When Crystal Lopez helps students fix their academic regalia at graduation, she is celebrating more than their degrees. Many see commencement as a chance to pay tribute to student academics, says the residence life director, and she and her staff share in that, but they are also reveling in how the students have grown in their life skills. “We teach outside the classroom; that’s what student affairs is.” That education can include anything from conflict resolution to understanding cultural differences to how to work out a roommate disagreement or learning to do laundry properly. “Yes, I have had some students walk around with pink attire” (from dye bleeds), she says.
College is a time to learn responsibility, independence and how to become a global citizen. “By instilling the core values that we teach at Caldwell,” respect, integrity, community and excellence, students are building skills that will benefit them in their jobs, in their communities and within their families, says Lopez. “I think that is what is different about working at a Catholic higher education institution—being able to instill those kind of ideas, morals and values.”
With 600 beds in three residence halls, Lopez oversees a residence life program that encompasses four areas: residential education, including programming, student policy, training and development; conduct, including examining and adjudicating violations; operations, including maintenance and preventive measures; and security, including emergency response.
Lopez began her career as a resident assistant while studying criminal justice as an undergraduate at Rutgers University-Newark. By the time she was a senior, she was an assistant area director. “I was running a 385-person freshman hall, and it was an awesome experience.” Planning to become a lawyer, she applied to graduate school and received a fellowship to study for a master’s in criminal justice and a graduate assistantship to work in residence life. As she became more immersed in residence life, Lopez realized she wanted to pursue a career in student affairs rather than in law. Early on when she had to work through feelings of apprehension because of being in a leadership position at a young age, she would remind herself that God had a bigger plan for her. “Those were things that I had to get over because it was about my students.”
After receiving her graduate degree, Lopez worked in residence life at Georgian Court University and then at St. Peter’s University where she was the assistant director of housing operations.
With a “nontraditional” academic route, as she describes it, her criminal justice background has given her a unique perspective since much of her work focuses on safety and security for students. “It allows me to be vigilant and at the same time compassionate while working to ensure that students get due process. I am understanding and knowledgeable about a system and how it works, which allows me to teach my students.”
Lopez deals with many issues “rooted in conduct,” providing her with teachable moments to engage with students and to help them mature in their decision-making.
Sister Kathleen Tuite, vice president of student life, says one of Lopez’s strengths is her desire to educate students in how they make choices. “She has a genuine, compassionate heart and wants to see students succeed.” In addition, says Sister Kathleen, “she has a great strategic mind” and works well with parents.
Lopez is passionate about sharing best practices with her colleagues at other institutions and has served on national boards. She was the youngest president in the history of the Mid-Atlantic Association of College and University Housing Officers and is still on the organization’s board.
In October, she traveled to the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia, where she was a representative for the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International and presented on a panel at the first international congress of student affairs led by the National Association of Student Personnel–Latin American Caribbean Commission (NASPA-LAC). She joined others on
a panel including NASPA President Dr. Kevin Kruger on “High Impact Practices: Strategies for Student Success,” focusing on retention issues. The topic was “second nature” for her since she sits on Caldwell’s retention strategic planning committees and has been involved in the sophomore retention program. She spoke about Caldwell’s special-interest housing, which includes the service wing in Rosary Hall where students regularly participate in volunteer projects.
The workshops in Colombia provided professional development. The trip was a welcome spiritual experience too; she deeply appreciated the country’s Catholicism and had the chance to visit the famous Montserrate, a church in the mountains, with a shrine to El Señor Caido (the Fallen Lord), built in the 1600s.
A native of Bloomfield, New Jersey, Lopez is a second-generation Hispanic. “I’m super proud of my heritage, being a Latina woman, and understanding what that means and what that beautiful culture brings to America.” She has found it heart-wrenching to talk with her relatives in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic who are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. She has been collecting coupons to put together care packages to send to her aunts, uncles and cousins on the islands. “It’s difficult to hear about your family not having access to everyday things. I’m blessed to be in a situation where I can help them significantly.” Her “couponing” started out as a fun project to buy things for her apartment but became a mission to purchase items for those in need. “When I talked to my aunt in Puerto Rico, she told me the pop tart I sent in the care package was the best-tasting food she had in a
Lopez is excited to be a part of CU 2500, the university’s initiative to reach an enrollment of 2,500 by the fall of 2022. Serving in leadership has enabled her to work effectively on Caldwell’s plans. “I understand the process of decision-making at a cabinet-like level and therefore find it easy to implement changes expressed to me by my supervisor, Sister Kathleen.”
Even when she faces challenges, Lopez knows God is at the center of her work. “He often guides me when I have to make tough decisions since most of them don’t just affect one person but an entire community.” On tough days, her students and her faith keep her going. “God is a constant reminder to me of why I do my job every day.” He has a plan, she says, for her to lead and serve students and guide them through their development as young adults. “I am humbled and grateful for the calling.”