Editor's note: This a profile on one of this year's recipients of the ASU MLK leadership awards. This year's theme is “Every Story Matters. What’s Yours?” Read about the servant-leadership awardee and the faculty servant-leadership awardee.
Juan Lopez Henao, a first-generation college student and a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Colombia, says his Colombian-American background inspires him to help others like him — both locally and internationally.
Lopez Henao has been selected as the 2023 ASU Martin Luther King Jr. Student Servant-Leadership awardee and will be honored on Jan. 19 as part of ASU's annual MLK Jr. Celebration Breakfast.
“My family may not have always had much in terms of things in value, but one thing we have always valued is our community. From a young age, I was taught that helping those around you is something that I should always aspire to do — essentially meaning that if I move forward in life, my community should move forward as well. I have never lost sight of this and ensure that service to my community will be the first thing on my mind,” Lopez Henao said.
Knowing he wanted to help the youth in his home country, Lopez Henao started by reaching out directly to the Colombian government to see what he could do.
For more than three years, Lopez Henao has been involved with numerous educational outreach programs in Colombia, such as Project of Life. Through this program, he works alongside psychologists and social workers in juvenile correctional detention facilities to help troubled youth have a positive outlook on life and ensure that they are set up for their future.
“These kids had a very hard life growing up. It's really hard to appeal to them, especially when they're set in their ways and think you come from a very different background, but at the heart of it, you have to show them you are the same," Lopez Henao said. "We come from the same community, we come from the same state; I'm Colombian as well, and I was born there — I was raised there as a kid. For me, education was a way to move forward, get out and do the best I can and I think sharing that sort of story inspires them to pursue further education while letting them know the ways it could help them, like pursue their careers and aspirations for their future.”
Lopez Henao has spent much of his free time as a college student looking for ways to serve his community and implementing progressive change in the hearts and minds of those around him. And while he puts a lot of emphasis on helping the community he came from in Colombia, he has also found ways to help the community he has found here at ASU.
Lopez Henao is a LEAD mentor at ASU. Through this position, he has been a point of contact for struggling first-year and first-generation students. The students go to him for advice about school, balancing workload and other life stressors.
“ASU gave me the opportunity to study here. They gave me an opportunity to be a part of everything and every single opportunity that they have here," Lopez Henao said. "Being here and having these chances that others I know don’t have the luxury of having, makes me all the more want to give back. I believe strongly that if it wasn't for my community, I wouldn't be in the places that I am today. The community around me has helped me grow and I want to help see it grow as well.”
Lopez Henao is currently a fourth-year political science, business communications and business law student and is simultaneously pursing a master’s degree in political science through ASU’s 4+1 program. After graduation, he aspires to become an immigration lawyer for Hispanic communities.
“When I was younger, my mother taught me why 'good enough' is never sufficient, as the bare minimum is simply not the effort I need to be putting forth to represent myself and my aspirations," Lopez Henao said. "I don't plan on just being a 'good enough' impact on those communities. I strive to bring change upon these low-income families by pursuing a career that gives me the opportunity to invoke progressive change.”
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