As the fall semester begins, Alisson Lopez will be dorming again at the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), where discussions that started in class continue day and night in the facility’s many lounges and collaborative spaces.
Like Lopez, many classmates are immigrants and students of color who share similar backgrounds. They are dedicated to creating a world where everyone has equal access to opportunity and wellbeing. But they don’t always agree on how to make that happen.
The difference between the HLLC and other honors environments, said Lopez, is that she and her peers are not isolated voices, straining sometimes to convince the majority that racism and other forms of discrimination and injustice exist.
“We don’t have to spend time and energy saying ‘racism is real, this is real, please believe me,’’ she said. “We all know this is real. We’ve lived it. The conversations are about how to help our communities progress. We’re disagreeing on how to fix this.”
The HLLC, where an intergenerational group of students live and study together, is not like other honors programs. It focuses on identifying students with the potential to be local change agents. Many have first-hand knowledge of social and economic inequality because it has impacted themselves and their communities. Faculty and administrators believe their keen insight and critical analysis, drawn from their own lives, are invaluable.
In addition to academic excellence, students are selected based on resilience, community involvement, and their drive to build a more equitable society. As part of a growing trend in higher education, standardized test scores are not considered. Most students are from under resourced communities and other groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Many are the first of their families to attend college.
Lopez and her family fled gang violence in El Salvador when she was a child. Raised in Newark’s Ironbound section, she was often stigmatized at school and elsewhere because of her nationality and immigration status, she said.
She knows the many ways in which limited access to medical care and other resources, coupled with the fear of deportation, have affected families like her own. Because of this, she has decided to become a pre-med student, majoring in neuroscience. Her goal is to improve healthcare quality and access among marginalized patients, an aspiration that has been nurtured and supported at the HLLC.
“I want to change the system,’’ she said.
This summer, Lopez spent time working as an interpreter in a Rutgers Speech-Language Pathology Clinic at the School of Health Professions in Newark, which is part of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences campus.
She remembers how difficult it was as a child accompanying her parents to doctor appointments, where she had to translate complex medical advice and convey her family’s concerns and questions to doctors. Lopez is proud that through her role at the clinic, she was able to make patient visits easier and less intimidating than they were for her family.
“I could see what it looked like when doctors are empathetic. And I could help because I was the link between the doctor and the patient. I was being useful to my community and within the healthcare system and doing something about the disparities I faced,” she said.