First-gen student Renata Lopez reflects on community, career, and graduation

Renata Lopez found community with El Centro, now she is preparing to graduate and start her new role with Amazon

Renata Lopez (Oakes ’24, computer science)
Renata Lopez (right) alongside former el centro student program coordinator Esmeralda Ruiz at the 2022 Dia de los Muertos celebration
2024 El Centro student interns alongide Resource Center Director, Xiomara Lopez

Renata Lopez, a first-generation, computer science fourth-year student, is preparing to cross the graduation stage in less than a month. After multiple internships, research opportunities, and contributing to the campus Chicanx and Latinx community, Lopez (Oakes ‘24, computer science) is ready to leave the Santa Cruz redwoods for Seattle and start her new role with Amazon. 

Hailing from El Salvador, Lopez was eager to find community on campus. However, her entire first year at UCSC was fully remote due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, making finding said community difficult. She was feeling homesick and started to question if she belonged at UCSC. That is, until she decided to attend her roommate's performance at a campus event her second year. 

The event was a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration hosted by El Centro, UCSC’s Chicanx and Latinx Resource Center. Although Dia de los Muertos is celebrated differently in El Salvador, Lopez found comfort in the radiating sense of community.

“Seeing a bunch of people there to celebrate, and the pan dulce, the conchas, and the hot chocolate, it felt like I was back home,” Lopez said. “The whole ceremony was so beautiful. Even though my culture doesn't really celebrate it that way, I still felt very included.”

Soon after, a position with El Centro opened up, and Lopez applied alongside her roommate. They were both given program coordinator positions. 

Lopez worked in the role for two years and helped plan events, collaborated with other resource centers, local organizations, and activists, and supported students who came into the space. Lopez entered El Centro feeling shy and introverted, but by the end of her two years as a program coordinator, she had leaped out of her comfort zone. In her last year, Lopez was the MC for the Dia de los Muertos Celebration and spoke in front of thousands of attendees—a full circle moment going back to how she found El Centro. 

“We're always trying to make sure that we're treating each other with care and compassion,” Lopez said. “So even doing scary things that feel out of my comfort zone, at least I know I'm doing it in a safe space where people are rooting for me.”

In addition to the resource center, Lopez was a member of UCSC’s GANAS Career Internship program, one of UCSC’s initiatives as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). GANAS supports students in finding internships and paid opportunities and helped Lopez secure her first internship with the Santa Cruz County Health Department. She also worked with Professor Scott Beamer assisting with algorithm coding. 

All of Lopez’s experiences gave her the confidence to apply for an internship with Amazon. After completing the internship, she was offered a full-time position as a cloud support associate in Seattle upon graduation. 

Lopez is grateful to El Centro Resource Center Director Xiomara Lopez for helping her with applications and letters of recommendation, and to her mom for supporting her throughout her college career. Lopez is following in the footsteps of her mom, who worked as a software engineer in El Salvador. 

“My family has been a huge part of why I am where I am, especially my mom,” Lopez said. “None of this would have ever happened if it wasn't for them.”

In the future, Lopez hopes to pursue roles discussing the ethics and impact surrounding machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

For current and incoming first-generation college students, Lopez emphasizes that it's ok to not know things and make mistakes. She encourages students to reach out for help through mentors, tutoring sessions, and emailing professors. 

“It's okay to take up space, make mistakes, fail classes, and not do the best as long as you're giving it your best shot,” she said. “I'm definitely not trying to do everything alone. I feel like a lot of the things that helped me out were through collaborative work. It’s ok if your journey doesn’t look the same as others.”