Surviving commuter life’s busiest time of year, Commuter Appreciation Week, junior journalism & digital media major and mentor Melanie Lopez gives a smile brighter than the pink Beats that rest on her neck.
Reflecting on all the jobs she had to do, like making over 1,000 snack bags for hungry commuters, Lopez reminisces on her beginnings as a commuter at Montclair State University.
“I originally was born and raised in Paterson, so Montclair State is fairly close to where I live.” Lopez said.
Despite the proximity to campus, Lopez still recalls feeling overwhelmed by college life.
“The change, it was pretty sudden — I’ve been used to going to schools with primarily Black or Hispanic kids,” Lopez said.
Culture shock is not a foreign concept, especially for first-generation students like Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican and Peruvian descent. However, the diversity at Montclair State provided her comfort and excitement for what was to come and was able to find herself a community quickly.
“I never really experienced feeling alone. [Montclair State] kind of feels like a home away from home,” Lopez said.
Lopez wished to spread her luck of finding community and friends when she joined Commuter Life’s Mentorship Program, CAMP, which helps freshmen and transfer students adjust to college life with guidance and advice from upperclassmen.
“I wanted to make sure people who are coming in for the first time as commuters, whether it’s a freshman or a transfer, that they felt included in something and make them feel comfortable when they come here,” Lopez said. “[It] was my main goal to make people feel like they have inclusion here. There are things to do as a commuter,” Lopez said, joking at the end.
While Lopez says it was “intimidating” to join the program as a Latina, she was quickly comforted by her mentees’ acceptance and eagerness.
“A lot of my mentees, they are really responsive, [they] respond to all the messages I send if there are things happening,” Lopez said. “A lot of them text me personally [and] reach out to me because they feel comfortable asking me questions. And I love asking questions. Sometimes if you’re from a certain background or a certain race, you’re perceived a certain way [right] off the bat. So that’s what I was worried about, but they don’t seem to have an issue with me being Latina.”
Lopez is extremely proud of her heritage, mentioning it whenever she can. Lopez was awarded the Jose Rohaldy National Association of Hispanic Journalists New Jersey Chapter Scholarship for her work in the School of Communication and Media in May 2023.
Looking back on the moment, you can hear the pride in Lopez’s voice.
“That was very shocking and surprising to me because I wasn’t expecting [to win] but I felt very very proud of myself. I was never expecting to win a scholarship in college, especially being Hispanic and a Latina, [which] made me feel proud of where I come from,” said Lopez.
The award was an unexpected blessing to her and her family who were concerned about tuition for the upcoming semester. Financial concerns are a huge factor in a Latino/x/e families’ decision to send their children to college, as the loan system and tuition price can be new, confusing and daunting. According to a 2020 study from the Student Borrower Protection Center, about 72 percent of Latino/x/e students turn to loans to pay for college.
“I definitely feel blessed because that’s where I’m able to pay for tuition this year. I feel extraordinarily grateful that [my effort and my work were] being noticed. I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that they do this for Hispanic students!’ So I was very very happy,” Lopez said.
Besides being an attentive mentor and award-winning student, Lopez aspires to become an anchor for a large news organization. Headstrong in her opinions about the industry, Lopez wants to serve as a representation for Latinas in the news industry while opening opportunities for them by not giving into stereotypical career choices.
“What I want to hopefully do is be on TV,” Lopez said. “Being Hispanic and Latina, I don’t want to subject myself to being on Spanish TV because that’s not something that I primarily would want to go in. I don’t want it to be that ‘Oh, because she speaks Spanish, she should stay in Spanish broadcast.’ Don’t limit yourself to something that people think you should limit yourself to. I want to do what I think I’m capable of doing.”
Lopez is currently being mentored by Grace Gomez, a fellow Latina and bilingual news anchor at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises. The School of Communication and Media’s Mentorship program and Gomez’s guest speaking in various classes connected the two.
“She is amazing! She was a presenter in my class last semester and she does everything that I would wanna do, and she’s so confident,” Lopez said.
One of the things that Lopez made clear is that she believes in the power of dreams and is confident in making them come true for herself and her family. It is almost a universal truth that Latino/x/e sons and daughters dream big so that their parents’ sacrifices of leaving their family to move to a new country and learn a new language become worth it.
“Manifestation is key,” Lopez said.”I tell that to everybody I know. Manifest this, manifest that, do this, do your work.”
Watching her parents’ hard work has been more than enough motivation and inspiration for Lopez’s determined attitude.
“Especially coming from two parents who never went to college—my mother’s of Peruvian descent, my father’s of Puerto Rican descent—I’m their only child, it [falls] on me a lot to make them proud,” Lopez said. “They can’t say that they’ve done what I’ve done, and I want to make sure that they feel content knowing that they raised a daughter who’s able to accomplish things that they wish that they could have done.”