Matthew Lopez ‘93
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What was your major at St. Mike’s and when did you graduate? I graduated in 1993 with a degree in American Studies.
Did you take part in any clubs or activities at St. Mike’s that were important to you or shaped your experience there? Fire and Rescue and the Environmental Science Club. The single most important activity that shaped, motivated, and directed me was Fire and Rescue. It became a passion, a calling, a vocation. I felt the need to be part of it as much as possible. This included during the school day (in between classes), evenings, weekends, holidays, and school breaks. I spent may holiday breaks and summers at campus working a job and running duty the rest of the time.
What is your current profession and why did you choose it? Currently [April 2022], I am Fire Battalion Chief of 27 years with Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department. I chose the fire department because of SMC Fire and Rescue. I chose Fairfax County for three reasons. First, because I had done both Fire and Rescue at school, and knew I wanted to work in the profession upon graduation. I decided that I would only apply to departments that delivered both fire suppression and Emergency Medical Services. That meant returning to NY was not an option. I looked for departments where I had family or family friends living nearby. Second, back in the early 1990s, there were not many departments hiring. I applied for Portland, ME because family friends lived in Biddeford, ME and I liked the area. I was not successful in passing their entrance examination. Third, my parents had relocated to the Washington, DC area while I was attending St. Mike’s. From reading fire service trade journals, I learned that Fairfax County, Virginia was a very progressive and growing department. I applied and after two years was finally hired.
What activities, hobbies, volunteer work or passion project means the most to you? Does it give you a sense of purpose or help others find theirs? Currently my most active hobby is bagpiping. I play with a Fire Service Emerald Society Pipe Band, a competition non-service related Pipe Band and do solo competitive bagpipe playing. I am involved in multiple volunteer organizations, including my fire union and homeowner’s association. I currently serve as President of three organizations: the Fairfax Hispanic Firefighters Association, the Northern Virginia Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe Band and the Firefighter’s Fund of Fairfax County, a non-profit organization that provides financial support to career and volunteer firefighters in need. Much of my volunteer activity surrounds supporting firefighters and the fire service to which I have dedicated my life. Serving my community is a just something I feel compelled to do.
Do you feel that the liberal arts education you received at St. Mike’s helped your abilities to communicate effectively or problem solve? How has a liberal arts education helped or hindered you on your career path or finding purpose in your life? Experiencing a liberal arts education was essential to my foundation as an adult. It provided me not only the insight and depth of understanding how to think critically, but also how to express myself in a respectful, disciplined, and reasoned manner. The education at St Mike’s also taught me to be empathetic, compassionate, and measured. This, however, was not so much learned in classes but in the Catholic education and religious undercurrents of the school. I attended multiple religious retreats off campus hosted by Campus Ministry. At these retreats, I expanded my understanding and devotion to that Catholic Social Teaching of building a responsible and just society. The active part of this teaching is to a servant to your neighbors. Both aspects have been essential in my chosen career path of service to the community as a firefighter and paramedic.
Do you recall when you first realized what your purpose or passion in life might be? The answer is sort of. I stumbled upon Fire and Rescue during my first day of Freshman Orientation. There was a Fire and Rescue flyer in the orientation packet. I had planned to begin freshman year studying environmental science and joining the soccer team, as I had been on varsity soccer in high school and was a strong supporter of environmental causes. I filled out the flyer expressing interest in Fire and Rescue and dropped it in the campus mail. That evening the Captain Michael Burti (’90) and Lieutenant Sherri Bissonette (’91) from the Fire Squad showed up at my dorm room in Joyce Hall and invited me to their orientation session. Frankly, I never looked back. I never joined soccer and wound up changing my major to American Studies. I learned later how fortuitous that was because never in subsequent days, months and years did the campus mail work so quickly and efficiently.
It was not until junior year after declaring my new major, because I had so many history and sociology classes, that I decided on my path post-graduation. I did not want to go to graduate school, to study law or history, and I did not want to sit in an office for the rest of my life. I talked to multiple alumni who had graduated college and begun working a career in the fire service. I concluded that if I could get hired on to a fire department, I could receive a good paycheck and benefits for doing something for which I had been volunteering. So, in junior year I began searching out employment opportunities because I learned it could take one or more years to get through a process and be offered a job opportunity.
How did St. Mike’s nurture or inspire your sense of purpose? What has this sense meant to you and others around you? How has it shifted throughout your life and career so far? St. Mike’s nurtured and inspired my sense of purpose by supporting the Fire and Rescue Department but also really supporting the students. There was not a single time when I did not feel supported or encouraged while at school, whether in class or on campus. This sense of strong community in Fire and Rescue was unbelievable, and its mission and purpose were always fully supported by the school and the Edmundite community. The basis of St. Mike’s leadership, understanding and education has been the foundation for everything that I have done since. Even as I prepare to retire within two years, I still feel the drive and need to serve my community. As my wife reminds me all the time, I am a joiner and a giver. When there is something that I feel needs to be done, I will evaluate the pros and cons but usually will jump in and try to be part of the solution. If I do not, who will? Just like in voting, if you want to complain about the direction of things, you need to participate and be part of the solution.
Which of your accomplishments have made you most proud? Being promoted within the fire department and serving as a mentor for others behind me. Mentorship is a word often used as a token, but to me it holds significant meaning. Mentoring and being a leader were both things that I learned in the fire service. I use those skills throughout my life in my volunteer roles and in my commun
What has it meant to you to have a sense of purpose? What is the most important lesson you have learned? Having a sense of purpose is essential for everyone and everything. For me, being in the fire service is my purpose and mission. Serving and taking care of others, giving of myself, and putting others before me has been my focus for 32 years. The most important lessons I have learned are the value of humility and listening twice as much as you talk. This has also served me well with my wife, children, brothers, parents, and friends. When conflict arises, I try to be open to discussions, empathetic to other’s views, and supportive of decisions that are not my own.
What part of the ‘Forward with Purpose’ strategic plan stands out to you as the best new ideas for the St. Mike’s community, going forward? What in the plan do you find most inspiring? The best new idea that I see from the new Strategic Plan is the Purposeful Learning. Teaching and guiding the new students in a defined and organized mentoring path is the future model for private business and public sector service. We need to prepare the next generation for future opportunities that we have not seen and have not been created.
What I find most inspiring is the desire to establish and pursue forward looking, streamlined paths that are data driven, focused on the prospective new students. This is the best avenue to stay ahead of the learning curve regarding attracting and retaining future talented students. The future students must have the desire, drive, and motivation to learn and grown while developing an appreciation for diversity of thought while understanding that when ideas are challenged, conflict does not have to follow.