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One Leventhal Graduate's Secret: True Grit

Carlos Lopez went to prison for a gang-related crime he committed at 20. Having served his time, he is now capitalizing his assets as a new Leventhal graduate.

May 11, 2022
Carlos Lopez and his Mom
Carlos Lopez '22 and his mother.

When Carlos Lopez ’22 transferred into the USC Leventhal School of Accounting from Cerritos College in 2019, one of the first things he did was buy a “USC Mom” bumper sticker for his mom’s car.

“I grew up seeing those stickers on cars around town,” said Lopez, who is “walking” in the May 2022 ceremony but formally finishing his classes in December. “I didn’t think I’d make it through, but my mom’s been there for me, through everything.”

Everything, meaning his impoverished childhood, his anxiety and depression, joining a gang as a teen, and most of all, his decade in jail after being sentenced at age 20 for “one foolish and emotional mistake I made in the heat of the moment.” Even as the judge sentenced him, he felt anguish over how he’d failed his mother.

Ultimately, she was the motivation he needed to pick himself up and beat every odd. Now, at 39, he’s about to make her very proud, graduating from USC and studying for the CPA exam before beginning a full-time job on the assurance staff with Ernst & Young in its downtown Los Angeles office.

Falling Up

The middle of five children, raised in local housing projects by his single mom, Lopez ran with a local gang because that’s what made sense in his environment. But then came a life-altering mistake — and incarceration. His story could have ended there.

While serving his time, Lopez spent a lot of time reading and reflecting on what he needed to do in order to change the trajectory of his life. “What sets me apart perhaps from other students is that I know what it’s like to lose everything,” he said.  Any success he’s accomplished thus far has been because of sheer determination and grit. “I have to work harder.”

 

“I honestly love accounting. It’s practical, and there’s a balance you have to maintain. It’s also the balance you have to have in your life.”—Carlos Lopez, Leventhal '22

When nobody would hire him upon his release, he volunteered his time at Calvary Chapel in Downey and began taking classes at Cerritos College, battling his ADHD and forcing himself to learn study skills.

A business professor there suggested he pursue accounting, for no other reason than the specialized skills. He kept that in mind when transferring to USC Marshall with a 3.85 GPA.

“After one semester I transferred from Marshall to Leventhal,” he said. “I honestly love accounting. It’s practical, and there’s a balance you have to maintain.

“It’s also the balance you have to have in your life.”

Getting Down to Business

Recruiting was a challenge.

As the first in his family ever to graduate college or apply for a professional job, there was a lot he didn’t know. “I didn’t have a resume,” he said. “I didn’t know what a cover letter was. I’d never interviewed for anything in my life.”

Fortunately, as a member (and later president) of the USC chapter of ALPFA (Association for Latino Professionals of America), he had access to resume writing and other professional help. His mentor Ruben Davila, professor of accounting, advised him to cultivate his USC connections at every turn, as the Trojan Family Network was part of the value of attending USC.

But then there was the question of his incarceration. “Firms would see the time gap and ask about that.”

That’s where his Leventhal mentors stepped into the fray. “I spent months with Smrity Randhawa, Ruben and Herb Perlmutter working out how to tell my story,” he said. “Herb Perlmutter in particular spent a lot of time one-on-one going over how I should present that information.”

EY saw that grit and determination, liked what it saw and made him an offer to begin in its assurance practice for media, entertainment and telecommunications.

With a new life ahead of him, Lopez is grateful for everyone at USC who’s helped him. He is especially grateful for Dr. Lina Augius at USC Keck Medicine for the assisted support to overcome mental health. “My mindset is to give back and motivate others,” he said.

He may return to school in a few years for a graduate degree, but for now he is proud that his family can look to him for inspiration. “They knew how I grew up,” he said. “And if I can do this, so can they.”

And his Mom? “I do it for her,” he said. “She’s covered. Whatever she wants.”