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Michael Lopez writing on chalkboard

Not your typical mathematician: Marine, cop, dad, first generation college graduate

By Debbie Farris

Michael Lopez, senior in mathematics

Graduating senior Michael Lopez ('17) is not your typical mathematician.

Confident and eloquent, Lopez is a former U.S. Marine who served three tours in Iraq and a total of 10 years in the military. He worked in law enforcement for four years. He was kicked out of three high schools. He is a “nontraditional” student in that he is in his mid-thirties, married, and the father of two children.

He is no stranger to hard work, adversity and perseverance.

The youngest of five children, Lopez grew up in Santa Ana, the second most populated city in Orange County, California, and had what he describes as a “rough childhood.” Despite living in a tight-knit Hispanic community, gunshots and shootings were an inescapable part of his early life: his brother had been stabbed and father had been shot. His family left northern California for a better, safer life with more opportunities in Oregon.

When an exacerbated combat injury forced his Honorable Discharge from the military, Lopez pursued a career in law enforcement but was always attracted to teaching and training new officers.

His two passions have always been math and teaching.

At a career crossroads, Lopez considered pursuing a college education as a way to reconnect with his passion for math and to have a satisfying career where he could make an impact. Although he had never thought college was right for him, Lopez decided to take the leap and in 2009 he enrolled in Central Oregon Community College (COCC) in Bend, OR, despite having less than a 2.0 GPA in high school.

“I remember my first day so clearly,” recalled Lopez. “I was a late register and was waitlisted for this writing class. I remember standing outside the writing class, not knowing what to do. I almost decided to quit college right then before it even began.”

"But then the writing class professor, noticed me and I guess he could see my confusion and invited me into the classroom. He talked me through things and helped me navigate the process, following class. He gave me some simple and really helpful advice. He said ‘Do your homework, show up for class, do the work and you’ll be fine.’ That worked for me.”

A first-generation college student, Lopez, experienced the feelings of self-doubt, of not belonging, of thinking he had made a mistake. Nearly one-third of College of Science students are first generation students and nearly one-quarter are transfer students.

Lopez transferred to OSU-Cascades to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but when he realized they did not offer a math major, he transferred to OSU’s Corvallis campus in the winter of 2015. “There are so many more opportunities on this campus,” said Lopez.

Micheal Lopez smiling under Math Graduate sign

Michael Lopez at mathematics graduation event

He knew he wanted to study math and that he wanted to teach. He had acquired extensive training experience while in the military and law enforcement where he was able to combine his strong interpersonal and communication skills with his passion for helping others learn.

“I have always enjoyed math. I was not always good at it, but I always enjoyed it,” laughed the easygoing Lopez.

He tackled his studies with clear focus, dedication and tenacity fueled by his passion for math. But he also sought out support and guidance from advisors and mentors.

“The OSU math faculty and staff were so helpful. They all really inspired and encouraged me so much.”

Transfer students can sometimes have a difficult time acclimating to campus culture nationwide and at OSU.

“The hardest part about transferring is figuring out how OSU works,” remarked Lopez. He knew he would have to build a network and connect others who could help him. Kathy Smith, a professor at COCC, knew OSU math instructor Scott Peterson and Lopez asked Smith if she would make an email introduction.

“Scott was so welcoming and friendly,” recalled Lopez. “He told me about the MSLC (Math and Statistics Learning Center) and even helped me find a job as a math tutor in the dorms.”

Having seen first-hand how hard life can be, Lopez threw himself at every opportunity that came his way and sought out those that didn’t.

“It’s all about meeting people, making connections and getting involved,” enthused Lopez, who uses a simple smile to ignite a conversation. “There are so many people here to help you. I wanted to take advantage of all the opportunities at OSU. I talked to faculty when I first got here. I wanted to know what everyone did.”

He strongly encourages his younger classmates who may not think that way and to get involved in student organizations so they can “get out and meet people.” That is something Lopez sees as important to being successful.

“Sometimes I feel like a ‘dad’ [to them]. I feed my peers in the study groups, make sure they are sleeping enough, check in on them just to make sure they are doing and try okay, and if possible help them relax and have a good time.”

At COCC, Lopez realized there wasn’t a math club, so he started one, Math Leaders of Central Oregon, to connect mathematics to culture by promoting its history and beauty. To employ his teaching and coaching skills, Lopez served as a “grader” and math tutor.

