Abdiel Lopez ’18. Text: My Grinnell Journey.
Despite hurdles, new Grinnell graduate ends up flourishing

May 31, 2018 — Graduation day at Grinnell College wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Abdiel Lopez ’18.

The Los Angeles native experienced cultural shock when he arrived in Grinnell, and there weren’t a lot of resources he could turn to at the time. He was close to transferring but stayed put until he found out if he would be selected as a Mellon Mays fellow.

Lopez earned the fellowship, and the decision to stay turned out to be ideal.

“Grinnell afforded me the ability to find solace in my queerness and my brownness in the different social occasions I encountered,” Lopez says. “I don’t think I would have ever grown as much as I have anywhere else. For that, I’m blessed and thankful at the end of the day. I haven’t always been optimistic about my time here in the past. But now that it’s over, the person who was here four years ago would have been proud of who I am now.”

Lopez graduated in May, in front of his parents, with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. It was the first time his parents had visited Grinnell, and the first time they had flown on a plane. “It really was a special moment for all three of us,” he says.

Pathway to becoming a professor

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship was a huge deal to Lopez because of his ambition to not only work in academia, but also to help diversify it.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation established the fellowship program to increase the number of minorities in higher education faculty positions. Fellows work on a two-year research project with faculty members. Lopez was mentored by sociology professor Karla Erickson and former sociology professor David Cook-Martín. His project examined community youth organizations across California and how they restructure inclusion through different healing practices.

“The project allowed me to engage in local activism back home by mobilizing grass-roots youth organizations,” he says.

Lopez first became aware of Grinnell’s history of social justice and activism during a Latino Student Union Club meeting in his sophomore year of high school. Lorena Ulloa ’15, who at the time had just completed her first year at Grinnell College after receiving a Posse Foundation scholarship, came to talk to the club.

“After watching me for a while and witnessing how I talked, she told me I’m such a Grinnellian, and I should apply here,” Lopez says.

In addition to the Posse scholarship, Lopez received the Mariam Haglund ’41 Music Scholarship in 2016. He also received the Class of 1964 Scholarship this past academic year.

“A premier liberal arts college felt inaccessible to me growing up,” he says. “I was told it would be difficult to go to one in spite of taking magnet and AP classes. The scholarships helped get me here and improved my welfare while here. It gets expensive traveling from LA to Grinnell and back. The scholarships have impacted my Grinnell experience so much more than I ever imagined, so I’m grateful to those donors.”

‘I said yes to everything’

Lopez fully engaged in the Grinnell College experience by taking part in countless activities. He started with student government and branched out to literary publication design, journalism, research assistant positions, tutoring, studying abroad, and three years of serving on the Sociology Student Educational Policy Committee.

Sometimes he volunteered without even intending to. During his first year, an email arrived thanking Lopez for applying to be a research tutor at Burling Library. He hadn’t applied, but decided to interview for the job anyway because he said yes to everything back then. He loved the people at the library and was a research tutor for the rest of his time at Grinnell.

“It was a really transformative experience, especially in the disciplines I hadn’t taken courses in,” he says. “I got a good grasp of how to develop any research project in any field. It was also helpful making personal connections with other scholars on campus. I love teaching and spreading information about different information technologies and privileges we have.”

Because of positive experiences working one-on-one with students, he also became a writing mentor for a Feminists and Critical Criminology sociology course.

“I survived high school and early on in college because of mentors, so this was my way to pay it back,” Lopez says.

Lopez spent the spring semester of his third year in Florence and London. He was in an Exhibition Seminar class taught by Fredo Rivera ’06, assistant professor of art history, that traveled to Miami in the fall of his fourth year. He also was part of a course-embedded travel class that studied art in Cuba over spring break in March.

“Those experiences would not have occurred without donors constantly being involved,” he says. “It’s helpful to know that someone is out there listening and helping us along the way. Even it if it’s not always visible, that help is always there.”

Abdiel Lopez ’18 in France. The Eiffel Tower is in the background.
Abdiel Lopez ’18 in France. The Eiffel Tower is in the background.

A gift and a privilege

Lopez plans to work for a year back in Los Angeles in the art world before going to graduate school to earn a master’s in art history or in a field that combines his interest in aesthetics and politics.

He intends to be a professor of art history and would love to be a curator at a contemporary museum that focuses on Latin American art. His vision includes being a cultural writer and researcher, and teaching first at a community college and later at a research university.

Grinnell College gave him the foundation and skills to make this vision a reality. “It’s been such a gift and privilege to be part of this Grinnell community in spite of the hardships I encountered here,” Lopez says. “I ultimately have reaped the benefits of my labor here. It hasn’t been possible without the financial assistance of donors who have paved the way for me.”

— by Jeremy Shapiro

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