Rodrigo Daniel Lopez has not been afraid to ask for help
By Charlotte Crystal
When he arrived in Charlottesville as a first-year student, Lopez was overwhelmed by the high expectations of an unfamiliar system. Having grown up in Riobamba, Ecuador — a town of 150,000 people nestled at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano — he was not prepared for the academic challenges of a top-ranked university in the United States.
But Lopez swallowed hard and asked for help. Several professors responded. Ramon Espino, research professor in chemical engineering, taught him the academic and bureaucratic ropes.
“He helped me get used to the system,” Lopez said. “Coming from a public high school in a third-world country, I had to learn to meet very high-level expectations. I was expected to have research done in advance. That was hard for me at first. There’s a lot more ‘figure this out on your own’ here and he helped me understand that.”
Robert Ribando, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, also was very encouraging. “He helped me set up a strategy to pick classes and get on track to graduate,” Lopez said.
Later, he tutored for Mary Beck, who teaches calculus and worked with him to improve his teaching skills.
Still, big lecture classes, such as introductory classes in chemistry and physics, with several hundred students sitting in a huge auditorium were a “big shock,” he said. “It was very, very impersonal and a lot of it you had to learn on your own.”
But he managed the large classes and looked for ways to create a smaller, more personal world. A summer internship seemed just the thing.
Lopez was one of 10 undergraduate engineering students who participated last summer in a science and technology policy internship program run by U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. U.Va. and MIT students roomed together in George Washington University dorms and participated in various educational programs, in addition to their internships, which were selected to join the worlds of science and policy. The internships ran the gamut of the Washington scene, and included positions in congressional offices, the World Bank, the Department of Defense, the European Union’s Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, the national academies, the National Institutes of Health and lobbying groups.
Lopez served in an internship with the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobbying group for free trade. He worked for the ultimately successful effort to get Congress to pass the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement. His job involved phoning a number of Latin American embassies and pitching the legislation in Spanish. He also spoke to members of Congress on the issue and wrote fact sheets in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking media.
“It was great,” Lopez said. “I went to a lot of embassy parties and saw the glamorous side of the life. I visited the White House twice. I also saw a lot of the other side. The office work. By the end of the program, people knew my name.”
He said the program expanded his understanding of the contributions that an engineer can make to society.
“Anybody who does this program is not going into traditional engineering,” Lopez said. “The program changes how you view your profession and your options after graduation. It shows you so many options.”
Lopez, who is majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in business engineering, would like to combine his interests in a career that incorporates “engineering plus something else.”
The contacts he made this summer may also shape his career. His internship supervisor, Anne Alonzo, senior vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, is considered one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in the United States by Hispanic Business Inc.
In addition to his internship and academics, Lopez has been involved with several student organizations. He served as an officer of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers for the past three years – his second year as community service chair, third year as secretary and this year as vice president – and helped with the educational programming as well.
He was also vice president of community service for Pi Tau Sigma, an international mechanical engineering honor society. Lopez’s work for that organization has included fixing up Camp Holiday Trails, a Charlottesville camp for children with chronic illnesses, and organizing a panel discussion about graduate school for third- and fourth-year students.
In his spare time, Lopez participated in activities sponsored by the Latino Student Union, in particular, serving as a peer mentor for first-year Hispanic students.
In his four years at U.Va., Lopez went from needing help to offering help to others. In the process, his life’s direction has become clearer.
2006 by the Rector and Visitors