As an elementary student in East Palo Alto in the mid-2000s, Aurora Lopez was surrounded by Latinx students and families like her own. Although her neighborhood school lacked resources, she felt comfortable, at home with her peers and teachers.
But when Lopez was in sixth grade, a teacher told her parents that if they wanted their daughter to have a good education, they should take her out of the school and put her into a better one that could offer her opportunities that her local schools couldn’t.
So, the following year, Lopez, using her uncle’s address, was enrolled in seventh grade at Terman Middle School.
It was a huge shock.
At Terman, Lopez was one of only a handful of Latinx students, and she was far behind academically. “I felt confused and out of place,” she said.
The feeling that she didn’t belong, that she was an imposter, would follow her through secondary school. But when she met a teacher who looked like her as a junior in high school, she realized she was capable of so much more than she ever imagined.
Lopez, 22, is graduating from UC Berkeley on Saturday, May 15, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Her goal? To go into U.S. politics, working to ensure that everyone, regardless of where they live, has a fair shot at a decent education. It’s something she wished she’d had growing up.
‘Frustrated and confused’ at her new school
Lopez was born in 1998, when her mom was 15. A sophomore in high school, her mom, also named Aurora, lived at home with her parents and three older sisters and needed help raising her young daughter.
“They all took turns raising me,” said Lopez. “My family was really different from what I would learn in school. It wasn’t just Mom and Dad; it was my mom, my aunts and my grandparents. When I would go to family events with my grandparents, everyone always referred to me as their fifth daughter.”
Her grandparents, Mario and Benita, didn’t speak much English, so Lopez often translated for them — at the doctor’s office, at the grocery store. She’d even help them make important phone calls to the bank.
One time, when she was in seventh grade, her grandpa was pulled over by a police officer while he was giving her a ride to school. The officer didn’t speak Spanish, and her grandpa didn’t speak English, so she had to mediate the conversation, telling each of them what the other was saying.
“I think having to be in those grown-up situations as a kid made me the mature person I am now,” she said.
Every morning, 13-year-old Lopez would wake up at 6 a.m. to make the hourlong commute across town to Terman Middle School in rush-hour traffic.
At school, she’d hang out with the few other Latinx students. “I didn’t worry about them knowing where I lived,” she said, “but I never told them. I found out later that some of them had also been using other addresses.”
In addition to feeling out of place, Lopez was far behind academically: In geography class, she couldn’t name where most of the countries were, and while other students were writing essays, she was still wrapping her head around the concept of homework.
It was clear that Lopez was struggling, so the school pulled her out of her French class and enrolled her in AVID, an in-school program run by a nonprofit that offers academic and college career success support to schools and students. It was in this class, with a small cohort of other students, where she began to get the extra support and one-on-one attention she needed to catch up with her peers.
During the day, Lopez was often shy and withdrawn, but in her AVID classroom, she was energetic and upbeat. An English teacher, Lois Caires, taught the class.
“She was teaching me everything — how to do homework, how to read a textbook effectively, how to take notes,” said Lopez. “I felt so comfortable being able to ask her what I perceived as dumb questions.”
In high school, her feelings of isolation continued, and several interactions with her peers and teachers left her feeling deflated. During a college fair, students were surprised when she picked up a brochure. “They were like, ‘What? You want to go to college?’” Or, when she wasn’t understanding a chemistry lesson fast enough, her tutor said, “I don’t get it. All the others can get this, why can’t you?” And some teachers would discourage her from taking AP classes.
“Reflecting back, I can think, ‘OK, that was not entirely your fault. It was the school system that let you down early on in your education,’” she said. “But, at the time, I felt so frustrated and confused about why nothing in class made sense to me.”
But Lopez never questioned that she was doing what was for the best, that it was what she had to do to succeed. She’d been told for so long that there was no other option.
She didn’t know that, soon, a decision would be made for her — one that she would have no control over — that would change the course of her life.
The worst thing that could happen, she thought
During her second year at Henry M. Gunn High School, Lopez was at home after school when she heard a knock at the door. When she opened it, a police officer was standing on her doorstep. He told her that, for the past semester, an officer had been conducting an investigation into where she lived, and that she had one week to leave Henry M. Gunn and enroll in her assigned high school.
“I was devastated,” said Lopez.
Lopez was frantic, desperate to stay. To her, moving schools meant certain failure. She asked her friends if she could use one of their addresses, in order to stay at Henry M. Gunn, but no one felt comfortable with it. She talked to the principal, who agreed to let her finish the rest of the year before moving schools.
So, in 2015, Lopez started 11th grade at her local high school, Woodside High School, in Redwood City.
“During my first semester, I was like, ‘I’m not going to succeed or do anything well in life because I’m here,’” she said.
But then, she met her history teacher, Pablo Aguilera, and everything changed.
“He looked like me — he was Latino,” she said. “He grew up in Redwood City and went to Woodside High School, so we had similar backgrounds and experiences. But he also went to Stanford.”
As a student, Aguilera said his experience wasn’t memorable. “As a brown boy at Woodside, it wasn’t always the most welcoming,” he said.
Often, he was the only brown student in his AP classes, he said, and although about half of the students were Latinx, they didn’t usually have the same academic support and opportunities that many white students had.
As a teacher, Aguilera, who taught at Woodside for nine years and now teaches at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, always makes a point to mention that he went to Stanford University. Not to brag, but to show his students of color that it is possible — that people who look like him from backgrounds like his can go to top universities, and that they belong in academia.
