Volume IX, Issue 4 | August 28, 2023

Capital Experience

SMC students Jarod Lopez and Daniel Mejia earned fellowships enabling them to travel to Washington, D.C., for mentorship from global affairs officials.

SMC in Focus

Jarod Lopez and Daniel Mejia came to Santa Monica College from very different backgrounds. Jarod was raised by a single mom who passed away in 2018, and he has striven to make it on his own ever since. Daniel grew up in Los Angeles after his family immigrated from El Salvador. They are also pursuing diverse fields: Jarod earned his SMC degree in political science, while Daniel is building a future in astrophysics. 

But at least two things bond them beyond their shared college. Jarod and Daniel are each the first in their families to attend college. And they were among the 30 students chosen from more than 140 applicants nationwide to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Community College Global Affairs Fellowship (CCGAF).  

Launched this past June, CCGAF is a two-week, in-person enrichment program enabling noteworthy community college students to explore career possibilities in international diplomacy.  

“It exposed us to how diplomacy is used at public agencies like the State Department and also in private industry,” says Daniel, who appreciated CCGAF’s multicultural perspective. The program is specifically oriented toward community college students from diverse backgrounds to encourage a new generation of diplomats.  

CCGAF is a partnership of the Meridian International Center, Global Community College Transfers and Community Colleges for International Development. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the fellowship provides an all-expenses-paid crash course in diplomatic affairs as well as mentorship from leaders in the field. Activities include training in diplomatic skills, learning about U.S. foreign policy from top practitioners, attending panel discussions and visiting federal agencies.  

“We went to all the acronyms,” Jarod says — including the departments of Justice (DOJ), Energy (DOE) and Commerce (DOC). “We got to see what each department does and ask questions about how we might fit into the picture,” he notes. The fellows also took a field trip to the Council on Foreign Relations for a perspective from the nongovernmental side. 

It wasn’t all hard work, though. Jarod, Daniel and their peers enjoyed visiting some of Washington’s numerous historical sites and cultural institutions. They also mingled at a reception held in their honor. 

Diplomatic Mentorship 

CCGAF’s centerpiece is connecting fellows with international affairs professionals for mentorship about diplomacy’s opportunities and challenges. Many of these volunteer mentors attended community colleges themselves and relish the chance to share their expertise with students who might follow in their footsteps.  

“You’re paired up with a mentor who matches your background or your interests,” Jarod says. “That’s really one of the best parts of the program, because now I have someone I can call, who knows what they’re talking about, and who’ll guide me the right way.” 

Daniel, whose interest is science diplomacy, had a mentor who addresses vital matters as a special assistant to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Jarod, meanwhile, explored his interest in international conflict resolution with a mentor experienced in that realm. 

After Jarod and Daniel returned to Southern California from Washington, they began meeting with their mentors virtually, allowing the supportive advice they receive through the program to continue. 

SMC, D.C., and Beyond 

Despite their youth, Jarod and Daniel have each had a long journey to SMC and the Global Affairs Fellowship.  

After Jarod’s mother died, he and his siblings went to live with their grandmother in Arkansas. “But taking on three dependents at her age was too much to bear,” Jarod says. So he drove trucks in the summer to contribute everything he could. But even when times got tough and he had to live on the street, Jarod never lost his positive attitude or his passion for helping others. He came to Los Angeles and SMC to focus that civic commitment. At first, he planned to join the Los Angeles Police Department as a way of giving back. But when that opportunity froze because of COVID-19, he soon became drawn to the practice of law instead of law enforcement. 

“During the pandemic, I could see the effects of law and legislation on our lives,” he says. “And I want to have a voice in that.” After graduating from law school, he hopes to work as a mediator in Africa, easing conflicts in nations from Ethiopia to Niger and Sudan 

“Being the oldest sibling, I’ve had to do a lot of mediating,” he says with humor. But he’s serious about how CCGAF has opened diplomatic avenues for him. He’s also grateful to Joan Kang at SMC’s Career Services Center and Vicente Arrizon from SMC’s Law Pathway Program for letting him know about the fellowship. 

Daniel is a skilled athlete who once considered a career in professional soccer, and he still coaches the sport as part of his job with the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks. He next wanted to apply his scientific acumen to a career in aerospace engineering, but his time at SMC enabled him to see astrophysics as his true passion.  

“We have a saying in Spanish, ‘no me nace,’ which means that it’s not born within me,” Daniel says of aerospace. Instead, he wants to use astrophysics to make lives better by helping bring efficient and environmentally sustainable nuclear energy to developing countries like his family’s homeland. 

“I want to work in nuclear fusion, harnessing the power of the sun and perfecting that technology to push it to people in need,” Daniel explains. Accomplishing that, he notes, requires mastering not just nuclear astrophysics but also the diplomatic talents to build cooperation nationally and internationally — skills in which CCGAF provides a firm foundation. 

“It’s not as simple as trading bananas or oil,” he says. So he applied for CCGAF as soon as he learned about it through SMC’s Adelante Program. 

Negotiating Their Futures 

Jarod was recently accepted into Columbia University. However, despite the scholarship aid offered, financial barriers are delaying his transfer. So he launched a GoFundMe campaign to continue his journey from being unhoused and struggling to support his surviving family to becoming a mediator able to ease global strife. “I can’t quit now—not when I’ve gotten this far,” Jarod says with determination. 

Meanwhile, Daniel is completing his SMC studies with plans to transfer to UC Santa Cruz or Berkeley. “I’m looking toward Northern California because that’s where the nuclear energy industry is,” he says. 

As Jarod and Daniel continue their quests to make the world a better place, they will always be able to draw from the knowledge and networks fostered through the Global Affairs Fellowship.  

“CCGAF gave us an opportunity to really represent for community college students,” Jarod says. “And just watch, because we’re going to do some great things, which’ll hopefully open more doors for other community college students.” 

They also remain grateful to SMC for connecting them with this one-of-a-kind opportunity and poising them for success. “SMC provided a level of support and community that I don’t think we would have found anywhere else,” Daniel says. 

The fact that they were chosen from so many applicants nationally “just goes to show you how good SMC really is,” Jarod adds. 

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