How one student journeyed from Colombia to SLCC

Maria Pastrana Lopez came to Utah to go to college

Maria Pastrana Lopez stands in front of Utah State Capitol.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Maria Pastrana Lopez’s dream of becoming a doctor and saving lives seemed impossible.

Living in South America, where Pastrana Lopez is from, can be challenging for those who want to pursue higher education. Private universities can cost much more than the average monthly salary, she said, and public universities can have low rates of admission.

When Pastrana Lopez was a child, her mother worked in a hospital. Watching healthcare professionals save patient lives, Pastrana Lopez found inspiration at a young age.

Five years ago, Pastrana Lopez’s aunt offered her the first step toward that dream – a sponsorship to study in the U.S.

“Without hesitating I said yes. It was the opportunity of my life,” she said.

Pastrana Lopez already spoke basic English but felt nervous about applying for her student visa, completing high school and applying to higher education, all the while trying to master a second language.

To enter the United States legally, Pastrana Lopez had to demonstrate that she was able to qualify for a student visa and present it to immigration.

“Going through the process of obtaining my student visa was very challenging, especially when having to be in front of an immigration officer asking questions,” she said.

After Pastrana Lopez came to the United States, she faced additional requirements for GPA and credits in order to maintain her status as an international student.

Pastrana Lopez applied to Salt Lake Community College two years ago and is majoring in pre-health sciences.

Pastrana Lopez is working at SLCC’s International Student Services as she looks to help fund her education.

The job helps in two ways – she’s gained tools that have helped her develop in her career, and she’s stayed up-to-date on information regarding immigration and student visas.

“Maria was very proficient,” said Venita Ross, international student admissions advisor. “She gained experience and adapted very well to the system.”

International Student Services

SLCC’s International Student Services help international students adapt to the new education system, which can be significantly different from their native country.

Advisors offer student orientations on what to expect and also invite students to participate in or join on-campus clubs so that they may feel more involved.

“Get involved on-campus and in community service,” Ross said. “It helps [students] connect and get in network with people.”

Cultural discoveries

A difficult aspect for international students can be the distance from family. Pastrana Lopez first came to the United States alone as a teenager. Her mother and brother have since immigrated, but the rest of her family still lives in Colombia.

The separation forced her not only to grow and become who she is now, but also to get out of her comfort zone.

“Having to let her go and not being able to be there to be her support was the hardest part,” said Claudia Lopez Gomez, Maria’s mother.

Living in the U.S. has brought discoveries for Pastrana Lopez in how the cultures differ. In Colombia, she said, people hug, kiss and show affection to each other often, which she said doesn’t see often in Utah.

“People in Colombia are more caring,” she said. “If you want to be in the U.S. you can’t be weak.”

Though Pastrana Lopez initially wanted to be a doctor, she has decided to pursue a career in pharmacy and plans to start working toward her bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah following SLCC graduation this fall.

“I wasn’t sure if I could make it, but in the end – if you do it with effort – anything is possible,” she said. “You just have to put in time and dedication.”

Andrea Barboza wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.