The Day – New London senior graduate confident in her independence
New London – In September 2017, Stacey Rivera Lopez gathered with six members of her family in the hallway of her home in Caguas, Puerto Rico, far from any windows, as heavy, windswept rains battered the neighborhood .
Lopez was 13 when Hurricane Maria hit the island. While it was a scary time, seniors at New London High School believe she was lucky compared to many Puerto Ricos who lost their homes or their lives in the devastating storm. Some estimates place the death toll at nearly 3,000 people.
For Lopez, the result of the storm has been months of living with a generator and helping out as neighbors band together to secure water and repair homes.
It would be months after the storm that she and her stepmother, Yadira Saez, and her sister, Aracely Michelle Lopez, would move to New London to join her father, Nelson Rivera, who had taken his two stepsisters to live with parents. The family will eventually find their own place to settle.
By all accounts, Lopez’s time in New London was a success, and it started with her work at school.
Margaret Bucaram, Supervisor of English for Speakers of Other Languages, Bilingual Education and World Languages at New London Public Schools, attributes Lopez’s success to a strong work ethic.
“She is solid. She has a positive attitude and we recognized from the start that she had a lot of ability and drive,” Bucaram said. “She’s a pretty amazing girl.”
Lopez recalls her freshman year as a struggle at first, as she pushed herself academically while trying to master the English language. This led to her taking Advanced Placement and Honors classes in her second year, which she says was an attempt to step out of her comfort zone and take classes where Spanish was less spoken.
“To get better opportunities, you have to work hard,” Lopez said evenly.
Lopez seems to have a knack for languages and is in her second year of learning Chinese.
Lopez is now 18 and maturing beyond her years. Independence is something that was instilled in her at a young age and she is proud of it. She has worked since the age of 15, first in the summer youth program and for three years at Shop Rite in New London, where her two half-sisters also work. She started as a cashier, but has since worked her way up in almost every department.
While working, she found time to make the honor roll, play college volleyball for three years, and get involved with different clubs, such as Latinos in Action and the Multicultural Club. She skipped her freshman year of volleyball during the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on work, earning enough to buy a car before getting her driver’s license.
High school volleyball coach Missy Parker called Lopez “a leader on and off the court.”
“She invests the time and effort to be the best volleyball player she can be and, more importantly, the best student. It was a pleasure coaching her and she deserves recognition,” Parker said.
In her spare time, she crochets. This summer, she will start a second job at Marshalls department store in New London and a summer college credit program at the University of Connecticut.
Lopez also spent time in high school working as a teaching assistant with Spanish and bilingual teacher Angela Peralta.
Lopez would eventually earn a Connecticut Biliteracy Seal, which recognizes high school graduates who have achieved proficiency in more than one language. Speaking from experience, Lopez said Spanish speakers are at a disadvantage having to juggle English lessons while trying to keep up with the academic pace. It just takes a little extra work.
“When you’re given an opportunity to succeed and improve, you have to take it,” Lopez said. “That was my position at the time. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to succeed and learn the language. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, you’re not learning. I chose AP and Honors because I wanted to be one of the best students.
By the time she graduates, Lopez will be in the top 10 of her class. She will also live alone. His father recently returned to Puerto Rico after becoming a grandfather. Her mother-in-law plans to return after graduation, and Lopez has had time to settle into a new apartment she will share with her two stepsisters.
In the fall, Lopez will travel to UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton, close enough to keep her job. She got a scholarship to pay for her tuition. Although she hasn’t declared a major yet, Lopez said she plans to focus on biology, science, and possibly business classes.
“I wanted to be a nurse, but I thought maybe I wasn’t good enough with blood,” Lopez said. “I still want to help people and I still think I would like to work in a hospital, maybe in administration.”
The percentage of Spanish-speaking people in the medical field is lower than it should be in the United States, she said.
“I feel like I’m able to use my voice to help the Hispanic community,” she said.
Lopez said part of her goal will be to give back to the community that welcomed her with open arms.
“I love New London,” she said. “I feel like I’m at home and I really love the people, the opportunities and the way everyone comes together.”