SRU Bonner Leader’s life experiences provide motivation to serve others


Woman smiling

Melissa Lopez, a Slippery Rock University freshman exercise science major from Pittsburgh, worked at the Macoskey Center last fall as one of five students in the inaugural cohort of SRU’s Bonner Leader Program. Bonner students receive a scholarship and are paid to lead a community-service partnership for the University.

Jan. 3, 2020

(Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles introducing students from Slippery Rock University's inaugural Bonner Leader class. To read the first article, click here.)

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Unstable. That's one way to describe the first years of Melissa Lopez's life. Born in Troy, Michigan, to Mexican immigrants, Lopez was barely old enough to remember the day her father was deported, but she does. It was her mother's birthday. Fearing further family separation, the family moved several times seeking refuge and a reliable income.

To hear her describe that part of her life now seems a contradiction to the stable environment she's found at Slippery Rock University. She's not one to complain. In fact, Lopez looks at her past more as a guide to help others rather something that happened to her.

"It's not that I feel like I have a greater appreciation (for what I have now); it's just easier for me to understand what others are going through," said Lopez, a freshman exercise science major from Pittsburgh. "I'm interested in helping people. Some people want to help others but they can't relate to them or know what they've been through. I feel my perspective is different."

Lopez has the opportunity to help others as one of five freshmen in the Bonner Leader Program at SRU. Bonner students receive a scholarship and are paid to lead a community-service partnership for the University.

Among the traits desired for Bonner Leaders is having a lived experience that informs their ability to effect change for social issues. In addition to her diverse cultural background, Lopez is influenced by issues related to hunger. After she moved with her mother, Anayeli Bravo, and brother, Juan Lopez, at least four times before she was in the third grade, Lopez recalls difficult times when food was hard to come by.

"Immigration, food access and clean water are important issues to me," Lopez said. "(Growing up), I was always scared to go home (from school) and my mom not be there. There were times my mom wouldn't eat so me and my brother could because we didn't have enough money."

The family, which now includes her stepfather, Carlos Hernandez, and stepsister, Mariana, resides in Pittsburgh, where Lopez graduated from Avonworth High School.

Lopez was active in high school, playing softball, running cross country and participating in the marching band's color guard. A back injury, which required physical therapy, led to an interest in sports medicine as a potential career and a look at SRU as a place to go to college.

While Lopez speaks both English and Spanish, her mother and stepfather primarily speak Spanish. Because of that, when the family attended an SRU orientation session last May, the University provided a translator for the group who shared with them information about the Bonner Program.

Bonner Leaders at SRU receive $5,000 in financial support each year for four years, including a $3,000 scholarship and $2,000 earned through their work in the community. They must commit at least 10 hours per week during the academic year to leading a partnership with a community organization while maintaining a minimum 2.5 GPA.

"What interested me most is just knowing that I (could be) working with others," Lopez said. "I like working with other people and being part of the community."

SRU joined an exclusive network of 64 institutions in the U.S. to adopt the Bonner Foundation's civic engagement and scholarship model. The Bonner Foundation oversees the network to ensure that institutions are expressing the organization's "common commitments" of civic engagement, community building, diversity, international perspective, social justice, spiritual exploration and wellness.

Lopez applied for the program and was interviewed by SRU's 10-member Bonner Program Advisory Committee. The BPAC, which is comprised of SRU faculty and staff, Bonner Program staff and student coordinators and a community member, chose Lopez and four other first-year students from among nearly 50 applicants to represent the first cohort. Subsequent cohorts will include 10 students per year. Once the program is operating at full capacity there will be 40 students in the program.

"We aspire all of our Bonner Leaders to have or be able to develop traits that include civic leadership, a diverse perspective and a passion to effect change related to social issues and the larger community," said Sami Laurence, SRU's Bonner Program developer. "The qualifications for the program are consistent with the Bonner Foundation's common commitments. Through their lived experiences, diversity and desire to learn, our first cohort meets these qualifications and they are certainly positioned to lead the way in developing partnerships with the community and setting a precedent for future Bonner students who enter the program."

During their first semester in fall 2019, Bonner Leaders rotated working at three service locations in the community every four weeks. These included the Slippery Rock Community Library, the Macoskey Center for Sustainability Education and Research and Don't Stop Dreamin', a foundation of Quality Life Services based in Butler that helps nursing home, rehab and personal care residents in western Pennsylvania. In spring 2020, the Bonner Leaders will be designed as the leader of a community partnership and work to build capacity for more SRU volunteers and resources. By their fourth year in the program, their focus will shift to community action and scholarship.

Lopez, like each of her fellow Bonner Leaders, brings a unique perspective to her civic engagement, particularly her lived experiences encountering issues related to immigration and hunger.

"It's a little bit of everything that's shaped who I am," Lopez said. "I'm interested in these issues and helping people and that's why I wanted to be in the Bonner Program."

To learn more about the BLP at SRU, including information for students applying for the 2020-21 academic year, click here.

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