An early version of Sheri Lopez grew up and graduated from high school in Pojoaque. Back when she was 18, she was starting college at Eastern New Mexico University and running on the track team. She wanted to be a writer and figured she would be out of school by age 21 with a teaching degree.
But then, as she says, “Life happened.”
She dropped out of school after her first semester, moved to California, worked in retail for 10 years until the Great Recession caught up with her and she moved back home to New Mexico as an unemployed single mother with a one-year-old son. With real-life responsibilities, another version of Sheri Lopez was kicking in. She can laugh about it now, but she was tired of being poor.
She knew she would have to do something if she wanted a chance at a better life for herself and her son. With help from her parents and some serious soul-searching, she decided to go back to school at UNM-LA.
“When I started at UNM again, I was still hell-bent on getting my degree in English, so it’s still an important part of my life,” she said.
But along the way, she discovered another interest that had been there all along, but somewhat suppressed.
“I always knew I would end up in science, in some way or another, because I always loved it,” she said. “I was just in denial about it.” She began to question the common knowledge that boys were always better at math and science. “I realized that I’m actually better than most of my male counterparts so I just kind of went with it.”
She got into a special program, funded by Los Alamos National Laboratory through the Regional Development Corporation that pays students to attend readiness training classes while they’re going to several participating colleges and community colleges in Northern New Mexico.
“We’re trying to help certificate students and 2-year degree students in technical fields,” said Carla Rachkowski, who oversees the Accelerate Technical Training and Job Placement Program. “We have students that are enrolling right out of high school, but the average student in this program is 28,” she said. “Older students have that motivation because they know what it’s like out there without a degree.”
Rachkowski has watched Lopez flourish in the last two years and extols her accomplishments at public events to encourage other students to learn from a great example.
Last year, Grace Willerton, Lopez’ career advisor at UNM-LA, encouraged Lopez to apply for an internship at Fermi labs in Illinois, and despite the odds she was one of only eight students selected for in a very prestigious competition. Then last fall, Lopez was awarded a LANL Foundation scholarship, along with a LANL internship and an Accelerate internship.
“The most surprising thing about Sheri was that the more opportunities she got, the more excited she became, Willerton said. “She got the bug that the first opportunities provided and she jumped on that and ran with it. As a non-traditional student, she’s even more of a star, because she had a lot of obstacles to work through to really excel.”
Her last year at UNM-LA, just to summarize, Lopez had a scholarship and two internships – one of them in space science at the lab and the other with aerospace manufacturer YXO, which meant working eight hours every Sunday. Plus: She was taking extra courses on top of a full course load. She graduated with an associate degree in pre-engineering while becoming the unofficial poster woman for extraordinary professional training achievement by a single mother in Northern New Mexico.
This summer she added to her resume an internship at Cornell University, and there is no stopping the roll she is on. So she has already lined up a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (from the Department of Energy) for the coming year and has enrolled at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, where she has started her quest for a degree in engineering.
That other set of technical interests that she harbored while growing up has come to the fore and is about to become a profession.
“Ultimately, I want to get my PhD in aerospace engineering, because if I can’t go to space I might as well build something that goes into space,” she said.