Seventeen years into his military career, the Army stationed Mario Lopez at CALS.
That’s 17 years after Lopez completed basic training in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Seventeen years since he started working his way up from private to chief warrant officer. When Lopez walked into Schaub Hall for his first class, it had been 20 years since he sat in a classroom as a student.
“I love that I get to use my education to help the war-fighter,” Lopez says. “That’s really what I love to do.”
Lopez is a food safety officer tasked with learning the most modern techniques and bringing them back to base. After graduation, he’ll be stationed in South Korea; for now, he lives with his wife, Emily, in Angier and commutes the 40 minutes to class.
Lopez doesn’t wear his uniform on campus. He’s not allowed, due to the beard he’s cultivated since coming to CALS — one of the perks of being an undergrad.
Protecting The War-Fighter
Food safety isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think of military service, but it’s crucial. From soldiers’ field rations to their families’ groceries on base, every scrap of food is inspected.
Military service members need to be in tip-top shape to do our jobs.
Lopez is the latest in a line of service members stationed at CALS, says Keith Harris, associate professor and undergraduate coordinator in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. Harris himself served in the Marine Corps: first the reserves, then called into active duty in the Persian Gulf War.
The self-discipline, leadership and organizational skills of military training translate well to the classroom, Harris says. During Lopez’s time at CALS, Harris has watched him mentor his fellow undergraduates, most of whom are a decade younger.
“He could just walk in and take over, because he knows very well how to effectively manage a team — but instead he’ll make a suggestion, and then he’ll sit back and listen rather than micromanage everything,” Harris says. “That, to me, is a very effective mentor.”
The Making Of A Military Man
Lopez didn’t need to join the Army. He had two good jobs in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, working for Coca-Cola and as a supervisor at an automotive repair facility. But something was missing.
I made a promise to myself at the age of 20: that if I didn’t feel I was progressing where I was, I would join the military.
Lopez entered basic training as an enlisted soldier and worked his way up to sergeant as first a veterinary food inspection specialist, then a warrant officer — a subject matter expert.
The most difficult part of his transition back to the classroom was adjusting to ways technology is now integrated into every lesson. Educational use of the internet was in its infancy when Lopez graduated high school.
Being stationed at CALS also broadens the options available to soldiers like Lopez after they retire, opening up possibilities in the private sector that may require a degree.
For now, Lopez hasn’t reached a decision on the timing of his retirement, or what he’ll do when he’s no longer an active duty soldier.
But he and Emily have lived on bases around the world together, from Camp Zama, Japan, to Joint Base Louis-McCord in Washington. His next assignment after graduation will be his first unaccompanied tour — the couple decided that it was better for Emily to stay in their house in Angier, North Carolina, for the year that Mario is in Korea.
After almost two decades of moving together around the world, this is one house they’re not going to sell, Lopez says: North Carolina feels like home.