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UC Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy and Management Ph.D. Student Robin Lopez at his lab. Photo By David Rodríguez.

A leap from Richmond to U.C. Berkeley and a helping hand to college-bound youth

on November 30, 2019

Back in his Richmond, CA, middle school years, Robin D. Lopez carried around a binder with a sketch of the seal of the University of California, Berkeley, taped to the cover. He always dreamed of attending the university but felt that it was not possible.

“Even as a young kid, I always wanted to go to U.C. Berkeley, but a part of me said, ‘That’s untouchable…That doesn’t work for people like us,’” Lopez said.

But fast forward to today, Lopez is now a Ph.D. student at Berkeley in the Environmental Science, Policy and Management Program. Having found his own pathway in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics field, he now also teaches STEM courses to elementary school students during the weekend to bridge the educational gap between the opportunities given to Richmond youth and higher education. Through his courses and his personal example, he tries to show students in Richmond that they can go to college one day too. 

Lopez serves as a STEM instructor for Metas, a college preparedness tutoring program in Richmond. Lopez engages his 4th and 5th grade students with real-life scientific field projects and learning opportunities such as measuring rainwater, and by bringing in his doctoral colleagues as guest lecturers. He tries to incorporate college into his teaching by sharing parts of his Ph.D. research interests, which include soil, water, and climate analysis. He also rewards his students with “college swag,” or logo merchandise, as prizes for answering scientific questions correctly.

After one of his students correctly answers a question about human anatomy, Lopez hands her a blue lanyard from the University of Minnesota Medical School and tells her, “You look like you could be a doctor.” The student shows an expression of empowerment and waits for Lopez to ask another question so she can raise her hand again.

In addition to keeping his students engaged with the lesson, for Lopez, this encouragement is one method of reminding his students that college is within their reach. He observes his students already displaying good study habits.

“[My students] find themselves using critical thinking analysis and not realiz[ing] it. And that’s my opportunity to remind them, ‘What you are doing is what every scientist does.’ We [are] thinking critically about a problem. We try to assess it, we look at it from different angles, and we try to develop a solution. And we know a solution may or may not work,’” said Lopez.

According to the Metas Program Coordinator Walter Orellana, Lopez has a knack for putting his students first, even during an educational conference that the two attended.

“I saw him go up to a table, I think… to some university, maybe Alabama or Mississippi, [or] somewhere in the Midwest. And he knew the recruiter, and she knew to give him extra stuff because he was going to bring it back to his students,” said Orellana. “He goes out and … talks to people about Metas… He is very good at advocating for his students.”

UC Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy and Management Ph.D. Student Robin Lopez displays his parents’ flag on his office window. Photo By David Rodríguez.

Raised in San Pablo and Richmond, Lopez grew up in a large household, as a middle child among 12 siblings. He became the first in his family to earn a four-year degree.

Lopez overcame a discouraging K-12 experience by drawing inspiration from his grandfather to pursue science. Although his grandfather, Rojelio Moreno, a driller for soil analysts, wasn’t himself a credentialed scientist, Lopez said he taught him to “explore the unknown” at an early age. That spark illuminated the pathway to higher education, but first, there were obstacles to overcome.

During his secondary education years at De Anza High School, he says he agonized over dropping out and coped with the loss of his best friend.

“Throughout my years, my eyes have seen a lot. I have seen people get shot. I have seen people get strung out on drugs. I saw my best friends become incarcerated. I have seen numerous friends get put six feet under. And that is nothing special,” said Lopez. “That is the normalcy for many people of color and communities like this. It’s not [an exception] in Richmond, California, or Oakland, California.”

But Lopez didn’t yield to the impulse to drop out or give up. He pushed on and discovered that, as his grandfather suggested, his future lay in the sciences.

He went on to earn three associate degrees in mathematics, physics, and sociology at Contra Costa College. Transferring to San Francisco State University, he received his bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and went on to San Jose State University for his master’s degree in Water Resources Engineering. 

Despite being raised in a city that is in close proximity to one of the most prestigious universities in the nation, for Lopez, attending UC Berkeley seemed inaccessible.

“I knew [Berkeley was] an untouchable space…because academia wasn’t a place projected on to us as children growing up in that community… and similar communities too.”

But in the spring of 2018, he made the leap to Berkeley that he thought was impossible for “people like us.” 

Now, Lopez describes his commute to U.C. Berkeley as a portal to a different world. Lopez describes his first year at Berkeley as rough. Socially, he missed the close-knit community of Richmond. He felt himself in a space full of individuals and achievers who rarely seemed to smile. He had a rough time adjusting to the campus.

“Berkeley is a very unique one, in that it holds itself… as an ivory tower of some sort. …The elitism is there. It is felt, and it is something that doesn’t need to be spoken. You feel it just walking through campus… when they question why you are here, just from the way they look at you,” he said.

In spite of feeling isolated at times, Lopez is currently in his second year of studying soil, water and climate in Berkeley’s doctoral program in Environmental Science, Policy and Management. He has received honors including the U.C. Berkeley Graduate Chancellor’s Fellowship and has also served as a Research Associate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on projects for the U.S. Department of Energy.

In his office on the Berkeley campus, he displays a Mexican flag in his window to create his own space and a source of resiliency.

“The flag is for other people who come on this campus, so when they see it, they see something on a huge display– for them,” Lopez said.

The flag is a reminder that he, and others with historically marginalized identities, do belong at Berkeley. It’s turned so people outside can see it.

“When they see it, they see a Latinx student displaying his parents’ flag proudly,” said Lopez. “There’s been countless people before me… [M]y source of resiliency is a reminder that there is something bigger than me,” he added. “What I am doing and how I am doing it, at the end of the day, it means nothing if I’m not able to reciprocate that to my community.”


  1. Jessie West on December 2, 2019 at 10:25 am

    I thought the article was going to be about how the University wouldn’t give them any swag to give the kids.

    I really need a little bit more than just that people look at him and don’t smile to understand his experience.

    I have a feeling that the person who wrote this identifies with Robin, and assumes that readers who do not share Robin’s and the author’s experience are going to understand the telegraphed message.

    I believe the real task here is to make us understand what’s really happening on campus that makes him so uncomfortable.

    I walk down the street all the time as an elderly white woman and people look at me and either don’t see me, or don’t smile.

    Btw, I was denied many career opportunities because of my gender. That story — ongoing for women, in terms of pay inequality and unequal treatment on the job — always somehow seems to get lost in our society.

    Other than that, it’s a very polished, well-written article with no typos that I can see, which is rare these days.

  2. Bassam Kassab on December 6, 2019 at 5:12 pm

    It’s good to see San Jose State University students succeeding in pursuing doctoral programs at UCB or elsewhere. Mx. Lopez overcame many adversities in his life, and it’s good to read an inspiring story that encourages other youth to succeed.

    The story is not about what UCB can do more to make minorities feel more welcome on campus. It is about how individuals create welcoming spaces for themselves and others.

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