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The PhD Student Challenging Expectations—in Foot Races and Higher Ed

Edgar Fidel Lopez completed the LA Marathon 3 times, but ensuring equity for first-gen students is his next finish line

By Kianoosh Hashemzadeh

(Photo/Stephanie Yantz)

The first time Edgar Fidel Lopez ran the Los Angeles Marathon, his phone died. Unable to listen to music, he was alone with his thoughts.

He ran some 12 miles in his basketball shoes, but when he had nearly reached the halfway mark, he injured himself. He visited the medical tent. It wasn’t good news. The medics advised him to withdraw from the race and take a van to the finish line.

“Just give me that Gatorade,” Lopez said. “I’m going to power through it.”

He limped another 12 miles, and then two miles from the finish, his body began to shut down. He fell to the ground. But then his sister and cousin jumped in to help. They lifted him up and kept pushing him toward the finish line.

Lopez completed the marathon that day, and has gone on to complete two more, thanks to the aid of his loved ones. The experience, Lopez said, made him think about those times “when we’re in our darkest moment [and] we think that no one’s there to help us, that’s when we get the most unexpected support.”

Lopez compares running the L.A. Marathon to his experience navigating higher education. It’s a journey that has required both perseverance and the ability to accept help when it’s offered. Like the marathon, Lopez’s path as a PhD student in USC Rossier’s Urban Education Policy program hasn’t always been easy, but he’s been able to find support along the way.

“When we’re in our darkest moment [and] we think that no one’s there to help us, that’s when we get the most unexpected support.”
— Edgar Fidel Lopez, PhD student in Urban Education Policy

When Lopez was a high school senior, he was approached by Randall Clemens PhD ’12, a mentor in the Pullias Center for Higher Education’s Increasing Access via Mentoring (I AM) college-transition program at USC Rossier. “It was the first time anyone had told me about a PhD program,” Lopez said.

Clemens was one of Lopez’s first mentors, and the I AM sessions motivated Lopez to think about college. Clemens made him feel as though someone understood the circumstances and background of first-gen students like him.

Lopez grew up in inner-city L.A. with undocumented parents. They had dropped out of middle school, so to them, “high school was my higher education,” Lopez said. But Clemens guided him through the college application process, and Lopez was accepted to UCLA.

When Lopez was an undergrad, his mother lost her job, so he worked a lot to help his family. His grades suffered. When a science professor asked to meet with him, Lopez optimistically hoped the professor would help him get back on track. Instead, he asked Lopez why he hadn’t dropped his class.

The professor asked Lopez where he was from, and when he learned that he was from Inglewood, the professor said he didn’t understand why “this school accepts people like you if they know you’re not going to succeed,” Lopez recalled.

Lopez avoided office hours for months. Eventually, though, after some pleading, he found himself in the office of a professor who provided the inspiring words he had been looking for during that challenging semester. The experience changed Lopez’s trajectory, inspiring him to pursue education instead of his initial interest, law. “I want to be someone who I wish I had known when I was younger,” Lopez said.

“We have to get to a positive frame of thinking about these students. Just because they come from a poor background doesn’t mean they have poor skills.”

Lopez went on to graduate from UCLA with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor in education. But he continued to keep his eye on the prize. Lopez left Los Angeles and his family—not an easy decision—to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his MEd in educational leadership and policy. Now, he’s a student in the same PhD program he first heard about from Clemens.

At USC Rossier, Lopez is still deep in the race, but he’s heading toward the finish line.

Born out of his own experiences in higher ed, Lopez’s research looks at first-gen college students’ interactions with faculty as well as how faculty construct positive perceptions of students regardless of their perceived disadvantages. “We have to get to a positive frame of thinking about these students,” he said. “Just because they come from a poor background doesn’t mean they have poor skills.”

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Spring/Summer 2020 issue as “The Run of His Life.”