How I Made It To College: Carlos Lopez

Learn about Carlos Lopez’s journey from incarceration to graduation in our inaugural installment of “How I Made It To College”.

3.6 million students graduated from high school in 2019, but only a fraction are headed to college in the Fall.

RaiseMe is built on the belief of the power and importance in education. While we recognize that there are many paths for a fulfilling life, college is a reliable catalyst to create that path. The data speaks to this truth. In a nod to economic mobility, a college graduate is 24% more likely to be employed and will earn over $1 million higher during their lifetimes than a high school graduate. And college graduates also lift up their societies with them. They are more than twice as likely to volunteer, give close to 3.5 times more to charity, and are more likely to vote.

This is why we are launching, How I Made It To College, a new series where we will hear from students across the country on their journey to college. No one student’s path to education is the same. In sharing the individual stories of students in our RaiseMe community, we can all learn from their challenges and celebrate their triumphs.

How I Made It To College conveys our commitment to realizing a society where every high school graduate has the opportunity to discover their college and career ambitions. The sooner students believe that college is a possibility, the sooner that belief becomes a reality.

We are immensely proud to kickoff the series with Carlos Lopez, a recent two-year graduate of Cerritos College and incoming transfer student to the University of Southern California this fall. Carlos’s story may be unconventional, but the lessons from his road to college transcend backgrounds.

From incarceration to graduation, this is my story of How I Made it to College.

Meet Carlos.

My name is Carlos Lopez and my story is a little different from others. I grew up in the urban area, inner city, as far as my lifestyle. For me, I always had an interest in school. But I made poor decisions when I was young. I got involved in the gang affiliated life when I was 12 years old, so my life took a detour. It didn’t go [laughs] where my mom thought it was going, where I deep down inside believed it was going.

And that was all just because of poor immature decisions. At an early age, I began to get in trouble with the law. But it wasn’t until I was 19 years old when the situation got serious, it got real. I got in an altercation with what I would call at that time my rival — my enemy. It doesn’t make sense to me anymore, but at that point in time with the life I was living, it was real.

I was this straight A student, I was always an athlete. Even as a freshman and sophomore, I played basketball for my high school. I was still trying to do the gang life and my school life, just battling with myself. I had embraced the street life, yet my heart was telling me ‘hey don’t leave your first love. You love school.’

But it didn’t work. By the time I was in 10th grade, trying to balance my gang life with my school life was too complicated, so I dropped out.

My mom always told me that if any of her kids were going to make it, it would be me. I’d be the first one who goes to college, I’d be the one to take care of her when she was old.

She was always telling me these things because she saw something that I just at that time couldn’t see.

Because of my upbringing and because of all of these personal things that I dealt with growing up, I was actually the perfect candidate for potential gang banger. And I say that because of the things I didn’t understand in my life — my dad leaving us when I was a baby, us being homeless — I developed so much anger, hate, frustration. And you put all those in a pot and you boil it, you get an angry kid who’s just waiting to express his wrath on why things happened to him the way they did. That’s the only way I can try to understand the decisions — the dumb decisions that I made in my life. That’s what contributed to the direction that I took as an adolescent. I was just angry, frustrated, mad at the world. So it led me to prison.

And I can recognize this now.

I realize now that my foundation back then was all founded and all based in a lie. And that’s why my life, my career, my future all deteriorated right before my eyes. I had an altercation with one of my rivals and one thing led to another and he ended up getting hurt. And because of that, there were serious consequences. At the age of 19, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of course there was really no way out of that. I’ll give you the raw story, you know?

How Carlos went to prison.

Just picture it…you are 19 years old, you are facing 39 years to life and there is a possibility that you are never getting out. So that’s what I had to deal with at that age, a really hard thing to face and understand. My life [was] going to be within an 8×10 cell for the rest of my life. That’s what I [was] going to be.

