As a K-12 student growing up in Santa Ana, Chrystee Lopez switched schools almost every other year. She always seemed to be moving, but she wasn’t getting anywhere.
After a childhood she describes as troubled, Lopez graduated from a continuation high school in 2008 and took on a series of inconsequential jobs. Then something changed. She took a job as an afterschool program leader at an elementary school, and that led to a position as a behavioral therapist in the Garden Grove Unified School District. She loved the work and wanted more.
Suddenly, she had found a path forward – a career in education. The journey led her to Chapman University’s Attallah College of Educational Studies, where Lopez has found a supportive, collaborative community as she pursues a Master of Arts in Special Education.
She is challenged to go beyond what she thought were her limitations and to pursue a dream her previous self would have never thought possible. What would the high school version of Chrystee Lopez think of all this?
“That person would be dumbfounded, in shock, in awe of who I am today,” Lopez says. “That person was dealing with way too many issues – anxiety, depression, poverty, being alone. Now I have my own apartment, I don’t have to worry where my next meal will come from, I don’t live paycheck to paycheck. I have respect from my community – it’s such a huge level up.”
Launching Her Teaching Journey with a Paid Internship
Lopez is a Warne Fellowship Scholar at Attallah College and recently started a paid internship with Garden Grove Unified, doing the work she loves as she completes the special education master’s degree program.
“There are times when districts recognize that a student is so exceptional that they offer employment even as the student continues in our program and works toward their credential. That’s the case with Chrystee,” says Trisha Sugita (MA ‘07, Ph.D. ‘12), assistant professor at Attallah College and coordinator of the Special Education Programs. “She has a passion for the field and is dedicated to ensuring that students have access and equity to instruction.”
Empowered by Working with Experts in Their Field
Lopez says she knew Chapman was the place for her as soon as she began the special education graduate program.
“To be surrounded by all these professors who are experts in their fields, who are women – it’s been such an empowering experience,” Lopez says. “They’ve pushed me, they’ve inspired me. I just feel honored to be in their presence, honestly.”
Nothing about the academic experience at Chapman has been easy, Lopez allows. The program was highly competitive to get into, and it’s designed to ensure that only those who are fully prepared advance to the classroom or administrative office, where they work with and develop curriculum for students who have special needs.
Set Up to Succeed With Collaboration and Support
Lopez has her sights set on working with students who have moderate to severe needs – those with intellectual disabilities, or emotional and behavioral challenges. Sometimes Lopez will be dealing with significant cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Lopez says she’s prepared not just because of the program’s academic rigor but because the students in her Attallah College cohort have collaborated with and supported her as she has done the same for them.
“I love the cohort-style system,” Lopez says. “You’re surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals. You’re set up to succeed from the beginning.”
Every course has been individualized to her needs, Lopez says – “to what the state requires of you, to what various school districts require of you,” she adds. “Chapman professors consider your goals, what kind of career you want. They get to know you in the beginning of the process so they’re teaching you content that’s relevant to your career needs and desires.”
There was a time, not long ago, when Lopez lacked direction in her life. But now it’s clear that she knows what she wants and where she’s going.
“When I received my Warne Scholarship, it was at an event where we introduced ourselves, and I met the donors. I was in a room full of exceptional human beings, and I was just so inspired,” Lopez recalls. “There was a time when the possibilities were limited for me. The statistics said I wouldn’t succeed. Now the possibilities are endless.”
Learn more about Attallah College’s MA in Special Education program.