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Marine veteran and CLC alumna helps veterans with mental health

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published Aug 03, 2021

College of Lake County (CLC) can be a beginning for people of any background looking to find their paths in life. For Jessica Lopez, the college was a launching point for her social work career after serving in the military.

Lopez, a 2018 CLC graduate, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2012 because she always wanted to be a part of something bigger and better than herself.

Jessica Lopez“I’m a very competitive person with myself,” she said. “I wanted to do something I could be proud of.”

Lopez wasn’t sure what she wanted to do in the military, and because of her high test scores, was assigned as a comptroller working with finances.

In addition to serving as comptroller, Lopez spent time as a noncommissioned officer working with Junior Marines. They gave her the nickname “Mama Lopez” because she took care of everyone.

“I wanted to be an advocate and be there for everyone,” she said. “If something was going on with one of them, I wanted to know so I could help. I wanted to be trusted. I was told I was too nice for the Marine Corps, but if I gave an order, people would listen because they trusted me.”

After her enlistment ended in May 2016, Lopez wasn't sure what she wanted to do. Her husband, David Lopez, continued serving in the military, so she originally planned on getting a two-year degree and following him where his service took him but was persuaded by one of her officers to do more.

“I was told I was too intelligent to just follow,” Lopez said. “It ignited a fire in me and I realized I wanted to help people.”

Lopez didn’t know much about social work, and it wasn’t until she researched and spoke to a social worker that she fell in love with it. By August 2016, just three months after her enlistment ended, Lopez was enrolled at CLC.

Lopez chose CLC not only because she was still figuring out what she wanted to do, but also because of how easy CLC made it for her to enroll.

“I was still trying to get myself back into the school vibe, and I had never submitted college applications before,” Lopez said. “CLC was responsive and made the process easy.”

While attending classes, Lopez also became involved with the Veteran's Club, eventually serving as president.

“I felt separated from other students,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t much older than a lot of students here, but I felt like I’d lived another life while in the military. The club helped me connect.”

The first course Lopez took at CLC was an intro to social work course taught by Mick Cullen, a human services instructor, who remembers Lopez as a great student.

“Jessica was excellent in and out of the classroom,” Cullen said. “She was always passionate about the topics we discussed. She was always well prepared but never believed she knew everything.”

From there, Lopez went on to earn an associate in arts degree with a focus in social work. During her time at the college, she earned an academic achievement in social work award.

After CLC, Lopez transferred to Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) where she earned her bachelor’s in social work. The transfer process was made easier for Lopez thanks to a transfer program CLC has with NEIU for social work.

While at NEIU, Lopez did an internship at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee.

Sexual abuse trauma is a big issue for the military, and during her service, Lopez discovered a passion for wanting to prevent it. Working at Zacharias allowed her to get more training on the subject.

After graduating summa cum laude from NEIU, Lopez went straight to graduate school knowing that to get a good job in her field, she needed a master’s degree. She attended Dominican University for their military social work program.

Military social work, Cullen said, differs from other kinds of social work because unlike most people who are freer to make their own daily decisions, active servicemembers don’t have the same kind of control.

“Having been in the military herself, Jessica shares their perspective,” Cullen said. “She can easily show empathy for them.”

In graduate school, Lopez interned again, this time at the Milwaukee VA. There, she worked in primary care, which isn’t specifically about mental health, but gave her a chance to see many people coming in and to learn about their backgrounds.

“My goal was to see and learn about as many people as I could,” Lopez said. “There are so many veterans with different needs, getting to work with as many as possible is really beneficial.”

Lopez currently works as a community support specialist with the veterans program at Thresholds in Chicago where she started in June. There, she works with veterans with mental health needs including those with depression and schizophrenia.

“There’s a broad range of things we can help with,” Lopez said. “Here, I can impact so many in the community. If someone has a need, we have a program to help.”

Lopez aspires to work with active-duty service members within the Department of Defense to help prevent mental health needs and help provide tools to deal with any once the service members are out of the military.

CLC’s social work program is designed for transfer into a four-year program. It includes both general education and introductory social work courses to help students get a footing and see if social work is the path for them. CLC’s social work instructors have decades of experience in a variety of areas in the field, including hospitals, public health, private practice, child welfare, addictions, corrections and mental health.

CLC’s Veteran Student Services (VSS) team helps to assure that students can utilize their educational benefits easily and to the fullest. VSS provides services, programs, and connections both with other departments on campus and in the community to assure student success. Contact VSS at or 847-543-2018.

About College of Lake County

College of Lake County is a comprehensive community college committed to equitable high-quality education, cultural enrichment and partnerships to advance the diverse communities it serves in northeastern Illinois. Offered at three campuses in Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan or online, college classes are affordable and accessible to help each student achieve academic, career and personal goals. More than 70,000 students graduated with degrees and certificates since the college opened in 1969. College of Lake County is the only higher-education institution ranked among the top 15 best places to work in Illinois by Forbes and is a national leader in many areas, including sustainability and conservation.