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Voyager Scholarship recipient an advocate for disability resources

Coveted award covers full tuition for an undergraduate degree in business administration

Woman sitting on stage

Arizona State University student Jessica Lopez is a Voyager Scholarship recipient and advocate for people with disabilities. Photo courtesy the Obama Foundation

March 15, 2024

ASU student Jessica Lopez has a go-for-broke attitude when it comes to her life and education.

“I believe you get zero opportunities if you don’t go for them,” said Lopez, who started her first semester at Arizona State University in January. “I can’t get opportunities if I don’t at least try my best to be a good candidate and apply to everything that comes my way.”

Lopez’s outlook garnered her a Voyager Scholarship for Public Service, helping cover her entire tuition for an undergraduate degree in business administration at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

She’s taking online classes from her home in California and is also a fellow at Loyola Marymount University’s law school. And she has collected three associate degrees at Coastline College in Fountain Valley, California

Drawing on her experience as a woman born without hands and feet, Lopez said she’ll use her degrees and education to advocate for disability-inclusive and accessible education and workforces.

“It’s vital to remember that disability is not bad; it’s simply another aspect of life,” said Lopez, who is also a Barrett, The Honors College student. “My disability has made me stronger and more creative. I wouldn’t want to be born with hands and feet; I am happy in my body.”

In recognition of Disability Awareness Week, March 18–22, ASU News spoke to Lopez about her life, studies and the future.

Question: Congrats on your selection as a Voyager Scholar. You had your pick of universities, so why did you choose ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business?          

Answer: I was born without hands and feet, but I have adapted to do almost anything anyone can do. I can write, draw, turn pages and even dance. I grew up as a straight-"A" student in a mainstream performing arts school. My goal was to volunteer and graduate high school at 16.

When I developed a chronic illness at the age of 10, my whole life ground to a halt. As a result, I fell behind in school. During those years, I developed a theory that taking online classes might help me get through school, so every year, I requested that my school provide me with an online education as an accommodation. Unfortunately, my school told me that wasn't an option, so I continued struggling through high school.

At 22, I was still in high school. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my entire school district shifted to online learning, and I completed two years of classes in less than four months. Online learning eliminated the physical strain of carrying heavy textbooks, writing long hours and struggling to maintain a regular schedule. I later discovered that my high school district had an online learning program they never told me about.

This made me realize that my struggles with education were not because my body limited me but because of an institution that was not willing to break outside of the box it made for itself. My school would have never accommodated me unless they were forced to by a pandemic. People spend their whole lives in a system that wants them to learn one way; anyone who doesn't fit is forced out.

As I prepared to graduate high school, I reviewed all 4,000 universities and community colleges in the U.S. I developed a master list of every school in the country that offered business degrees online. I wanted to know my options. Were these schools offering enough classes? Was there a community of other online students? Would I have to go in for exams?

I discovered Coastline Community College, which taught almost entirely online. ... While there, I joined student government and advocated for other students with disabilities. I eventually became student body president and passed a statewide resolution for disabled students in the California Community College system. I’ve also had the opportunity to give keynote speeches on disability inclusion in academic and employment settings.

I'm majoring in business administration because advocating for people with disabilities is my calling. The best way to support people with disabilities is to understand how businesses run and change things from the inside out. ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business is the best choice for me because it has offered online classes for over a decade and provides programming for online students through Barrett, The Honors College. I am grateful for the online education opportunities provided by ASU. I hope more students with disabilities can benefit from what ASU offers and the world it can open up to them.

When you build for accessibility, everyone benefits.

Jessica LopezVoyager Scholarship recipient

Q: What drew you to apply for the Voyager Scholarship?

A: I learned about the Obama-Chesky Voyager for Public Service on LinkedIn only one week before it closed. The scholarship was almost too good to be true. I thought there was no way a community college student like me would receive it.

While in school, I’ve explored what it might mean to work in a disability-related role in a public service capacity. Just one week before I learned about the Voyager Scholarship, I was selected to be a summer intern at the Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. I imagined a role as an intern in a public service area would expose me to the possibilities. At the same time, after meeting a disabled lawyer who encouraged me to consider law school, I began exploring the possibility of becoming a lawyer. Since applying for the scholarship, I’ve also become a Coelho Law Fellow at Loyola Law School, which has only solidified my excitement for a law career.

Q: What will be your area of academic focus?

A: A significant part of the Voyager Scholarship is that it will provide me with a $10,000 stipend and $4,000 in Airbnb credits to travel anywhere in the world over the summer to support my area of public service. As a disabled student and woman, my passion lies in promoting accessibility. However, that’s a broad subject because every issue is a disability rights issue.

Maneuvering the world in a power wheelchair like I do presents challenges, particularly when it comes to securing accessible travel experiences, from transportation to hotels and sightseeing. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to seven new cities in the U.S. over the past year, and each city presented different accessibility challenges and barriers. This is why I plan to use my Summer Voyage to conduct research for my honors thesis. I will be highlighting accessibility in multiple cities and exploring how companies in the travel industry can develop accessible services that benefit disabled people while ensuring profitability.

Q: Why is this topic important to you?

A: While developing my Summer Voyage plan, I came across an organization that offers fully accessible travel packages to nearly anywhere in the world. As an American, even cities in the U.S. are extremely difficult to navigate with disabilities and seeing that a company has built guaranteed accessible travel experiences all over the world is incredible. When accessibility issues arise, avoiding the problems can be easier than investing time and resources to resolve them in the long term. Many companies say they can’t afford to develop accessible products and services. However, companies that prioritize accessibility usually find themselves bringing in more profit.

Q: What are a few things you’d like the public to know about public transportation and accessibility?

A: Disabled people are innovators. They are the inventors behind the iPhone, keyboard, and bike. When you build for accessibility, everyone benefits. This is known as the curb-cut effect.

Disabled people hold a lot of untapped power in the world. With over 1 billion disabled people in the world and 26% of Americans living with disabilities, there is a significant population that often isn’t targeted when companies build products and services. Disabled people and their friends and families have over $13 trillion in annual disposable income. With such a vastly untapped market that is rarely studied, there is a lot of potential.

Q: Where would you like to find yourself after graduation?

A: After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I aim to work within an accessibility initiatives and policy team within the corporate tech industry. I want to help corporate companies as they build their products with accessibility in mind. Additionally, I'm passionate about policy and law. Therefore, alongside my work, I aim to attend law school to develop my knowledge of disability law and public policy.

Outside of work and school, my goal is to continue the disability consultancy and training work I already currently do. In the long term, success would look like having my JD and continuing to build experience in accessibility policy within the tech space.

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