Education Guides Fowler Student’s Journey from Prison to Purpose
Cesar Lopez moved with his family to the U.S. from Mexico when he was in kindergarten. The family lived a quiet life in a mobile home in the South Bay area of San Diego County.
However, life outside the mobile home wasn’t so quiet and Lopez found himself getting caught up with the wrong crowd. After being expelled from high school and his parents’ home, Lopez ended up in a continuation school to finish his high school diploma. It was there he realized his passion for learning. “I was able to find refuge in that little classroom and I would stay there as long as I could throughout the day,” said Lopez, now a management/entrepreneurship student at San Diego State University’s Fowler College of Business.
After completing high school, Lopez carried over his love of learning to Grossmont College where he planned to earn his associate degree before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He said, “I was close…so close.”
But in 2014, Lopez’s journey took a downward turn. Regrettable choices erased the strides he’d made in his life and landed him behind prison bars.
Even though his situation looked bleak, Lopez eventually found solace in education once again. While still incarcerated, he was able to earn the associate degree in criminal justice that slipped through his grasp a few years earlier. He then earned four more AA degrees for good measure.
With the help of some of the educational staff he met during his incarceration, Lopez was able to start the admissions process to SDSU through Project Rebound which supports students transitioning out of the criminal justice system. “Going to a university was always kind of a far-fetched dream for me,” said Lopez, who was familiar with SDSU’s outstanding reputation in the local community. “I didn’t even try to apply anywhere else.”
After his release, Lopez once again found his niche in the classroom, but he still needed to reconcile the nearly 8-year work gap on his resume.
“I came to the realization that if I want to make a good living without restrictions from my record holding me back, I’d need to start my own business,” said Lopez who started at SDSU as a junior in 2022. “Once I got to SDSU, I became a management/entrepreneurship major which would teach me the intricacies of managing and leading a business.”
In addition, Lopez also decided to give back to the organization that helped him reintegrate into college life by becoming a volunteer for SDSU’s Project Rebound. “A big part of my role is to connect our students to the resources they need through various campus partnerships,” said Lopez, now a student support specialist for the organization. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with various cultural resource centers on campus, as well as SDSU’s offices of Student Life and Leadership and Educational Opportunities Programs. I also work closely with the SDSU Basic Needs Center which assisted me and many others find stable housing and to eliminate some of the financial burden our students face.”
Lopez’s ability to network and build relationships have paid off in other ways as well. His involvement in the Glazer Center for Leadership and Service led him to declare a leadership minor which he said has helped him make “many new and meaningful connections that have already opened up a world of opportunities,” in both educational and social ways. For example, Lopez was named 2023 Homecoming Royalty — the first Project Rebound student to do so — during SDSU’s annual homecoming celebration.
As Lopez prepares to graduate from SDSU in the spring of 2024, he is busy applying to graduate programs so that he can reach his “ultimate goal of obtaining a doctorate of business administration.” He is also at work on a new social entrepreneurship venture he calls Nurd Industries, where he plans to invest some of the profit from the sale of apparel and accessories to help support underserved communities.
“I want to specifically target marginalized students by redefining ‘nerds’ and inspiring them to embrace their inner nerds by teaching them the value of applying, and being dedicated to, the learning process,” said Lopez, a self-described “nerd”. “I want to be an inspiration to others by demonstrating that if you stay true to yourself and continuously work on your priorities while nurturing your support system, the sky really is the limit.”