KOKOMO, Ind. —When Samuel Garcia-Lopez enrolled at Indiana University Kokomo, he wanted more than the opportunity to earn a degree.
“One of the things I was looking for when I came here was relationships with faculty, and I’ve been able to have that experience,” he said. “They’ve helped me grow as a person. They recognize me on campus, and when they ask me how my day is, they truly care about my answer. That connection is really what has been great here.”
As he earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice, Garcia-Lopez connected with faculty mentors, in particular Joseph Waters and Yamini Bellare, both clinical assistant professors of psychology. Garcia-Lopez conducted research with Waters, and said taking his helping skills class solidified his career choice. Bellare has talked with him about what it’s like to be a minority in their field.
“As someone who wants to become a doctor in this field, having that male figure to look up to is just amazing,” he said. “Dr. Bellare and I are from different ethnicities, but hearing her experiences gives me some perspective in that area.”
Those kinds of personal connections, along with travel through the IU Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program, prepared him to take the next steps in his career. After graduating in May, Garcia-Lopez, from Monticello, plans to earn a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling before going on to a doctoral program.
He experienced several milestones through KEY trips— including his first time staying in a hotel for a regional psychology conference in Chicago. His next first was flying in an airplane, for a behind-the-scenes visit to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
“I didn’t expect to travel until I was 30, when I was done with school and established into my career,” he said. “In Chicago, I experienced the culture of city life, along with the professional environment of the conference. Then, at Disney World, we were able to see the research we had read in action, and how planners implement psychological principles into creating the guest experience.”
Garcia-Lopez began as a criminal justice major, because of his childhood dream of being a police officer, then added psychology when he decided he could make a bigger impact serving those in law enforcement as a counselor. One of his high school teachers had previously been a police officer and had talked about some of his traumatic experiences. That influenced Garcia-Lopez’s decision.
“He never got help to overcome those experiences,” he said. “I realized that many of the individuals who help people, like police officers, don’t get as much help as they deserve. I want to help them, emergency management workers, and veterans overcome any trauma they’ve experienced, and help them take care of themselves, so they can continue to work.”
Later in his career, Garcia-Lopez wants to either teach at the college level or mentor new counselors entering the field, to give back for what he’s received — following advice from Rosalyn Davis, clinical associate professor of psychology.
“She says the best thing you can do as a therapist is to find your own replacement,” he said. “If you can find that next person, you will keep your beliefs and interests in the field going. That’s what I want to do.”
The KEY program, launched in 2016, provides students chances to travel and connect with people and participate in real-world experiences — with funding making it free or low cost.