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Hispanic Heritage Month: Harold Washington College President Daniel Lopez Overcame Great Odds To Reach That Role

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Today, on the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month, we share the story of a man who overcame countless obstacles to become president of Harold Washington College.

Now, he's set to receive a big honor today. Morning Insider Tim McNicholas shares this inspiring story.

Daniel Lopez surrounds his office at Harold Washington College with his accolades, diplomas, and pictures of role models.

His biggest heroes include the siblings who raised him on the South Side, after both his parents died in car accidents.

"This is my whole family. I'm the youngest of 10," he said. "This, to me, reminds me of the challenges; and all of the – what is it – tribulations that we have gone through in our family."

Before he ever dreamed of this office, Lopez joined a friend in the late 80s to go, in his words, window-shopping in the Loop.

"Because we only had money for lunch and for the bus; and so we happened to stumble on, walking right in front of the building here," he said of first coming across Harold Washington College.

His family immigrated from Mexico when he was a boy and in the 80s, he had yet to become a U.S. citizen. He stepped inside the school, and asked whether he'd still be able to enroll.

"Two hours later, I walked out of the building registered and ready to go," he said.

That started an academic journey that took him to Illinois State University, where he earned his PhD.

He launched a career in higher education along the way, which eventually brought him back to Harold Washington.

He became president of the college in early 2020, and soon faced another challenge: leading a school through a pandemic.

"That I wasn't prepared for, but I'm just very, very happy that we were able to respond the best that we could, and we continue to adjust as we go," he said.

But the pandemic hasn't stopped him from using his own story to mentor students, like Lizette Perez.

"It shows the insights of the people right here," she said.

She recently graduated from Harold Washington, and now interns there as she pursues a psychology degree.

"To be able to see somebody like you, from your same cultural—its like, a reward. You know, I feel like, okay, if this person is doing it, I can do it too," Perez said.

Now, Lopez will be inducted to the Hall of Fame for the Illinois State University College of Education.

"It's really humbling, and I'm looking forward to going there and really celebrating with my family and my colleagues," Lopez said.

Another honor to add to the shelf.

Lopez served as president of the Organization of Latino Employees during his time at Illinois State.

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