I understood that I was guilty for what I did. I take full responsibility. I hurt someone, so they were trying to give me life in prison because the individual was in the hospital. But after fighting my case for about a year, I was finally offered a ten year plea bargain. I remember being in court that day. My public defender approached me and told me ‘Look Carlos, I am supposed to represent you, and I’ll tell you right now they’ve offered you a deal and at this point in time you’re best bet is to take the deal. This is your life and I know that if we take this to trial I am going to lose this case. You have too many things against you. So I am giving my legal counsel as to what to do, but in the end you are in charge of the decisions you make.’

I remember just hearing him and I could see his genuineness. He was being real, basically telling me, “Dude, if you take this all the way to the box, you are going to get washed up, you are going to be in prison for the rest of your life.” I say that like slang you know, like street [laughs].

So I heard him out, but I still didn’t know what to do. As I went before the judge, man, all the gangster left me. I broke down like a baby. I asked the judge, “Hey, can I ask my mom?” All the kid came out of me, and I was 20 years old!

So I asked my mom, “Ma, what do I do?”

And I remember the way she responded to me, the way that she told me. She said, “As much as I want to see you walk, it would break my heart for me to tell you not to take the plea bargain they are offering you, go to trial, lose your trial and get sentenced to life in prison. That would kill me. I can’t make this decision for you. YOU have to make this decision. This is where you need to own up. This is where you need to grow up. This is where you need to become a man.”

And I just thought, ‘gosh that didn’t help’ [laughs]. For a quick second I thought maybe it’s worth fighting it. But deep down, I understood that if I went that route, it would be a huge mistake.

They sentenced me right there to 10 years in prison. Man it was tough, I remember I cried that whole day, that night, I just cried man. How did it get to this?

Carlos’s prison life.

It’s weird because you’d think that since I just went through this whole mistake, I would change my life around. But that wasn’t the case. It didn’t click with me that way. I continued on that path. I lived, I guess, the street life, the gangster life, the prison life, my first 9 years in prison. I succumbed to that lifestyle, that environment, the “show no weakness [attitude]” — all the cliches that you see in those prisons shows — all of that stuff. I did that.

But as I fast forward to 2012, there is a point in time where I had to be real with myself. For me, it was just finally confronting myself. Like ‘man Carlos, what did you do with your life! There was so much potential in you.’ And I say that because there was!

I did this reflection in my cell my last year in prison — ‘How did you get to this point, Carlos?’ And I realized that I was just mad.. But I also realized that I had to let go of things and say to myself that ‘if I don’t change in here, I am not going to change out there.’ Plain and simple.

The life I had chosen had not done anything for me apart from sending me to prison, thrown away my career, my life, my dignity, my respect, everything.

That last year in prison was a climax in my life in the sense that it’s when I decided to say enough and take small steps to change. A couple of the guys in there who had also changed their lives told me to take some classes — to keep my mind busy and make the most of my time there. I didn’t even know you could do that! They reintroduced me to something that I had enjoyed at one point in my life. I took a couple of courses and it really helped me to focus and in a sense start believing in myself; start telling myself that maybe it’s not too late. I was even able to use those courses to count as my GE’s when I came out of prison. Those guys also invited me to the chapel and to church. So they kind of plugged me in and sent me in the direction I needed to go. Everything kind of started falling into place. I used that whole last year to condition myself as to what I wanted to do in life out of prison.

Carlos’s new life outside of prison.

When I got out of prison, I went to a rehabilitation program and stayed there for about a year and a half until I was able to get on my feet, work and save up and find my own place to rent.

I understood that school was a chapter in my life that I had pushed aside when I was young, and it’s a chapter in my life I wanted to embrace now. I wanted to go back. So the first step for me was to enroll in the nearest community college, which happened to be Cerritos College I volunteered at church for quite some time, and they eventually offered me a position in the maintenance department. Working there allowed me to create a good schedule to make school possible. I started work at 7 A.M., got off at 3:30, drove to Cerritos, and then attended classes from 4pm to 10pm. That’s how my Monday through Friday was for over two years. I was a full-time worker and I was a full-time student.

