Joshua Lopez, a native Washingtonian and well-known figure on the local political scene, credits the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) as his conduit to a world that first-generation college students, let alone working-class Washingtonians, rarely get to experience firsthand.

Manifesting that dream for others has been his goal since graduating — a vision came to fruition when, during his keynote address at UDC’s Founders’ Day Celebration, Lopez announced the launch of a scholarship for first-generation students living in the District.

The Olimpia Lopez and Elizabeth Keller Matos Opportunity Scholarship, named after the mothers of Lopez and fellow UDC alumni Wilson and Wilton Matos, will cover a portion of fives students’ tuition during the 2019 fall semester and beyond.

“I graduated with zero debt for my undergraduate degree and I’m very proud of that,” said Lopez, a 2009 UDC graduate and first-generation college student of Guatemalan descent.

Lopez took classes toward his bachelor’s degree in history while working full-time for six years. As a student, he led an on-campus protest, joined UDC’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and interned with then-Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty (D).

In his keynote address, Lopez recounted those events with a cool sense of nostalgia.

For him, the relatively manageable tuition and proximity to professors well versed on a variety of subjects, including the political circumstances of his mother’s adolescence and immigration to the United States, made for a unique period of intellectual growth.

“The University of the District of Columbia is an institution created for first-generation students from working-class backgrounds who may not be in the economic position to pay high tuition,” Lopez said. “It opened my eyes to endless possibilities, refined my critical thinking skills, and prepared me for a world of professional settings and business.”

The beginnings of UDC, a historically Black institution of higher learning and D.C.’s only public university, stretch back to the mid-19th century when Myrtilla Miner founded the Normal School for Colored Girls. Over the span of a century, that school and others merged to become District of Columbia’s Teacher College. In 1977, District of Columbia’s Teacher College, Federal City College, and the Washington Technical Institute consolidated to become UDC.

UDC, which churns out a considerable number of District-born graduates, offers nearly 70 undergraduate and graduate programs for its student body, the majority of whom considered nontraditional adult students. During the Feb. 21 Founder’s Day Celebration, UDC earned another distinction as the first HBCU in the country to open a Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Multicultural Affairs.

Both feats, the scholarship and new cultural center, signal UDC’s desire to attract and ease the matriculation of students from marginalized communities. Alexandra Washington, director of Alumni Affairs and Outreach, heralded the Olimpia Lopez and Elizabeth Keller Matos Opportunity Scholarship as an asset in UDC meeting its strategic goals.

“This idea of paying it forward and creating new opportunities for students helps further UDC’s plan to create pathways for students attending the university,” Washington said. “Scholarships do that for students. It’s always great when alumni stand up and contribute to students’ success. This helps advance the great work we’re doing at UDC.”

William Matos, a UDC alumnus hailing from Brazil, noted the role his mother Elizabeth Keller Matos played in his academic journey from the time he stepped foot on American soil.

Matos, a Montgomery College transfer on a soccer scholarship, graduated from UDC with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

“With a scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to go to school and graduate,” said Matos, founder of WKM Solutions, a Northwest-based general contracting firm that’s expanding to Brazil. “This scholarship is a way to give back to the community. I’m thankful for the university and staff who helped me through the process. My mom was the one who helped me financially. I don’t have any relatives here so my mom was the foundation.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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