She's a first-generation Latina student with a sweet disposition and rock-solid work ethic that's won the hearts and respect of her Admissions supervisor and fellow student workers alike. But beneath Angie Lopez's gracious exterior is a woman of true grit and unbounding inspiration who recently started training to become a university tour guide - despite being completely blind.
"I want to show others with disabilities that they can do whatever they want to do," Lopez said.
And Lopez certainly does - every day.
"I recognized Angie was special," said Irma Aguirre, the assistant director of Admissions and Latino community liaison who recruited Lopez. "I knew immediately KU would be a perfect fit for her. We're a big family here. She would benefit from the KU community and we would definitely benefit from having her here on our campus."
Transferring to Kutztown after two semesters at another school made sense to Lopez, too.
"I always wanted to be a teacher," she explained. "I love kids and KU's visual impairment program is a great pathway. It has a strong reputation and a 100% placement rate. Many of the visual impairment teachers I admire went to Kutztown, so I thought if it made sense for them, it will be good for me!" Lopez said. "Plus the campus has a great disability services office."
Lopez said from the moment she visited campus, she was met with kindness and open-mindedness. Its people like Aguirre who make Lopez feel so welcome at KU.
"Miss Irma is Latina; she gets what you are going through. Having people like her here help motivate you to succeed. There are lots of Latino students at KU, and also there are many students who are visually impaired. I feel part of a community here," Lopez said. "I used to feel indifferent about school. I don't anymore."
Aguirre stayed in touch with Lopez and encouraged her to apply for a job in Admissions. Lopez started her new position with the office in early September. She is currently training to be a tour guide and will start touring in the Spring. While Lopez will not be the first KU tour guide who is blind, she will be the first who does not use a dog guide. Lopez's community of supporters has now grown to include all 55 tour guides.
"Angie sees things that we can't see." Aguirre said. "She sees things from the heart. I thought this position would be great way to help prepare her for the working world. This role will also allow parents and prospective students to observe how successful Angie is at KU both academically and socially."
Kutztown University is one of three State System schools to serve the largest Latino population in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
"I tell all my Latino students that they have an opportunity to go to a school that embraces their uniqueness," Aguirre said.
Lopez recognizes she is in a position to reach and inspire Latino students, especially those who face similar challenges.
"I know Latinos who are visually impaired who don't continue their education," Lopez said. "I want to show them that they shouldn't let their disability define them."
The fact that Lopez is on her way to earning her bachelor's degree is impressive enough on its own. According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 14.9 percent of people ages 21 to 64 who have a visual disability earn their bachelor's degree or higher. According to Pew Research Center, Hispanic students still lag behind other groups in obtaining a bachelor's degree as just 15 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 earned a bachelor's degree or higher in 2014. As a Latina who has a visual impairment, Lopez had the odds stacked against her. But by focusing on her strengths instead of her challenges, she is set to graduate with a bachelor of education in 2019 and become a teacher for the visually impaired.
"Angie will be such a strong role model for future students. They will be able to relate to and connect with her. She will help them feel more comfortable since many students who are visually impaired do not have an adult in their life who is also visually impaired," said Dr. Nicole Johnson, associate professor in the visual impairment program in KU's Special Education Department. "Who better to teach students who are blind about the technology they will use than someone who uses the technology herself?"
Lopez is in one of only five visual impairment undergraduate programs in the country. KU offers the only visual impairment program in Pennsylvania with its 100 percent job placement rate.
"Angie gives us all more in class than we give her. She is always actively engaged and willing to share her experiences with us," said Dr. Wendy Rogers, assistant professor of education in KU's Special Education Department. "As well as having a great work ethic, Angie is passionate about the visual impairment program and it shows."
Lopez acknowledged that all of her success at KU is not possible without the support of her family, who regularly drives her from their home in Lancaster to attend class and work at KU. She jokes that they know the campus even better than she does because they explore the area while waiting for her to finish class.
"Her family is a great support and huge asset," Johnson said. "They have made sacrifices for her education."
But it is Lopez who will be able to uniquely convey the campus to visitors when she starts giving tours this spring
"At the end of the day, everyone wants to be productive in life. As a campus tour guide, Angie will demonstrate where we as a society can go. It shows that KU is focusing on people's strengths, not their challenges," Rogers said. "Angie provides an ideal of what a person can be and can achieve."