Aspen High student Jesse Lopez rises from horrific times to earn prestigious Daniels scholarship
It was the fall semester of 2014, and Jesse Lopez was starting over.
A new home. A new school. And new guardians.
His first year in the Aspen school system, Lopez was entering eighth grade, which can be a taxing year academically, developmentally, emotionally and socially. Here Lopez was, facing those challenges as well as a new environment of peers, teachers and counselors.
“I knew that I was behind academically, behind socially,” Lopez, 18, recalled last week. “I couldn’t really fit in with my community. And I entered my first semester of eighth grade and said, ‘I’m just going to do whatever I’m assigned. That’s it.’”
Lopez conceded that he “floated” through eighth grade, and “I realized that wasn’t going to cut it. I had to get serious and grind all the time.”
Grind away is what he did and continues to do. It’s reflected in his admission to Pitzer College in California, thanks to the school’s financial aid and Lopez receiving a four-year scholarship from the Daniels Fund.
The Daniels Fund, according to its website, provides scholarships to students who “demonstrate exceptional character, leadership, and a commitment to serving their communities.” The scholarships are awarded to more than 200 high-achieving students in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Lopez is the first Aspen student to become a Daniels scholar.
He leaves for Pitzer, which is part of the Claremont Colleges, in August; he plans to major in physics.
His story, however, isn’t just about his getting a full ride to a selective California school, which Forbes placed as the 11th best college in the West in its 2019 rankings. It’s also about how the Aspen community galvanized to support him during the most difficult of times.
“It was definitely a collective effort from our entire community of teachers, students and the administration helping support his goals and dreams,” said Melissa Lustig, a college counselor at the high school.
When Lopez was introduced to Aspen schools, he was coming off the heels of a horrific, life-altering event for him and his older brother. Months earlier, on July 12, a cousin of the two Lopez brothers shot and killed their two parents at their El Jebel home. Mayra and Eliseo Lopez had worked diligently to raise their family, their lives cut short after 16 years of marriage. Mayra was 40, Eliseo 42.
Their parents deceased, Jesse and his brother, Eliseo, both of whom had attended Basalt schools, and their dog moved into the Aspen residence of Blanca “Edith” Argueta Amaya and Antonio Amaya, the uncle of the Lopez boys and the brother of the slain father. They also joined their cousins, Eric and Amy, the Amaya couple’s children.
In addition to the Amaya couple, who are from El Salvador, Jesse Lopez took the guidance of Snowmass Village Bob Glah, a financial adviser and once a member of the Aspen School District’s Board of Education. Glah connected with Lopez through his friendship with attorney Susan O’Bryan of Alpine Legal Services, a Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit organization that provides legal aid in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Glah and Lopez bonded early on, and the college application process was an eye-opening episode for both of them.
“If a minority person who is a first-generation college student doesn’t have the supporting of the Aspen School District’s college counseling department, how many of those kids can possibly do this on their own with no counseling?” Glah said. “You can see how these inequities build through the system, but here Jesse is.”
But first, Glah had to inspire Lopez not to settle for complacency.
“When I took him in his freshman year, I told him, ‘You can go as far as you want to go, but you have to stay on track if you want to go where you want to,’” Glah recalled. “And he made some key decisions. He had to double up on math, and he did.
“He has just owned this whole process. He had to work twice or three times as hard as Aspen High students just to play catch-up, whether it was in the English language or math. … He has done so much and come so far, and it’s unbelievable.”
Lopez took part in both the high school’s special education and International Baccalaureate programs, but it wasn’t just a quench for learning he satisfied. By his junior year, he and friend Luca Morrow-Yeager became mentor-type instructors to middle school students in a program titled “Always Thinking Like a Scientist,” or ATLAS.
“It is remarkable how many community members have made his education a priority and how they delivered a life changing scholarship for him,” Tharyn Mulberry, principal of Aspen High School, wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “Jesse has been a standout student, and I have observed him teach classes on physics in the ‘Think Like a Scientist’ program. His promise was certainly evident then, and I am ecstatic he will be able to pursuit his academic goals with the Daniels scholarship.”
Upon learning that he had been accepted to Pitzer College — his first choice for higher education — Lopez and his advocates also learned he would need more money. Enter the Daniels Fund, which was the “gap closer,” Glah said.
“Part of their mission is to support students who want to give back to the community,” Glah said. “And Jesse’s interest and enthusiasm for science and working to inspire young students to engage with science and to learn more … really did resonate with them, and it showcased his humanitarianism and his desire to help others.”
Lopez said he plans to go into the teaching field after college, but not until he serves four years in the U.S. Army. He also plans to participate in Pitzer College’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
“I want to go into the Army for four years and continue my education,” he said, adding he plans to focus on engineering in his graduate studies.
Lopez credits his aunt and uncle for encouraging him to work hard. They don’t pressure him to be the best, but expect him to give his best.
“They don’t have a problem with me aiming high and missing,” he said. “But they do have a problem with me shooting lower.”
Lopez uses that encouragement, as well as inspiration from Glah, his classmates, teachers, school counselors and others to stay motivated.
Lopez wakes up at 4 a.m. every weekday to study math for an hour. Then it’s physics from 5 to 6 a.m. He also stays fit by doing two hours of resistance training per day, and finds his outlet through fencing.
“My dad would wake up at 6 a.m. and go to work,” Lopez recalled, “and he wouldn’t get home until 11 at night. I remember one night, when I was really hungry, I went to the kitchen and I saw my dad had a bunch of papers and he was drawing dragons. I asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’ve got to live my passion.’
“He taught me that even though he worked hard every day and was stressed out, he would come home and do his passion, while he was also providing for the people he cared for.”
Lopez said he took his parents for granted at the time. He doesn’t now.
“I realize I didn’t give the adequate amount of love back to them,” he said. “Now I continue to give my love back to everybody.”
Science and philosophy are two of Lopez’ most enjoyable academic pursuits, but he also said he pushes himself to tackle the subjects that give him the most difficulty — such as classic literature. Eventually, he said, he wants to return to Aspen and help others — whether it’s through teaching or other means.
“For both Jesse and his older brother (who works and lives in Aspen), I never would have guessed four years ago they would have come into this situation,” Glah said. “They’ve proven their selves in their owns ways as amazing success stories, and a lot of it has to do with the school community.”
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Aspen Skiing Co. didn’t let the shortened ski season in 2019-20 slow it down this summer. The company is replacing the Big Burn Chairlift at Snowmass and adding snowmaking at Snowmass and Aspen Mountain.