Alumni Stories: Omar Lopez

OmarLopezAfter Omar Lopez (BA English/Adolescence Education 2008) graduated from Saint Rose, he went to the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where he studied Education Policy and Management. He then went back to New York City and taught fifth and ninth grade English in his native Brooklyn. Afterwards, he got a job as a policy analyst for a non-profit called Democrats for Education Reform, where he now works as their Director of Teacher Policy.

“How I landed in the position that I am now in is a long story that is somewhat outside of the scope of this blog post,” Omar writes. “Suffice it to say that my experience at St. Rose prepared me for it (mostly).”

Can you tell us a little about your experience at Saint Rose?

This is where I get to say what I’ve always wanted to say.

I appreciate this opportunity to describe my experience at Saint Rose in a way I don’t usually get to. Since I graduated, one of the ways that I have given back to the College is by volunteering in admissions events.

Admissions events are wonderful opportunities to share my very positive experience at the College with potential students. The downside is that admissions events are a little like first dates: you’re trying to put your best foot forward and convince your mate why they should stick around and have a long-term relationship with you. Invariably, you leave out all the nasty bits that might make them say no. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s perfectly natural. But there are certain parts of my experience at Saint Rose that taught me a lot that aren’t necessarily attractive.

My experience at Saint Rose was somewhat unique, mostly due to circumstances out of my control. I am a person of Dominican heritage, making my dark skin an exception in the community rather than the rule as it was in my native Brooklyn. My mostly white comrades and I spent a lot of time awkwardly navigating what that meant. When is race relevant? When is it not? My racial makeup added a level of complication that was not faced by my fellow classmates, but which prepared me for the greater world, and for that I am grateful.

Moreover, my class (and those a year or two on either side) was a lively, involved bunch. I found my experience at the College to be the perfect microcosm of society. There were some people who were really involved on campus, others who couldn’t care less. There were those who were dedicated to their studies, others who saw classes as things to do between nights at the bar. And I learned to how to see value in all of them. Later classes, I came to observe, weren’t nearly as intense as mine. I was just lucky to have been part of the class that I was in.

Lastly, I had a “burn the boats” mentality when I arrived my freshman year. I knew that there was nothing for me back in Brooklyn without a bachelor’s degree. Not making it at Saint Rose was not an option for me. So, although I struggled, academically, socially, personally, economically and spiritually while I was there, not graduating was never an option. What’s more, I couldn’t just go though the motions. I was going to make the most of my time at the College, so I said yes to pretty much everything. I threw caution to the wind. Sometimes, this caused massive success. Just as often, I failed miserably, hurting myself or people around me.

Can you describe a memorable moment, professor, or course from The Saint Rose English Department?

One of my most memorable academic experiences at the College was a socialism and communism independent study I did with a handful of other students and professor Deborah Kelsh. This wasn’t an official independent study course, so it wouldn’t show up on my transcript. It was a group that came together strictly for the sake of learning.

In those small group sessions, I learned a massive amount about how to think critically. The well-worn term “paradigm shift” captures my experience, but I cringe as I type it as the image of soulless business types haunt me.

Professor Kelsh taught me to question everything. More than that, she taught me how to question everything. I learned how to analyze huge systems (societies, economies, etc.) and break them down into their most fundamental parts. All those pieces are interconnected, so she taught me how to analyze the effect that change in one part would have in another.

That’s ultimately what brought me to thinking systematically about changing the education system. It’s what I do for a living today.

I saw Professor Kelsh at an education conference last year. When I told her what I was doing for work, she was pleased, though when I told her who I was working for, she seemed less so. Ideologically, I’ve swung to the opposing side of the argument from Professor Kelsh’s for how to improve our ailing school system. A part of me felt like she must be disappointed in me, felt that somehow she had failed in showing me the light. I wanted to thank her and tell her how much she influenced me. How I’ve never had a teacher like her before or since.

I gave her a hug and a kiss, told her it was good to see her and left it at that.

Do you have any advice for future English majors?

The only advice I have for future English majors is to look for the people that take pride in the work and gravitate toward them. If you surround yourself with people who are trying to get the highest grade they can doing the least amount of work possible, you’ll end up trying to play that game with them. Even if you win, you lose.

Instead, find those that work hard and want to do well. Become their friends. You can push each other to go deeper, learn more and love the craft.

Any other comments about the faculty at Saint Rose or the English Department?

The English faculty at the College is a special one. They are characters that teach and entertain as much as the literature that they share with you. When I get together with alums, we talk about our old professors at least as much as we do the classes we were in. Appreciate these people. They are saints.

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