Every day, Lopez would find a way to talk with Aguilera. She’d spend lunch in his classroom, she’d get dropped off early before school, she’d even skip classes so that she could talk with him. Although she didn’t put effort into her classes, she’d research and write essays about subjects she and Aguilera discussed, from current politics to if it was worth it for minorities to go to college, when the system was built to keep them out.
“He goes, ‘I know you try to act tough and like you don’t want to go to school, like you don’t want to go to college,’” she recalled. “‘But you just seem tough. I know deep down you actually have an interest in learning, that you love to learn.’ And yeah, that was right. I did love to learn.”
At Woodside, Lopez also met two other teachers and a counselor with whom she could talk about her mental health issues — something that her family didn’t know how to talk about. For the first time, she said, she felt like she had a strong support system.
An avid basketball player, Lopez wanted to join cross country, which Aguilera coached, to build her endurance. But Aguilera wouldn’t let her join the team until she applied to college.
“He actually sent me to a classroom with an application to San José State and closed the door and said, ‘Don’t come out until you have applied,'” she said.
So, she applied to San José State University— and got in.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can go to college,’” said Lopez. “Everyone was excited for me. I was also seeing peers of mine who looked like me getting into college and accepting, so I think that was added motivation for me to go.”
Aguilera remembered telling Lopez: “You hate high school, but you’re going to be perfectly fine in college. When everyone is as stimulated about a subject as you are, when you have that professor to talk to, it’ll be infectious.”
But even with her growing support network at school, Lopez’s feelings of worthlessness continued to intensify, and her depression deepened. She often felt like she didn’t want to live anymore. There were several times late at night when she contemplated ending her life.
“I don’t know what kept stopping me,” she said. “When I think about my high school years, in some ways they’re nonexistent, because all of my energy and thoughts revolved around death and not being alive. I only cared about basketball. Anytime I failed or didn’t do well in school or something bad came up, I was like, ‘It’s OK. You won’t be alive soon. It’s fine.’”
By her senior year, living had become unbearable, and Lopez attempted suicide.
It was then that she started getting the mental health support that she needed. She got a social worker and a therapist. She was prescribed Prozac. If she needed extra time to complete assignments, her teachers would give it to her.
“In some ways, I feel like it was a blessing in disguise,” she said. “My mental health was finally being addressed. I could finally say, ‘Yeah, I wanted to die.’ I could be open about it — with myself, with my counselor, with my mom. Everybody knew. And I think that’s what helped me.”
After she graduated, she went on to attend San José State for a year, then De Anza College. In 2019, she transferred to Berkeley, where she would pursue political science, a degree that she hopes will allow her to make changes to the education system that, in many ways, let her down.
Finding her own style of leadership at Berkeley
At Berkeley, Lopez threw herself into learning as much as she could. She enrolled in Becoming a Changemaker, a class at the Haas School of Business taught by lecturer Alex Budak.
The class, which Budak created and began teaching in 2019, is designed for students to “leverage their energy and enthusiasm for improving the world, and provide them the tools and leadership they need to go on to lead positive change from wherever they are,” said Budak.
As part of the class, Budak invites guest speakers, from Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to Jennifer Dulski, the former president and COO of Change.org, to share their journeys in becoming change-makers. After every talk, said Budak, Lopez would introduce herself to the speaker.
“While some people might say, ‘Hey, you’ve got this amazing job. Can I have an internship?’” said Budak, “Aurora would share thoughtful remarks about how the person inspired her, and would ask questions with genuine curiosity. It takes such humility to say, ‘You are someone who is inspiring. I can see myself in you, and I would love to learn how you did it.’ The way she networked and built relationships really stood out to me.”
In taking the class, Lopez learned that leadership didn’t mean she had to be a charismatic orator, something that was contrary to her nature. Instead, she could engage in micro leadership, which Budak defines as “courageously pursuing small, but meaningful, acts of servant leadership, every day.” And she learned how to build resilience in her daily interactions.
“It revolutionized my perspective of leadership,” said Lopez. “I took these concepts to heart and tried implementing them every day. You’d be amazed by how my current success stems from what I learned in the class.”
After Lopez’s first semester at Berkeley, the campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she, along with the rest of the campus community, switched to remote learning. But she didn’t let it slow her down.
In the two semesters that followed, Lopez was a reader for The Berkeley Changemaker, a campuswide course co-taught by Budak offered through the College of Letters and Science. When grading papers, said Budak, Lopez spent extra time writing notes to the students.
“She’d write, ‘Hey, I see you’re also a first-gen student. Reach out to me if I can be a mentor to you,’” he said. “She has this mindset of paying it forward, which I think is really inspiring and shows me that she’s always looking for opportunities to serve and help others. She’s incredibly empathetic and deeply cares for those around her.”
During her two years at Berkeley, Lopez discovered her interest in political science. At first, she thought she wanted to stick to local politics, but each semester, as her confidence grew, so did her ambition, and she decided to aim higher.
This summer, she has an internship with the California Department of Education in Sacramento, as part of Berkeley’s Cal-in-Sacramento Fellowship program. Then, in the fall, with a stipend that she received as a 2021-22 John Gardner Public Service Fellow, she’s going to move to Washington, D.C. — a dream she’s had for years — where she plans to pursue a congressional fellowship with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations or work for the U.S. Department of State.
One day, Lopez hopes to be elected to Congress as a senator. Not only does she want to create better opportunities for underserved students in our country, she also wants to help create more nurturing, inclusive school environments where everyone feels they belong.
“I want to fight for more equitable education, so the opportunity to go to a good school and to achieve what you want isn’t determined by your address,” said Lopez. “I don’t want other kids to go through what I did.”