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From High-Rises to Higher Education : Once He Worked Atop Buildings. Now He's Graduating at the Top of His Class


On a drizzling Southern California January day in 1985, construction worker DanLozano had an experience more unsettling than his view from a naked steel beam on a high-rise.

While on the job, he overheard two long-timers, men in their 50s, talking about what they should have done with their lives. In a terrifying flash, Lozano, who had just turned 24, saw himself in 30 years, bitterly pondering unrealized dreams.

So he got off the high-rises and entered college. And last Sunday, the Whittier College undergraduate, older than most of the college's master's candidates, not only received a bachelor's degree in biology but emerged as the No. 1 student in his class with a 3.97 grade-point average.

Instead of constructing someone else's dream, Lozano, 29, will pursue his own goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.

"The brain is unique in that it's the only thing we know of that can study itself," Lozano said excitedly after the ceremony. "There are so many secrets locked in there that we may never understand it completely. But we have to try."

Lozano will enter the prestigious UC San Francisco medical school next fall, after turning down offers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere.

That's a far different future than the one that seemed to await Lozano at 17, when he took a job in construction. Because he could make more than $16 an hour, the opportunity seemed a lucky break for a high school graduate who had performed better on the baseball diamond than in the classroom.

Yet before long, at least one co-worker noticed qualities that suggested a different direction for Lozano, who had a mental alertness and compassion that seemed to set him apart.

"He was totally serious about what he was doing," recalled Lonnie Lozano, a second cousin and veteran construction worker.

And yet, "he was always willing to share," he said. "He'd give you his sandwich or even the shirt off his back.

"Not too many in construction are looking for something better. But he wanted to earn his keep by doing something better."

Lozano began to believe that only education and perseverance separated him from the engineers and architects for whom he worked. Besides, he decided, "too many people have a dream and don't go after it."

He knew that he would be years older than his classmates, but "a lot of 20-year-old students don't know what they want to do in their lives," he said. "They change like the weather. I know what's important to me.

"When I told my friends in construction what I planned to do, they were all behind me. One of them bought books for my first semester as a way of saying go get 'em."

Financial help and encouragement also came from family, including his wife, Laura--who paints mannequins for a living.

He received financial aid from the college.

As for motivation, "I used to see people walking by the construction site," he said. "You hear them talking, saying you have no brains, construction is all a Mexican can do. I'd get angry. I wanted to say something, but I'd bite my tongue.

"It made me work that much harder."

"He's very focused," said Mike Gomez, who became a friend and teammate of Lozano when the premedical student tried out successfully for the Whittier College baseball team. "I'm pretty envious of his study habits," Gomez said.

A work ethic, Lozano said, distinguished his family long before he became the first to earn a college degree: "My uncle and my father never missed a day of work in their lives."

That generation had little opportunity to pursue an education, said Gloria Lozano, his mother. "My two brothers were all-city and all-state athletes, and they didn't get to go anywhere," she said.

"I wanted to be a doctor. I never told him this," she said, seated in the college's amphitheater as she watched her son graduate on a breezy, overcast Sunday afternoon. "Maybe I'll tell him tonight."

Last summer, Lozano was among 36 premed students from 570 applicants selected to participate in the Space Life Sciences Training Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He helped develop a space shuttle experiment involving sea urchin embryos that researchers hope will provide clues about reproduction and cellular repair and division in space.

"I asked Dan if he was intimidated by the other students," Gomez said. "And he said no, because a lot of tasks revolved around using common sense," such as the time Lozano used his experience in plumbing construction to lead students in assembling the mechanical component of an experiment.

There will be no encore this summer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Instead, the would-be neurosurgeon will operate on automobile radiators at his uncle's shop in Monrovia.

"I enjoy doing that," he said. "It's work with my hands."

Then it's on to medical school. Lozano, a second-generation American, will be taking his family's aspirations with him.

"I'm not going to let you down," he promised family members during a celebration at a local Mexican restaurant.

Later he added quietly: "One of us did it. The rest of us can."

For the once-average high school student, the sweetest moment at graduation was "hearing my name. . . with summa cum laude after it. It hit home that the hard work had paid off."

Lozano's mother could not wait for the word summa. By the time the alphabetical roll-call of seniors receiving diplomas reached Locassio, she had already leaned forward in her seat in the crowded amphitheater. By the time Lozano was announced, she was already cheering for her son.

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