First-generation scholar like ‘icebreaker’ for others

As he pursues a career in science or medicine, student mulls ways he can ‘give back’ to promising students who face financial and other obstacles in college

Gerardo Lopez Perez is a first-generation college student and recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program award.

By Clint Talbott

Gerardo Lopez Perez is one of 80 students nationwide to win a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program grant, which will pay him to do cutting-edge research in a California university for 10 weeks this summer.

That’s good news. But it’s particularly striking given Lopez Perez’ life history. His path to the University of Colorado Boulder was not smoothly paved. But he worked exceptionally hard and got some much-needed help.

Later in life, he hopes to do the same kind of good turn for others.

He was always a good student, keenly interested in science. In high school, he completed his biology labs early and asked his teacher for extra lab work. He was the 2011 valedictorian in Harrison High School in south Colorado Springs.

He was, in short, the kind of student over whom universities normally compete.

But two significant obstacles stood between him and a course of study at CU-Boulder. One was money, as his family was of modest means. The other was citizenship. He was “undocumented”; his parents brought him here from Mexico when he was a child. The United States is the only home he has ever known, but he is not a citizen.

That fact made him ineligible to receive most scholarships available at CU-Boulder. But one recently implemented scholarship program helped Lopez Perez enroll and succeed.

The real reason you should go to college is so that you should fall in love—fall in love with something you want to do the rest of your life.”

The Claudia and Dennis Van Gerven First Generation Merit Scholarships were established in 2012 at the urging of Fred Anderson, professor of history and director of CU-Boulder’s Honors Program.

The scholarship is awarded to a first-generation graduate of Harrison High School who shows high academic promise and wants to participate in the CU-Boulder Honors Program.

Anderson was the first member of his family to attend college. Similarly, noted professors Claudia and Dennis Van Gerven were first-generation college students. All have distinguished scholarly careers. These professors aimed to give other first-generation students a similar shot, regardless of citizenship status.

Van Gerven Scholarships are funded mostly by CU-Boulder faculty who make monthly contributions via paycheck deductions.

Lopez Perez now a 20-year-old sophomore at CU-Boulder, took a year off to after graduating in 2011 earn money for tuition. He held a full-time job as assistant general manager at a Del Taco franchise, and he also worked full time at a Mexican grocery store.

Professor Fred Anderson says he admires Gerardo Lopez Perez “almost without limit.”

During that year, he never worked less than 78 hours a week and sometimes clocked more than 100. “But I really wanted to go to college, and that’s why I did it. I really wanted to be able to save every bit of money I could to afford out-of-state tuition.”

His first year at CU brought both cultural and sticker shock. In his high school, Caucasian students were in the minority, and most students’ families were low-income. At CU, the demographics are nearly opposite.

And though Lopez Perez has known no home but Colorado, his undocumented status required that he pay out-of-state tuition. (State law has since changed.) The Van Gerven scholarship, of which he was an inaugural recipient, covered some of his costs the first year, but he covered the rest.

By his junior year at CU-Boulder, he was eligible for in-state tuition. With the Van Gerven Scholarship and his work in Smith Hall as a resident adviser, college became more affordable. And he could focus on studying.

Lopez Perez is not sure if he will ultimately aim to attend medicine school, physician assistant school or a career in academia. Regardless of which path he takes, it will revolve around science and medicine.

“I always had a passion for science, and I was really good at science and math classes.”

Lopez Perez was interested in science and medicine even before high school. He recalls watching television documentaries about Doctors Without Borders and similar philanthropic groups.

He said such things inspired him to “go out and help people.” That remains his long-term goal. “I’ve received so much from different people throughout my life that I think it’s my responsibility to give back.”

As a child, he thought being a medical doctor was the only way of giving back. Now, he understands the social benefit of many careers in science and medicine.

The HHMI EXROP grant is really a great opportunity “because you get to work with really top-notch scientists who have cutting-edge research projects.” Scholarship recipients’ expenses are paid, plus they receive a $4,500 stipend for the 10-week program.

Eighty HHMI scholars were selected from a nationwide pool this year.

Lopez Perez is “like an icebreaker, and in his wake are coming through really smart students of color from his school.”

This summer, Lopez Perez will be conducting research on neuronal development with Professor Yuh Nung Jan at the University of California San Francisco. “There are different neurons. They have different morphology, but they each have a specific function, so we’re looking at how they begin to develop those structures and then how they relate to their function.”

Lopez Perez is frequently invited back to his high school and similar high schools to speak about his experiences. He relishes these opportunities, he says, because he hopes to emphasize the point that higher education is within these students’ reach.

He laments the fact that the cost of tuition deters many bright young people from attending college. But he says the primary rationale for higher education is not that it will later get you a job.

“The real reason you should go to college is so that you should fall in love—fall in love with something you want to do the rest of your life.”

Lopez Perez credits Anderson for that perspective and is quick to express gratitude that Anderson “took a gamble on me.”

Anderson says it was a pretty safe bet. “I admire this guy, almost without limit. I think he’s just terrific. He’s one of the most determined people I’ve ever met, not just undergraduates, but people, period.”

Lopez Perez shows “a rare combination of brains, ambition and fortitude,” Anderson adds. “We’re extremely lucky to have him here.”

Lopez Perez notes that many students from backgrounds like his are as talented and motivated as he is, but may need financial help. “I have never asked for a free shot. I just want a fair shot.”

Next fall, CU-Boulder is expected to enroll six students from Harrison High School, all of whom (like Lopez Perez) participated in Vamos Bufalos, an outreach program sponsored by the Honors Program and three Colorado Springs high schools.  Their ranks include the valedictorian and salutatorian of the Harrison class of 2014, Anderson says.

Anderson says Lopez Perez is “like an icebreaker, and in his wake are coming through really smart students of color from his school.”

Lopez Perez emphasized his gratitude to the CU faculty members and others who donate to the Van Gerven scholarship fund. “Their actions kind of hold me accountable to take my academics seriously. They created a chance for a student that might have not had the same chance.”

Donors are anonymous, and Lopez Perez can’t thank them personally. But, “They should know that they’ve made a great difference for someone.”

For more information on the Van Gerven First-Generation Merit Scholarship, click here.

March 2014

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