Despite Cancer, Mom of Alumna Completes Online Criminal Justice Degree

Meet Lorena Lopez, a Saint Leo University student from Canada who recently completed the online criminal justice degree program despite battling cancer.

Tags: Adult Learners Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice Center for Online Learning College of Education and Social Services Criminal Justice Criminal Justice Degrees Honor Society International Students Omega Nu Lambda Online Degrees Online Learning Undergraduate Degrees
10 April 2023 - By Greg Lindberg
A photo of Lorena Lopez, a Saint Leo University student who recently completed the online criminal justice degree program

Lorena Lopez has been dealt several challenging cards in her life. However, the 52-year-old Canadian has never let adversity hold her back from achieving her dreams. The longtime massage therapist recently completed the coursework for an online criminal justice degree.

A native of Montreal, Quebec where she currently resides, Lopez is the mother of 25-year-old Raven who graduated with her bachelor’s in criminal justice with a focus on criminalistics in 2019. Lorena’s late husband, Anthony, was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and passed away in 2003. The family has a shih tzu and chihuahua mix, Lucky, and a cat named Dusty.

Discovering Saint Leo University

Lopez originally learned about Saint Leo University when her daughter was in search of a college. Once the two visited University Campus, they both knew it would be a great fit for Raven.

“She was kind of shy at the time, so I really encouraged her to go there because of its small class sizes,” Lopez says of her daughter.

Lorena was 48 when she finally took a leap of faith to earn a college degree.

“I was visiting my daughter in Florida, and she said to me, ‘Mama, now you have to do it.’ So, I submitted the application and got accepted. Then she helped me set up my computer and showed me how to navigate the student portal.”

Choosing an Online Criminal Justice Degree with a Psychology Minor

She chose the bachelor’s in criminal justice with specializations in criminalistics and homeland security. She also earned a minor in psychology. Aside from witnessing her daughter earn a criminal justice degree and enjoy the program, what else inspired Lopez to study this discipline?

“I have always been attracted to the criminal justice system,” she says. “My father-in-law was a police officer, and my late husband was a combat photographer. I also enjoy all of the criminal justice-related TV shows.”

She decided on the psychology minor to help her become more empathetic and sympathetic when working with her massage therapy clients.

A Life-Changing Diagnosis

Just five months into her online criminal justice degree program in March of 2020, Lopez got the news that nobody wants to hear: a cancer diagnosis. She was diagnosed with uveal melanoma, a form of eye cancer that has mostly affected her left eye.

“I was suffering from a lot of headaches,” she recalls. “When they did an eye exam, they found a tumor and rushed me to the emergency room.”

She went blind for a few weeks before regaining her vision. She later learned she had tumors on her thyroid, spine, and in other areas. Even now, she continues to receive ongoing treatments.

“I have forced myself to get up, walk the dog, read, and study,” she shares. “Once you stop being active, your brain starts dwelling on your disease and scaring you. I personally do not have time for that.”

A Family Affair

While balancing school and cancer treatments, Lopez says she got her entire family involved in her online criminal justice degree coursework. Even though her daughter had already completed the program, Lopez says the two of them would still compare grades on similar assignments. Her mother, who is in her eighties, would even read her papers and provide feedback on them before she turned them in.

Her favorite class was Introduction to Crime Scene Investigation.

“We had to create a crime scene, take photos, and do a sketch,” she says. “I used my father as the ‘victim.’ My mom helped me make blood, and we even used scrambled eggs as part of the crime scene.”

Supportive Faculty from Afar

Lopez has a lengthy list of faculty members she has kept who made an impression on her throughout her college career. Drs. Robert Sullivan, a current adjunct professor of criminal justice, and Delmar Wright, an associate professor of criminal justice, are just a few of her favorites. Others include Dr. Jordan Litman, an adjunct psychology professor; Prof. Ashlee Castle, an adjunct leadership professor; and Prof. Mary Miltiades, an adjunct criminal justice professor.

“My professors were just incredible,” she says. “They were so supportive and prayed for me. They truly are top-of-the-line and amazing people.”

Adapting to an Online Learning Environment

Lopez admits she is not the most tech-savvy individual. However, she has nothing but positive things to say about her experience as a student in an online learning environment.

“It was a bit challenging at first, but I found the platform to be very easy to navigate once I got the hang of it,” she says.

Additionally, she felt connected to her professors and fellow students.

“I was in very close contact with my professors. They were always very accessible.”

Outside of the virtual classroom, she was inducted into several honor societies thanks to her academic achievements. These included the Iota chapter of the Omega Nu Lambda National Honor Society, the Lambda Theta chapter of the Alpha Phi Sigma National Criminal Justice Honor Society, the Psi Chi International Honor Society for psychology students, and the Delta Nu chapter of the Delta Epsilon Sigma National Scholastic Honor Society.

Gratitude for Her Saint Leo University Experience

Lopez completed the coursework for the online criminal justice degree program this spring. She plans to attend commencement for online students in Florida this coming May and cannot wait to walk across the stage. She says her daughter is helping her decorate her cap and gown.

“The school and this degree truly saved my life. The experience empowered me to do what I needed to do for myself.”

She also encourages anyone to pursue education if they get the opportunity to do so.

“Regardless of where you may be in your life, I encourage everyone to go to school to better themselves. Just do it. Don’t wait like I did. I believe education is the key that opens the door to the world for everyone.”

Career Considerations

Lopez has worked as a registered massage therapist for 19 years. Many of her clients have dealt with trauma and physical injuries.

“I have loved it since day one,” she says. “When they get up and are smiling, it makes my day. It really is amazing how you can help people.”

 Now with a criminal justice degree on her resume, her dream job would be to work for the FBI.

“I would love to focus on human trafficking and terrorism,” she says. “I really enjoy investigating who is doing what and ultimately collecting evidence to help solve crimes.”

Always Giving Back

Since her cancer diagnosis, she has already given back to the community. She gives time to her church and women’s organizations. She also volunteers with Friends 4 Cause, a nonprofit that raises funds for children in need. She even makes homemade chocolate bars for the organization. Her goal is to get more involved in cancer support groups as well.

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Lorena Lopez and is used with permission.