A Latinx Student’s Journey to a Doctoral Degree at Harvard

Follow the academic journey of Latinx student Justis Lopez who is pursuing his doctoral degree at Harvard University. Read more to hear his story.

portrait of Justis Lopez
by Justis Lopez

Updated September 23, 2022

Edited by Lorraine Mumby
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A Latinx Student’s Journey to a Doctoral Degree at Harvard
Image Credit: aldomurillo / E+ / Getty Images

Growing up, I had a love for education and learning, and I knew I would go to college at a very early age. I grew up with my parents saying, "Justis, go to school and get your education, so you don't have to work as hard as I do." Growing up, my parents didn't have the opportunity to attend college. As a potential first-generation Latinx student, I had a strong "why" but was unsure how I would get into college.

Deciding My Future as a High School Junior

My junior year in high school changed everything for me. I became involved in community organizing and was elected class president. I had an amazing teacher Ms. Wohlgemuth who saw something in me and encouraged me to become an educator. Growing up, I never had a male Latinx teacher, and I wanted to change that for other students. So I decided to become a teacher and began going on college tours, but I didn't know where to start.

I asked for advice from other educators and counselors in the building, and my mom dedicated weekends to taking trips with my younger brother and sister to visit various colleges. These experiences were coupled with support from an organization I was a member of in high school called the "Young Men's Leadership Group." This community fostered a supportive, inclusive environment for young men of color. We would talk about college and go on visits.

Attending College

During my senior year, I applied to five schools. Two were public state schools, and three were out-of-state private schools. Once I received my acceptance letters, financial aid packages, and scholarship notifications, I discovered that the University of Connecticut had offered me the most significant support. I chose UConn to pursue an education degree to become a social studies teacher. Getting accepted into UConn changed my life.

When I enrolled, my mom said, "Make the best of an experience we never got to have," and that is exactly what I strove to do. I became involved with first-year programs and learning communities, became an orientation leader, served as a resident assistant, joined the Puerto Rican Latin American Cultural Center as a mentor, fell in love with the UConn basketball program, and became the school mascot.

Go to BestColleges Hispanic Heritage Month hub to find more stories and resources.

Being a Latinx Teacher

After graduating from college, I returned to my hometown and taught social studies at the high school I graduated from. I believe staying connected to your community, investing in local spaces, and giving back are vital. I became involved in various clubs, district-wide initiatives, and community organizing efforts to create the environment that I wanted in high school growing up, especially for our Latinx and Black students.

After teaching there for a few years, I moved to the South Bronx and became a social studies teacher at a small community school. I taught U.S. civics and a hip hop class called "For The Culture." I also played a supportive role for any students who needed additional help passing the New York Regents Exams to ensure their graduation.

After this, I moved to Washington, D.C., to support the Federal TRIO programs dedicated to supporting low-income, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, and students from minority backgrounds.

After years as a student, teacher, and nonprofit worker, I became frustrated with what I saw and experienced in educational spaces. So, I decided to return to grad school to pursue my doctoral degree (fully-funded) to help foster and create healing-centered spaces that allow young people, especially people of color, to flourish and thrive.

Below are some lessons that I've learned along the way.

3 Tips for Success in Higher Education

  1. 1

    Believe you are enough. There are enough resources for students to get what they need to succeed.

    Applying to, enrolling in, and graduating from college can sometimes seem daunting. I felt that way as a first-generation college student. I battled feelings of impostor syndrome and struggled to find a sense of belonging while navigating various educational spaces. I repeated, and still repeat to myself, "I am enough." What helped me along this process was my support system.

    Various college access programs across the country support low-income, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, and students from minority backgrounds. Upon applying to college, I was accepted into the University of Connecticut's TRIO Student Support Services Program, which gave me the guidance and support I needed to not only survive college but also flourish and thrive. I had access to advisors and a fantastic peer support resource community. I also received financial aid, took advantage of study abroad experiences, and found a community to call home throughout my four years of undergrad.

    The Student Support Services program I was part of is one of eight federally funded programs collectively referred to as the TRIO Programs. They were created after the passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965, making them the country's oldest and largest college access programs, with over 6 million alumni. To learn more about how to benefit from these programs, visit the U.S Department of Education and the Council for Opportunity in Education websites.

  2. 2

    Adopt a social entrepreneurial mindset.

    The function and purpose of college are to create an environment where people can self-actualize, or better put, become the best versions of themselves to impact the world. The problems of this globe are ever-expansive and changing at a drastic rate. They will require approaches that tap into Indigenous wisdom, emergent strategies, and techniques that haven't been thought of yet. Adopting a growth mindset is necessary to navigate the collegiate experience, and if you feel called to it, create an LLC (Limited Liability Company) along the way.

    Growing up, I had no formal education in entrepreneurship; however, I was surrounded by entrepreneurs in my family who took the limited resources they had to address a problem or need in the community. During my sophomore year of college, I received a leadership scholarship and invested it into a business called Just Experience LLC. It began as a hobby where I enjoyed hosting and DJing events across campus as an additional form of revenue. Once I graduated, I realized I could do more with this hobby.

    I began to expand into areas I was passionate about. Just Experience then became a multi-platform organization; Just Educate, Just Entertain, and Just Empower, which focus on various educational and entertainment services that allow me to travel the world, do what I love, and get paid for it. It is never too early to cultivate a social entrepreneurial mindset to do what you love and make money.

  3. 3

    Look beyond any standardized exam score. You are more than a number.

    Applying to college is a holistic process consisting of various factors. Get involved, do things that are important to you, constantly reflect on your story, have a strong "why," challenge yourself, and celebrate your identity. Do the best you can throughout your educational journey with the resources you have. Many colleges have become test-optional during the COVID-19 pandemic and no longer require SAT scores for admission. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the college admissions process moving forward.

Bonus tip: Knowledge is power, yes. But the application of knowledge is paramount.

I wish all of those reading this well on their journey. If I can support you, please feel free to reach out: justislopez@gse.harvard.edu.


Meet the Author

Portrait of Justis Lopez

Justis Lopez

Peace familia! My name is Justis Lopez (also known as DJ Faro). I am a son, brother, educator, advocate, entrepreneur, and certified "mama's boy." I am also the founder and chief enthusiasm officer (CEO) of Just Experience LLC, an organization that strives to educate, entertain, and empower communities worldwide.

As a community organizer, I focus on ways to create spaces of radical joy, justice, and healing through hip hop and the arts. I am currently pursuing my doctoral degree at Harvard in educational leadership and recently completed my master's in education entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania. Before this, I studied curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut's NEAG School Of Education, where I studied to become a social studies teacher. I have taught in various states and held different educational leadership roles in K-12 schools, nonprofit sectors, and higher education spaces.

When I am not teaching, I can be found DJing or dancing down the street. In addition, I enjoy long hikes, funfetti cupcakes, and long walks on the beach.