Empower the powerless. Give a voice to the voiceless. Change a life. For Romen Lopez, such phrases are more than platitudes or marketing slogans. They describe his life.
Today, Lopez is a soon-to-be 2020 UCLA graduate with a master’s degree in social welfare, a deeply engaged single father of three children and a leader of multiple efforts to direct youth from disadvantaged circumstances toward potentially life-altering educational opportunities.
But a dozen years ago? Romen Lopez was a convicted gang member cycling in and out of prison, seemingly on a path to self-destruction.
“I never in a million years thought I would be doing a master’s at UCLA,” Lopez said of his younger self. “That would have made no sense to me.”
Having followed a path to redemption via higher education, Lopez has seized the opportunity to turn his personal journey into a call to action for others in similar circumstances.
As part of his master’s graduation requirement, Lopez worked with a team of other students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs on a qualitative research analysis of the Reintegration Academy at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, which points formerly incarcerated youth toward the state’s robust community college system.
Lopez followed a parallel path, attending East Los Angeles College before matriculating to UCLA as an undergraduate Chicana and Chicano studies major and then a graduate student at UCLA Luskin.
He also founded a campus organization at UCLA called Reforming Education to Diminish Incarceration that provides assistance to formerly incarcerated students to help increase their chances of admission to UCLA. The program, which has partnerships with Los Angeles City College, East L.A. College and Pasadena City College, includes a tour of UCLA and a free meal in a campus dining hall, Lopez explained, plus help with the completion of a personal statement.
“The personal statement must include the fact that they were formerly incarcerated because it’s a form of empowerment and not a disability,” Lopez said.
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Lopez said, the best he could imagine was a menial job to pay the bills. His mother was a housekeeper at the Commerce Casino for 30 years, and she urged him to stay in school. But as a youth, Lopez romanticized gang life, and by his freshman year of high school he had joined a street gang.
Lopez then got kicked out of multiple high schools. As an active gang member, when he got caught by police with a gun, he wound up in the parole-to-prison pipeline. What little secondary education he had took place in juvenile detention facilities.
When he aged out of the juvenile system at 18, it was on to county jail or prison. “I went to prison five times from the age of 19 to my mid-20s,” he recalled.
The turning point for Lopez was Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention organization founded in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle of Dolores Mission Church as a way to improve the lives of former gang members in East Los Angeles. But it wasn’t a quick fix. Lopez started working at Homeboy in 2009, sweeping sidewalks and cleaning windows, but then got arrested on a vandalism charge that sent him back to prison for two more years.
In prison, he earned his high school equivalency degree, and when he was released in 2011, he began the hard work of setting his life on a different path. With assistance from a lawyer at Homeboy Industries, he cleared up debts. He completed mandated substance abuse classes. He resolved a DUI to get back his driver’s license. And he began the legal process to obtain visitation rights — and eventually full custody — of his children.
The next step was East L.A. College, where he wound up working for the Associated Student Union, the campus’s student government. That led, eventually, to Lopez becoming student body president.
“I got to experience things I had never experienced before in my life,” he said, including flying on a plane for the first time to attend student government conferences in places like Texas and New York.
He abandoned the shaved-head-and-baggy-clothes look of his gang member days. He got involved in activist causes, helping to promote diaper-changing tables in men’s restrooms at community colleges in California and elsewhere. He worked with officials like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to get access to Transit Access Pass cards for part-time students.
“I fought for them because a lot of times these part-time students are not part time by choice,” Lopez said. “A lot of nontraditional students have to start working, or they are taking care of their parents or, like me, taking care of their kids.”
Lopez has custody of three children, now ages 16, 14 and 8. His decision to attend UCLA after finishing community college centered around his kids. Originally, he had planned to attend UC Riverside, but family housing there fell through unexpectedly, and a yearlong wait loomed. But then UCLA offered family housing, and “that’s an automatic no-brainer,” Lopez said with a laugh.
“My kids get to live out here in West L.A. now, and they get to see the campus. They know how to navigate higher education,” he said. “That’s something that I never knew.”
During an interview that took place prior to the coronavirus health crisis, Lopez talked about what it was like to be a graduate student at UCLA while raising three school-age children.
“Sometimes, when the kids and I sit down in one room together to study, they are seeing me do it. So I think, ‘I'm pretty sure that they're going to end up getting higher education,’” he said.
As his June 12 UCLA Luskin graduation nears, Lopez is both excited and apprehensive.
“Soon, I'm going to leave school. And I'm kind of scared about it because I've been in school for the last seven-and-a-half years,” he said. “Now I am going to need to find another spot for me and my kids to live.”
The next step in the remarkable journey of Romen Lopez is not yet certain. But he’s educated now and is eyeing a career in mental health. Plus, he has trusted advisers at Homeboy Industries and UCLA faculty members in his corner. He’ll figure it out.
After all, the Romen Lopez of today has power, he has a voice, and his life has forever changed.
This story is part of a series of student profiles that will be published in the UCLA Luskin print magazine this summer.
Video: Romen Lopez receving the Homeboy Hero award from Homeboy Industries in 2017.