Tenacity Leads to History Degree After Personal Hardship: Diego Lopez, '21

Dec. 13, 2021

Diego Lopez, who is graduating with a B.A. in History and a minor in Art History, is the recipient of the SBS Tenacity Award for fall 2021. This award recognizes a graduating senior in the College of SBS who has persevered in the face of significant adversity to earn his university degree. 

Over the last year and a half, Diego channeled deeply personal losses into his academic work and social justice activism. He lost his grandmother to illness and the following year, his long-time companion-partner, Tristan, to addiction.

During the spring 2020 semester, Diego, who had moved in with his ill grandmother during the beginning of the pandemic, was enrolled in “HIST 411: Sexuality in World History.” However, he wasn’t able to finish the course.

“Diego was struggling emotionally to balance caring for his grandmother, schoolwork, an unfamiliar learning style, and a pandemic lockdown,” said David Ortiz, associate professor in the Department of History. “He pressed on, but then his grandmother passed away.”

The next year, Ortiz worked with Diego on an Independent Study project so that Diego could learn the material.

“Diego dove into the work without reservation and with great enthusiasm,” Ortiz said. “The papers he wrote for me that semester were the best he'd ever written. I have never seen a student so determined, so tenaciously hanging on to their academic goals.”

Tyina Steptoe, associate professor in the Department of History, met Diego in 2018 when he was enrolled in her course on U.S. History since the Civil War. He regularly visited her office hours to discuss ways the course material could buttress his own research interests, which include the history of anarchism and HIV/AIDS activism.

“[Diego] devotes tremendous time and energy to issues related to race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and environmental justice, and he has worked with a dizzying array of organizations,” Steptoe said. A social activist, Diego has worked with Stand-Up Fight Back Tucson, Community Care Tucson, Civil Seed Tucson, Black Lives Matter Tucson, Puente Arizona, No Mas Muertes, Trans Queer Pueblo, and Queers United Coalition during 2019 and 2020.

Diego said Tristan’s death made him “angry over the systemic factors that were working against Tristan” and determined to complete his independent study with Ortiz on “Anarchism and AIDS.”

“His death ignited a fire within me to finish my degree, a lot of which deals with systemic oppression such as HIV/AIDs, homophobia, and racism,” Diego said.

Diego is thankful to many in the Department of History who helped him on his academic journey.

“Dr. Gallien [his academic advisor] is the first person I met in the Department of History,” Diego recalled. “She told me exactly the classes I needed to take in order to achieve my goals. Her guidance led me to my first history class at the U of A with Dr. Steptoe. I was immediately inspired by Dr. Steptoe and the course material she had provided in HIST 150c. I then had the opportunity to work with Dr. Ortiz, who gave me the attention I needed to develop a strong political and theoretical approach to writing history. I have a great respect for Dr. Ortiz's patience and ability to assess a student's needs.”

Diego added, “I would also like to acknowledge Dr. Pieper-Mooney, who taught me that nothing is too political for the subject of history.”

After graduation, Diego is interested in writing, publishing, working more with communities in need, and going to graduate school.