Manuel Lopez came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 16 with his parents and two brothers. He didn't speak English, and so he took ELD classes as a junior and senior at San Gabriel High School.
Lopez knew as soon as he arrived from Mexico that he wanted to stay in school. But it was tough for his family to adjust to the pace of life in a new country. Due to financial needs, Lopez' mother was forced to work as a housekeeper. In Mexico, she had always been a homemaker.
"My father didn't adjust well to the changes," says Lopez.
"He became psychologically abusive and was very unhappy. One day, a year after our arrival in the U.S., my father simply left--just walked off one day--and was never seen again."
His father's desertion of the family was a tough blow to Lopez during his teenage years. Lopez was very angry at his father for his actions. But Lopez' mother stepped up to the head of the household. She motivated Lopez and his brothers to go to school.
After he finished high school, Lopez knew he wasn't yet ready for the university.
"I enrolled as an engineering major at East Los Angeles College, and expected to take classes there for two years before transferring to a four-year school," he says.
Lopez' mother didn't make enough to support him in school, and soon, Lopez was forced to get a job to finance his education. He followed a friend's advice and got a job as a teacher's aide at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park--at that time the country's second largest middle school with about 4,000 students. Because he was bilingual and was good at math, Lopez became very valuable to the school's administration and provided necessary help to the school's students.
"It was during this time that I found my calling in life. I knew I wanted to teach," says Lopez.
Lopez continued to attend school part time at ELAC, but he switched to being a math major so that he could become a teacher. Because of economic hardship, and the fact that he had to work much of the time to afford school, what started out as a two-year stay at a community college stretched into five and a half years before Lopez was able to transfer.
"Based on one field trip visit during high school, I decided to apply to UCLA," explains Lopez.
"I was accepted; all that I needed to complete my admission to UCLA was my green card--which I was still anticipating."
But the Immigration Department had not yet sent Lopez his papers. The window of time during which he could accept UCLA's offer to attend was drawing to a close. Lopez called Immigration day after day, trying to speed up the process, to no avail.
Then, finally, two weeks before the deadline to say "yes" to UCLA, Lopez' green card arrived in the mail. He drove out that day to UCLA and personally turned it in, confirming his attendance as a student.
"My first quarter at UCLA was the hardest. I had never worked harder in my life for a C," Lopez remembers, laughing.
He had signed up for classes that he thought would be repeated from his experience at ELAC, but the classes at UCLA were much more rigorous. Things eventually got easier, and Lopez adjusted as an average student at UCLA.
After graduation, Lopez became a middle school teacher back at Gage Middle School, where he had served as a T.A. The transition, he says, was a very rude awakening.
"Everyone held very high expectations for me, but I felt as though I spent my entire first year only administering discipline."
Lopez then got a job at Gahr High School in Cerritos, where he found his niche. Although his first year was challenging, he says he learned to seek help early. He connected well with his department chair, who helped guide and support him.
Soon, Lopez was taking on extra jobs to supplement his income, teaching adult school and SAT prep courses. But he missed spending time with his family.
Eventually, Lopez returned to school and earned a master's degree in mathematics at Cal State Fullerton. He thought that at some point, he might apply to teach at the college level.
Soon afterward, Lopez began teaching at Cerritos College and Cypress College. He loved his experiences. In 2001, when a full-time opening arose at Cerritos College, he applied and was hired.
Now, Lopez teaches all levels of math at the college.
"It thrills me to meet students who remind me of myself," he explains.
"They are the students who are grateful to learn, yet who have many challenges to overcome in their journey."
When students complain about taking three years at Cerritos College before transferring, Lopez reminds them that they're actually ahead of schedule: it took him nearly six years.
Lopez believes in the inclusiveness of community colleges. He reminds others that no other educational system in the world allows and provides so many second chances. He believes Cerritos College gives students like him opportunities they might never have had otherwise.
On May 12, 2007 Lopez served as speaker for Cerritos College's 50th annual Commencement Ceremony.