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Budding medic's pals come to his aid

When Ricardo Lopez came up short on funds to attend grad school, Latino leaders in Orange County got to work.

July 24, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Ricardo Lopez earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's, but the jobs never rolled in.

His spirits were buoyed this summer when he was accepted to another, yearlong graduate program, one that would prepare him for medical school -- a dream he had chased since childhood.

The price tag for tuition and other student fees at a public university, however, wasn't cheap. In all, he figured, the education would set him back $10,000.

Student loans or grants were out of the question. Lopez is an undocumented immigrant, a young man who came to the United States from Mexico City when he was 8, full of ambition and drive, yet living very much under the radar.

But his friends and admirers -- some of them prominent Orange County Latino leaders -- did not want to see the 27-year-old fail.

So they donated about $500 each. A Santa Ana city councilwoman. The executive director of the county's Human Relations Commission. A local leader with the League of United Latin American Citizens. In Lopez, they saw a rare perseverance.

The local leaders and other donors say Lopez's ambition should serve as an example for thousands of other undocumented immigrants who often give up on their education, believing that the prospects of landing a good job were slim without the required legal immigration status.

Some anti-illegal immigrant activists agree that Lopez's story is compelling but question why there is such support for a person living illegally in the United States while there are citizens who could use similar financial help.

"Stories like his are touching and inspiring," said Eileen Garcia, a member of the Minuteman Project, a border patrol group. "But what gets me is that if this guy, if he is illegal, and could achieve as much as he did, why couldn't he follow the law and get legal status?"

Allen Baldwin, executive director of the Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit low-cost home builder, said Lopez should be commended. "Perseverance against all odds" is how Baldwin sums it up.

Lopez sets a good example for those who live in the housing provided by the corporation, Baldwin said.

"Those people would be children of immigrants, legal and illegal, who often don't have the needed role models to get ahead," he said.

Lopez attended Orange High School, setting plans early for a career in medicine. He earned a bachelor's degree from UCLA and a master's degree in public health in June. He asked that The Times not identify the campus where he will be seeking his second master's degree.

Baldwin met Lopez several years ago at weekly breakfast meetings of Los Amigos of Orange County, a civic organization. Earlier this month, Baldwin sent an e-mail to more than 50 people, saying he was looking for 20 donors to give Lopez $500 each.

Among those who responded was Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who said she was impressed by Lopez's optimism and his educational accomplishments. She offered him $500.

"All he wants is what we all want: the American dream," Martinez said. "Here is someone waiting for an open door. He is not limiting himself because the doors are closed. He has hope."

Lopez and his family came to the United States from Mexico City when he was 8, traveling on tourist visas. They decided to stay after applying for legal residency. They were told by immigration officials that it would not be long before they would be granted residency, he said. The family is still waiting.

With that application pending, Lopez said there was no other legal option he could take, other than wait, or return to Mexico.

Eager for Lopez to get a good education, the family stayed.

His parents worked a variety of jobs before launching a beauty products business from their home.

In 1997, Lopez was accepted to UC Davis but could not afford out-of-state tuition, which he would have been required to pay because he was not a legal resident.

So he went to community college instead while he and his family saved enough money to pay the out-of-state tuition at UCLA -- roughly $23,000. Subsequent state legislation allowed Lopez to qualify for in-state tuition.

"I wouldn't have been able to keep paying otherwise," he said.

He worked in a genetics laboratory but lost his job when his employer found out he was an undocumented immigrant. Since then, he has earned money tutoring high school students.

Unable to land work in public health, he decided to go to medical school.

The program he will begin in September includes entrance examination preparation and classes that will make Lopez a good candidate for medical school.

"I know my options are limited, but that could change," he said. "And in the meantime, no one can take my education away from me."

Lopez has lobbied for the Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for students. Although the federal measure has failed several times, there has been hope recently that it could be passed in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.

Lopez's work brought him in contact with people like Rusty Kennedy, the executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission who also donated money to help pay his tuition.

"We were very moved by his story," Kennedy said. "I think we will look back years from now and say that was a good investment in the future of our community."

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