to leave it here at Carnegie because otherwise, I absolutely would continue,” she assured.
Her advice for students is to “find your people as quickly as you can and invest the time to continue to be a part of your community while you are there.”