Alumni profile: Coming to UW-Madison, going abroad opens up new worlds for Lopez

Daniella Lopez learned early on how it feels to be different, to be in the minority. But Lopez grew up with a fierce determination to push forward, which has carried her from a small Wisconsin town to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to Europe, and now in China.

“My family was one of two minority families in Westfield, Wisconsin, a small farming and chicken factory community,” says Lopez, the oldest of four children.

“In high school, I wanted to go to a big liberal city for college and I applied only to UW–Madison. I was the only one from my graduating class to be accepted,” she says. “My mother was thrilled, since that would make me the first person in our family to go to college.”

Daniella Lopez, second from right, with friends at UW-Madison.

Daniella Lopez, second from right, with friends at UW-Madison.

As a teen, her mother, Rosa, had been a migrant worker, moving from state to state across the northern United States during picking seasons. Eventually, Rosa ended up working for a farm and settling in Westfield.

“Being from a minority family in a small town was challenging,” Lopez says. “My mother didn’t raise my sisters and me to speak Spanish because she wanted us to fit in as much as possible.”

Still, she adds, “It was always made very obvious that my sisters and I were different. I remember being so upset that, when I tried out for the school play, I wasn’t given one of the three roles I auditioned for, but instead was cast as ‘Indian girl.’”

At times, the treatment became threatening. “In high school, girls would chase me out of the parking lot and follow me home. I’d run inside and lock the doors to their screams of protest against affirmative action.”

Hard work, good fortune

Meanwhile, she watched her mother work long hours, while earning her high school equivalency diploma.

“Ultimately, these experiences pushed me to try hard, stick up for myself, and grow a thick skin,” Lopez says.

She and her sister were accepted into Upward Bound, a program that provides additional attention and tutoring for high school teens who are unlikely to go to college because of financial and home circumstances.

Her good fortunate continued, as she was not only accepted at UW–Madison, but also into the Chancellor’s Scholarship Program, a privately funded and highly selective merit-based program for undergraduates at UW–Madison. Chancellor’s Scholars are described as enthusiastic learners, budding researchers, and agents of educational, social, and political change.

“It was one of the greatest things to happen to me,” she says. “It meant lifelong friendships, an economic opportunity to be able to focus on my studies and a network unlike anything I had experienced in my small, homogenous hometown.”

Lopez came to Madison with thoughts of studying business, “because that seemed like the smartest way to graduate and find a good job.”

But, on campus, her thinking changed: “Law was something I fell into; I love the idea of democracy, a voice and power for everyone.”

She enjoyed her political science classes, so her family encouraged her to pursue law.

“I took as many political science and legal courses as I could. I even held a job running the computer lab at the Law School for a year to get closer to it all. I am also fortunate that I was a Chancellor’s Scholar, as that provided me with a group of similar people to talk to about courses, interests and fitting in.”

Journey leads overseas

While at UW–Madison, Lopez took another huge step, spending her senior year at Vesalius College in Brussels, Belgium, on a CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) program.

Lopez eating frites in Brussels.

Lopez eating frites in Brussels.

“It was the first time I really left my family and the first time anyone in my family went to Europe.”

She adds, “Being the oldest sibling and going off to college first made me not afraid of being the first to study abroad. Study abroad was something I knew I was going to do, just like going to UW–Madison was something I knew I was going to do.”

As part of her program in Belgium, Lopez applied for internships and was offered two – one at a law firm and the other at a newspaper. Although she had planned to pursue law, she chose the newspaper internship “to do something different.”

“The internship at New Europe was an amazing way for me to explore any and all interests,” she explains. “The journalist team would let me choose any topic, research, interview and write about it. I was most interested in the laws surrounding social issues. … My internship made my study abroad experience exponentially better.”

She describes her studying abroad experiences as “eye-opening” and transforming. “I loved my experience studying abroad. I developed a lot personally and academically, because I challenged myself.”

She adds, “Upon arriving in Belgium, I felt like I was on my own and I was afraid. Once I stopped worrying about going places on my own and being far away from my family and friends, I finally stopped fearing being alone.”

She also credits the support she received far away from home, from her CIEE mentors, her professors at Vesalius and her team at New Europe – “all people who wanted to see me succeed. From then on I realized that I was my most important source of confidence.”

Opportunities lead to China

Lopez graduated from UW–Madison in 2010, with degrees in political science and legal studies, and a certificate in global cultures.

While giving further thought about law school, she decided to take a year off, and ended up in Shanghai, China.

“I didn’t know any Chinese and had not studied anything about Chinese culture, but after living in Belgium, it wasn’t as daunting,” she says. “I was tutoring English and writing as an intern at a popular expat magazine, based off my study abroad internship experience. From there, my editors suggested I try a career in public relations and introduced me to a great boutique agency based in Shanghai.”

For more than three years, Lopez has been working with clients from around the world.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over Asia,” she says. “I would not have been brave enough to travel all over Asia without my travel experience during my study abroad. After five years in China, I’ve realized how much I love living in multicultural communities and working in communications.”

Lopez at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Lopez at Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

She adds, “I have a much clearer idea of what I’m looking for in my life.”

Lopez reflects on her experiences of going from small-town Wisconsin to the other side of the world:

“I love the challenge of living somewhere different. Europe is Europe, developed and still sort of familiar, but China is a whole different beast. China has been such a challenge, with ups and downs that make life truly exciting. It will always feel like one of my homes – just like every time I return to UW–Madison and walk around campus.

“My study abroad trip to Europe offered up some idea of what long-term travel would be like. It’s easy to grow resentful of the daily challenges – not being fluent in the local language, the anonymity of living in a huge, strange city, and the serious cultural differences. However, it’s about embracing these dissimilarities and embracing the soul of a city. When you can do that, everything else feels possible.”