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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How Daniel Lopez learned to stop fearing the worst, and started planning for the best

Michelle Parolini
Park Journeys, Inc

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

We’ve all heard the saying. But for young people who come to the United States as immigrants, getting to know people can be a challenge.

Language barriers, cultural barriers, sometimes class barriers can prevent young people from meeting the people who can help them be successful in life.

Today’s story is about a young person trying to make those connections.

The story begins very early one recent Friday, as Daniel Lopez hears his alarm go off. 

He wakes up, zips ups his suitcase, feeds his fish, and heads for the airport for an important trip. 

Lopez is 18 years old, a freshman at Grand Rapids Community College. This trip came about through a partnership between the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology and an organization called Park Journeys, which takes high school juniors and seniors on trips to national parks. Lopez went to Yellowstone in July. But the final phase of the program is a trip to Washington D.C.

Lopez brought an audio recorder along on the trip.

Part of this trip was just to take in the sites, visit the National Mall, see the museums.

But part of the trip was also about going to meetings on Capitol Hill, talking and listening with policymakers and advocates.

Because of his background, Lopez went to learn more about immigration policy. Lopez came to the United States from Guatemala when he was seven.

"Being an immigrant myself," he says, "being an undocumented youth, I know what it feels like to be labeled an 'illegal alien.' All these labels that people put on you, and sometimes they don't understand what a label can make a person feel."

Lopez says the label made him feel afraid and inferior. He says a lot of immigrant kids feel this way, and it keeps them from pursuing their ambitions. He’s now going to college, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. But he says he knows lots of immigrant kids who don’t even try to go to college. That’s something he really wants to change.

And it turned out there was one meeting in D.C. that might help Lopez with that.

Lopez had a meeting at the  National Immigration Law Center. One of the people in that meeting was David Hernandez.

Lopez didn’t record this meeting. He didn’t want it to be awkward.

But the connection he made turned out to be important, because Hernandez was once a lot like Lopez.

Like Lopez, Hernandez was brought to the U.S. as a child. Like Lopez, he struggled to fit in. Like Lopez, Hernandez got to college and wondered why more immigrant kids weren’t there with him.  

Lopez had been thinking about what he could do to address that problem.  

"And David shared one of his stories with me [from] ... when he was in a community college," Lopez says. "And he shared a story about how he started a program which basically did the same thing I want to do." 

That organization is the Hispanic College Awareness Program, or HCAP.

"And when I heard this story, it just caught my attention," Lopez says. "Because that’s one of my, basically, dreams where I always wanted to do that, I always thought about it. But now that he talked about it, I just felt like it's possible."

From the outside, it might have seemed like just a normal meeting.  But Lopez says he came away changed. Not just because he met someone who grew up like him and went on to accomplish things he hopes to accomplish himself.

It also just helped him get over his fear, to share his story, and to find his voice.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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