It was a challenge, but there was also a new desire. I guess the best way to put it is:

You have someone who has been given a second chance at life. That person is going to do whatever it takes to get the job done, because they are so grateful at that second chance they’ve been given. And that’s who I was. I was given a second chance to be able to redeem my mistakes and be able to do something right.

Carlos Work Carlos at his work, where was staffed full time while completing his Associate’s Degree.

How school changed Carlos’s life.

Being in school was one of those moments that really just encouraged me, pushed me to the limit, and opened my eyes to all of the different options that laid ahead of me.

At first, it was hard for me to experience the whole student culture, that life. Everything took place while I was at work so I felt like I really missed out. However, after my first year, I started making friends and that’s when my school life really all began. Through my classes, I met other students. Through them, I was exposed to more things, met more new people, got more involved with activities on campus and made great relationships with some of my professors.

Those friends were the ones who pushed me to make connections with my professors, something that I hadn’t thought of before. I took advantage of office hours and was able to make great relationships with my professors. The fruit in that was I could ask them for letters of recommendation, and once the time came for me to apply to transfer, my professors were there for me.

I got to share with my professors and my friends, my personal story. I didn’t hold back. At first I was a little self-conscious, because I come from a different life than the majority of the students and the people I encountered at my community college.

But without you knowing my story you won’t know who I am. You aren’t going to know who I am today.

At Cerritos College, I was also part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, where I held a 3.8 GPA. I was more involved with the Accounting Society. There, I coordinated with marketing team to execute promotional activities for the increase of student involvement. I also have helped with VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program)! Through VITA, the accounting club provided free tax services.

Carlos Professor Carlos with one of his professors, and mentors, at Cerritos College graduation ceremony.

How transferring became Carlos’s future.

Transferring is something that I learned I could do along the way at Cerritos. Originally I didn’t know what I was going to school for, and I didn’t even know that you could transfer to a four-year university. It was something that I was inspired and motivated to do thanks to the friends that I made at Cerritos. They were a good guidance to motivate me to think about these universities that I had thought were out of my reach. I thought that they were beyond me. But it just goes back to that lack of confidence or whatever it is that I was struggling with. Nevertheless, the right people came into my life, they directed me, they started telling me about the transfer process. Through Cerritos, we were able to go check out these schools and it was those college visits that really motivated me to apply. The University of Southern California happens to be one of those schools that I thought ‘no way could I get there.’ I thought it way beyond me and out of my league.

And now I am starting there in the fall.

From all the schools that are near me, USC has the strongest accounting program available. I really connected with my accounting professors at Cerritos. They told me I was good at accounting and encouraged me to explore it. One of my accounting professors from Cerritos is even helping me to petition for a pardon by the Governor because one of my goals is to be CPA eligible within the next 2 and a half years. I want to get state licensed as a CPA. However, because of my record, the California Board of Accountancy will review my case and depending on what they decide I can get denied. It’s such a scary thing to think about because that’s one of the things that I really want to accomplish. I have a path for accounting, so I am really shooting for this, going to USC, not knowing whether I am going to get denied. But I am going for it. I want to be an excellent accountant. I want to be prepared. I want to learn from the best so that when I go into the professional field I can be prepared for whatever task is out for me. I believe USC will prepare me that way. Now I look forward to going there.

Going through all those things I encountered just keeps me really humble. You have a person who has lost everything and then this person is given a second chance at life. This person is going to have such a drive unlike any other because they are so grateful for this opportunity that has been presented to them. That’s where I was at school. I studied twice as hard. I sought extra credit, even though I didn’t need it.

Carlos Grad Carlos at graduation, after he has been accepted into both Loyola Marymount University and University of Southern California.

Carlos’s hopes go beyond himself.

When it comes to myself, it’s the simple things that matter. Being able to offer my kids what I didn’t have. That’s what all these sacrifices are about.

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