A Degree Worth the Wait

One of Alyssa Lopez’s favorite things about her job supporting former inmates is guiding them toward a milestone they didn’t think they could meet.

“I love watching them move forward,” she says. “I love watching them believe in themselves.”

She can relate. Alyssa knows what it’s like to struggle and persevere. She dropped out of college four times before graduating 16 years after taking her first class at MSUM.

“It took courage for her to come back and stay,” says Katie Richardson Jens, Alyssa’s advisor. “She took classes seriously and set an example for everyone.”

Alyssa started at MSUM for the first time in 2005. Her parents, who met as students at MSUM, always spoke fondly of their alma mater. So, Alyssa decided to attend with a friend from her high school in Grand Forks.

At the end of the semester, she was put on probation because of her grades. She decided to drop out and move to Colorado.

The next few years were a flurry of retail jobs, moves and attempts at taking classes elsewhere. Then she learned she was pregnant with her son.

“It bothered me that I never finished college, but by that time I thought it was too hard to go back,” she says.

Her parents encouraged her to continue her college education. So when daycare, an affordable apartment, a job change and a tax refund lined up, Alyssa tentatively returned to the MSUM classroom.

Then her son was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. He needed to attend several therapy sessions each week. Overwhelmed with both the costs and time her son’s therapies took, Alyssa dropped out of school again so she could pick up as many shifts as possible.

But her parents still nudged her. Alyssa’s dad had been a migrant farm worker and the first in his family to complete college. “He’d say, ‘you can do this.’” Alyssa says. “I’d think about him working in the fields and that motivated me.”

She quit her retail job and found other work so she could take classes part-time. She hung out in parking lots to complete online quizzes because she couldn’t afford internet service at her apartment, and her son wasn’t quiet enough for extended visits to public libraries.

Life continued. She gave birth to her daughter and switched jobs. She continued to balance the responsibilities of a single parent with work and school. Then the pandemic struck and she found herself trying to finish her degree with two children at home.

“It was definitely a struggle,” she says.

But in 2021, she did what seemed so daunting and impossible at many points in her life. She graduated with a degree in criminal justice.

“It was so great to watch her blossom, gain self-confidence and realize how smart and awesome she is,” Richardson Jens says.

Alyssa says she couldn’t have done it without support from her parents and professors.

Now she cheers on others who are trying to change their paths. As a care coordinator for Community Options, she tries to stop the cycle of people returning to prison. When she works with single mothers who say it’s hard, she gets it. She tells them to do something small every week to work toward their goal.

“It doesn’t matter how you finish as long as you do,” she says.

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