Since arriving at OSU two years ago, Lopez became the President of OSU’s Math Club and started the Aztec Dance Club on campus. He has enjoys working with Elise Lockwood, advisor of the OSU Math Club and assistant professor of mathematics who researches math education, and looking at math education through the lens of social justice.

Lopez has also worked Mathematics Instructor Elizabeth Jones through OSU’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), a program created in 1969 to support the personal and academic development and potential of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, who have traditionally been denied equal access to higher education.

Lopez met Mathematics Professor Juan Restrepo, who not only helped him get involved in mathematical research, but also became a source of support and a mentor. Restrepo strongly encouraged him to get involved with OSU’s SACNAS (Advancing Chicanos/Hispanic Native Americans in Science) Chapter. In 2015, he presented his research, “Dynamic Sample Space Transformations for Nonlinear Data Assimilation" at the national conference in Washington, D.C. His travel was supported by the College of Science's Vernier Promise Fund. Last year, Lopez was elected vice president of OSU SACNAS.

Micheal Lopez next to research poster

Lopez presented his research, “Dynamic Sample Space Transformations for Nonlinear Data Assimilation” at the SACNAS national conference in Washington, D.C.

He has “loved every minute” of his time as a teaching assistant in Math courses 111 (College Algebra) and 112 (Elementary Functions) over the past two years. Lopez shares his experiences and struggles with students while offering them strong support, patience and guidance. “I want them to know math can be fun and exciting.”

Although these many experiences added up to great success, life isn’t always a balanced equation. Lopez has also faced his share of adversity since starting college.

“My first year during summer term, my apartment burned down. It literally burned to the ground. I lost everything,” remarked Lopez. “I almost gave up again.”

But people in the community rallied to support Lopez. The Red Cross and COCC all helped him with supplies and support to start to put his life back together. He collected as many class notes as he could and one of his instructors gave him all of his lecture notes. Amazingly, Lopez did well and passed all of his classes.

“It was so hard, but I pushed on,” said Lopez. No stranger to misfortune, he managed to work through a divorce his first year in college and to support his two children while maintaining his grades and academic plans. This past year, Lopez was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which posed a challenge to Lopez’s ambitious goals and pace of life.

“My professors have been so supportive and understanding,” said Lopez. One particularly intense and sudden episode occurred during his differential geometry final exam.

“I tried to stay focused and finish the exam, but I realized I would not be able to. I walked up and told the professor I was having a medical emergency and need to leave, that I would not be able to complete the exam,” he said, expecting to face whatever consequences an incomplete exam would bring.

“My professor was amazing. He said I could take care of my medical issue and to come right back. I never expected that,” exclaimed Lopez. “I don’t like to have excuses. But I do communicate. Life happens. You just have to keep going.”

“I feel so supported in math at OSU,” says Lopez of his guidance from Restrepo, Lockwood, Jones, and Mary Beisiegel [an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at OSU]. “I feel courageous to be able to ask questions and express what I like and think.”

When asked about advice he would give to other students, Lopez says without hesitation, “Just do your homework, communicate with your professors, take every opportunity to network and meet as many people as you can to develop a strong support structure.”

Balancing life as a student and dad brings its own challenges. It’s hard to do study groups, admits Lopez. “If the kids are sick, that takes you away from your studies.”

“I have made tons of mistakes. We all make mistakes. But I think I got the bad stuff out of the way and that’s why I am able to focus now,” said Lopez, who is also happily remarried.

He works hard at balancing class time with family time. He also makes time to get involved in student organizations and to take advantage of other opportunities he knows are vital to his success.

Reflecting on his journey through college, Lopez says, “I met so many people and met the right people at the right time in my life. I think that making so many connections is what got me here. And I walk through every open door.”

Walking through open doors has earned Lopez many “firsts”: He is first in his family to graduate high school (followed by his twin brother a year later), first to graduate college and, first to attend graduate school. Next year, Lopez will begin a master's degree in mathematics at OSU with plans to become a math professor. He was awarded a diversity recruitment scholarship to support his studies.

“I know there are people in my classes who are much better at math than I am. But I love the perspectives they bring. I love learning from them and being inspired by them.”

Read more stories about: students, mathematics, graduation, transfer students