A version of this story first appeared in IDEA’s IMPACT Magazine in 2019.
Nestled between the Tucson and Santa Catalina Mountains, lies a small neighborhood steeped in history and culture. Settled in the 1920s by Mexican immigrants, the area known as Barrio Hollywood features modest brick and adobe homes on dusty streets dotted with cactus and palm trees.
Al Lopez recalls his humble beginnings as a boy growing up in Barrio Hollywood with two brothers, a sister, and a pair of hard-working parents. His mother was a homemaker while his father worked for the railroad for 40 years after serving in World War II.
“My mother is originally from a small town in Sonora, Mexico, that didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity until I was a teenager, where the town’s only school stopped at the elementary level, leaving her with a fifth-grade education,” says Lopez. “My father was born in the United States but dropped out of school in 7th grade to help support his mother and siblings after his father passed away.”
As a child, Lopez always enjoyed helping others whenever he could. As a student, Lopez helped his mother while she studied for her U.S. citizenship. He also tutored his father to help him obtain his GED after a supervisor position opened at work. In addition, he also helped classmates in many of his classes.
“I think my father felt somewhat persecuted growing up for not speaking English well,” he says. “He was always shy about his language acumen, but he worked hard on it and got proficient over time. I was happy to be able to help my parents in any way I could. I even did their tax returns.”
In school, Lopez admits that it didn’t take much for him to excel both on and off the field.
“I was blessed with being a good student and also a pretty good athlete,” he says. “Academics came really easily to me, and I was playing football, baseball, and basketball. My high school football team won the state championship my junior and senior year, and our baseball team won the state championship my senior year. So, I felt like I was on track to go to college but didn’t know what the process was to get there.”
In addition to becoming a state champion in sports, Lopez also ranked fifth in his graduating class of 500 students at Tucson High School, which further reinforced the idea that he was on-track to go to college and hopefully become a professional baseball player. However, Lopez did not know where to start. In fact, it wasn’t until the head baseball coach at the University of Arizona (U of A) came to his home in the spring of his senior year with a letter of intent for an academic scholarship that Lopez realized he had a lot of catching up to do.
“I didn’t apply to a single school because I didn’t know that you had to do that. I didn’t have a single adult at my high school even ask if I was ready for the process,” he says. “The U of A baseball coach asked me if I had taken the ACT. I had never even heard of it. He told me there are tests that you needed to take to gain entry to college, and there was only one test date left in order to get my scores in on time.”
Lopez took the ACT and was granted the scholarship to attend the University of Arizona in the fall of 1972.
As someone who enjoyed math and science, Lopez entered college as an engineering major, and took courses in physics, calculus, and chemistry, but was surprised when his studies took more effort than they did in high school.
“I was so unprepared for that first semester. It was really, really hard,” he says. “In high school, I had only ever gotten three Bs and here I was struggling. The academic advisor for the athletic program told me my GPA was really bad and that I was on the verge of losing my scholarship.”
Lopez still had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player and decided to switch his major to business with a degree in accounting. However, his plan to use college ball as a way into the professional leagues hit a snag when he realized he was now playing at a level where everyone on the team was just as good as him, if not better.
He began to take stock of the opportunity that had been given to him and realized that if he did not make some important changes, he would not only lose his scholarship, but also his chance to become a first-generation college graduate.
Lopez applied himself and graduated from the University of Arizona in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an NCAA championship ring in baseball. Shortly after, he began working in the sales department at IBM, where he would ultimately climb the ranks over the next twenty-one years from sales rep to senior manager, to high level executive positions that included two years living in France. While at IBM, Lopez also worked on receiving his master’s degree in business.
After IBM, he joined Dell, Inc. in 1998 as Vice President of Finance for Global Services.
Due to his own experience as a first-generation college student who had little guidance on the way to college, Lopez has a strong history of community outreach and service, especially when it comes to education. His faith compels him to be generous and serve those who have less resources and opportunity.
“I was involved in some volunteer work at schools in East Austin and I started seeing the difference in education and academic performance in these schools compared to the schools that my three kids went to,” he says.
Lopez’s own experience as a student who had no clear path to college further fueled his desire to give back. His work with the John H. Reagan Early College High School’s AVID program also led to him being named the AISD Latino Volunteer of the Year in 2012. The same year, Lopez heard about a new charter school called IDEA Public Schools making its home in Austin.
As Lopez learned more about IDEA and its mission to prepare every student to graduate college regardless of their socio-economic background, he wondered why other districts weren’t challenging themselves to do the same.
He was impressed with IDEA, its mission, and track record of success in the Valley and knew students and families in Austin needed an additional school option in the community. When IDEA asked him to join IDEA’s regional board it was a no-brainer. Lopez has since served as Chair of IDEA Austin’s Regional Board, and the Treasurer and now Chair of IDEA’s Governing Board. He says each graduating class is a testament to IDEA’s focus on what matters most.
“We really focus on the students,” he continues. “We focus on delivering high-performing, academically efficient students, and I’m proud that we continue to do that year after year. Our graduating classes are getting larger, and these students are changing what it really means to be a first-generation college student.”
Al Lopez has served on IDEA’s National Board of Directors since 2015 and as Board Chair since January of 2020. He will serve as IDEA’s CEO during the search for a new leader.