Mara Lopez graduated from her undergraduate program without being taught how to write a resume or cover letter. Now, as a doctoral student, she wants to devote her career to make sure underrepresented undergraduate students are better prepared for their future.
“In my experience as a continuing-generation student, woman of color and someone that worked multiple jobs while putting myself through school, I saw the need for better addressing equitable career exploration opportunities for college students,” said Lopez.
Lopez’s goal is to create more equitable classroom environments by integrating career exploration into undergraduate curriculum.
Finding purpose through a non-traditional path
Lopez was born in Mexicali, a small border town in California’s Imperial Valley. She began her academic journey as a collegiate athlete, playing volleyball, basketball and softball at a community college. Once her eligibility ended, she transferred to San Diego State University, where she worked multiple jobs to pay for school. Without the motivation to keep up her grades for sports, she wavered.
“It was hard to work full time to afford my classes and my rent. I really wandered around aimlessly. I didn't have very much structure and guidance, or even the willingness to attend to academic structure,” she said.
Luckily she found a mentor who changed her life.
“My mentor believed in me and that changed everything. I struggled to believe in myself and was overwhelmed with the idea that maybe school just wasn’t for me. My mentor helped me reframe and gave me the tools I needed to be successful in academia.”
Besides encouraging her to complete her bachelor’s degree, her mentor also jump-started her interest in education by introducing her to work with undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Lopez felt a deep connection to these students, who came from backgrounds similar to hers and being their mentor gave her purpose. She became the program manager for a training and mentoring grant funded by the NIH and was inspired to continue her education.
Lopez went on to earn her master’s degree in organizational leadership from Point Loma Nazarene University and is finishing her Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation program at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
Integrating career exploration into the curriculum
Lopez believes all degree programs should integrate career exploration into their curriculum so as to better prepare all students for the workforce. Her own experience informs this belief,
“Having to work two or three jobs while tending to schoolwork — I wasn't ever on campus. I didn't have time to go to Career Services and wait for an appointment. I didn't even know what to ask. I didn't know what to say. I felt like I was starting from nowhere.” she said.
In her research, Lopez also looks at ways to improve and promote culturally responsive pedagogical practices to provide equitable classroom environments. She’s asking questions like: How can the language the teacher is using be more inclusive? Is the curriculum written for everybody? How do different groups interpret the same assignment?
This involves being inclusive, using inclusive language and making sure students feel seen and heard.
Advocating for Equity
Lopez’s efforts with diversity, equity and inclusion extend well beyond her research.
At ASU, she serves as the research program manager for the SFAz Center for STEM, which aims to better serve Latinx students in STEM and increase representation in the field.
For the past year, she has also served on the Graduate College Student Advisory Group, which is charged with addressing the graduate student climate at ASU and specifically attends to issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion and aims to create more inclusive academic environments.
As a part of this board, Lopez reviewed several graduate program handbooks and presented her findings to the university’s staff and administration.
“What I found was, the newer handbooks really do attend to diversity, equity, inclusion and inclusive language but the older handbooks did not.”
By focusing on equity in and out of the classroom, Lopez is creating a better educational experience for students of all levels.