Born This Way: SMC Student Challenges Perceptions About Hacking, Engineering, and Being LGBTQ+
SMC student Ash Lopez shares her story of overcoming hurdles and conquering stereotypes.
Working with Lady Gaga gave Ash Lopez a unique opportunity to extend her advocacy for LGBTQ+ issues and mutual understanding — something that has been profoundly important to her since the age of 17. Ash co-authored The New York Times bestselling book Channel Kindness: Stories of Kindness and Community as a young reporter for Born This Way Foundation. Led by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the foundation supports young people's mental health as it aims to build a kinder, braver world.
"When marriage equality became the law of the land [in the United States], I drove around in my little car, waving my rainbow flag," she says. Still, not everyone was so accepting of this advance and gay rights. "I was cussed at and had drinks thrown at me," Ash recalls.
Instead of stopping, she started blaring the Lady Gaga song "Born This Way." So it was appropriate that Ash would later work with the foundation that bears the song's name. "I applied to one of their programs and became a Channel Kindness reporter," she says. The work also leveraged Ash's burgeoning expertise in digital technology.
"The book published my article about a mentor with whom I had worked on some tech projects," she says. That story, about Humanistic Technologies founder Ruby Guillen, covered apps to protect children — especially an app that centralizes reports about child abuse to make sure youth don't get lost between city bureaucracies. In addition to the thrill of being published, Ash says, "it was exciting to have some of my work highlighted."
Ash majors in computer science and biology at Santa Monica College with plans to study computational neuroscience and explore the inner workings of both artificial intelligence and the human brain. She chose SMC after hearing about it in conversations at various computer bootcamps.
"And I had a good friend in Inglewood who was an SMC student," Ash adds. "She let me know SMC has one of the highest transfer rates."
SMC also helps students connect with academic opportunities at other institutions, Ash notes. "For example, I've been fortunate to get accepted into UCLA's Bruins-in-Genomics [BIG] computational biology summer program," she says. Ash especially appreciated how Senior Career Services Advisor Joan Kang helped her prepare the BIG application materials — including updating her resumé.
Ash was also impressed by the Adelante Program, which was created by SMC's Latino Center to foster academic achievement, cultural awareness and personal growth. "It seemed like SMC had everything I needed," Ash explains. "And the classes are very in tune with technology. So I enrolled, and I've been hooked ever since."
Overcoming challenges and conquering stereotypes
Ash has already racked up extensive experience as a software engineer, activist, writer and entrepreneur. She launched a tech consulting business, Serpent Security Solutions, is an elected delegate of the California Democratic Party and considers herself an "ethical hacker."
Yet she grew up worried that she might never be able to pursue her dreams. "I didn't think I was smart enough, because you never see a Latina from South Los Angeles pictured as a programmer," she says.
Ash also endures various disabilities that cause pain and fatigue, while economic circumstances have sometimes forced her to work multiple jobs. In addition, she serves as a caregiver for her grandmother, who suffers dementia. So Ash's academic journey has taken longer than she would have liked. But her family gives her all the support they can.
"My grandparents' and my mom's dream is for me to get my bachelor's degree," she says.
SMC Spanish Professor Alejandro Lee says Ash need never have doubted her abilities — or worried about success in her academic and professional journey. "Ash is an extraordinary and entrepreneurial young woman who exudes enthusiasm and tenacity to achieve her dreams," he says. "She is intelligent, articulate in two languages, charming, extroverted, and yet humble."
Ash took Alejandro's Spanish 12 course in fall 2020, after COVID-19 forced all classes online. "It's been a bumpy ride" because of the pandemic, she says, "but I'm getting the support I need at SMC."
Encouraged by Alejandro's mentorship and the other faculty, staff and students at SMC, Ash plans to transfer to a top university like USC, UCLA, Stanford, or Columbia to continue her studies. "Professor Lee told me to dream bigger in terms of where I'm applying," she says.
"I consider it an honor to be part of her journey and education, and I am inspired by all her indefatigable activism and social justice work in our communities," Alejandro says. "Any top university would be fortunate to have her as an alumna."
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