Stories of Impact

Monica Gomez-Lopez
Monica Gomez-Lopez

Estrella Mountain College has a proud heritage of excellence and success We love telling those stories too.

Monica Gomez-Lopez

Medical Student
​University of Arizona

Degree/Area of Study: Associate in Science

Class of Year: 2003

Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) alumna Monica Gomez-Lopez always believed that good health was more important than money, but money became the obstacle in pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor.

Her educational pathway as an undocumented immigrant presented many challenges, but with the positive influence from EMCC mentors and staff, and various scholarship opportunities, her dream is now coming true. Today, Lopez is a medical student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix (UA COM-P), as part of their Pathways Scholars Program, and expects to graduate in 2019.

One of the requirements of the Pathways program was a community project. As a fitness-for-fun runner, Lopez found her inspiration during a run through the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area in Central Phoenix. She saw large murals that had been painted on the bridge support walls, by other organizations, and knew this is how she could tell her story of transformation, through the expression of butterfly art.

“I’m not an artist, but I knew this could have a long-lasting effect on those who see it,” said Lopez. “It didn’t need to be perfect. I just wanted it to inspire with a message of ‘you can do this!’”

Lopez moved to Arizona when she was eight years old, brought by her mother who would come twice a year to work in the fields. Her mother returned to Mexico and left Lopez with a relative in Phoenix so that she could have a better life. They were only able to reunite during the two times her mother returned to work in Arizona.

“We lived in one of the poorest areas near the border, and were lucky to have money to buy food and have a roof over our heads,” said Lopez. “But if our health was poor, we could not work and provide for our families.”

After graduating from Agua Fria High School in Avondale, she attended EMCC and graduated in 2003 with her Associate in Science, with honors.

“My mentors at EMCC saw something in me that made them believe I could be a doctor,” said Lopez. “They encouraged me to the point that I finally began to believe in myself and my dream.”

She transferred to Arizona State University and received her bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering in 2008. For six years, she was working, saving and studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT®). In 2012, she achieved her residency status, which now opened the doors for scholarship possibilities.

However, when she applied to UofA Medical School, she was not accepted based on her test score and the fact she had been out of school for six years. An admissions representative presented Lopez with the opportunity of being admitted through the Pathways Scholars Program, and her lifelong dream was now becoming a reality.

It was this life-transformation that became the inspiration for her community project, but again, it didn’t come without perseverance.

After working relentlessly through the approval processes with the Phoenix Audubon, Rio Salado, City of Phoenix, the Southwest Monarch Study, and many more, she was finally granted approval. Next she had to create the artwork, raise the money for supplies, find and schedule volunteers to help her paint the mural.

Like any college student, the winter semester break provides an opportunity for fun and rest, but Lopez needed to devote all of her time to quickly complete the mural project. After ten days, more than 50 hours and the help of 24 volunteers, the beautiful butterfly mural was finally completed, ready to take flight, inspiring others to transform their lives by believing in their dreams.

The mural is located on the north side of the Central Avenue Bridge, down the nature path of the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, off Central Avenue just south of the Maricopa Freeway.

Watch Gomez-Lopez's story featured on a Maricopa Now.

Memo Espinoza

Assistant Police Chief
City of Avondale

Degree/Area of Study: Public Safety Administration & Business Administration

Class of Year: 1993

Teaching and learning is at the heart of all that Assistant Police Chief Cuauhtémoc “Memo” Espinoza has a passion for. From starting as a young student at Estrella Mountain Community College in 1993, to joining the Marine Corps and ultimately becoming Lieutenant at the Avondale Police Department, Espinoza has continued his education and his passion for teaching others.

Espinoza earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Safety Administration from Grand Canyon University and a Master of Business Administration from University of Phoenix. He has completed training in several areas including Violent Crime Scenes Investigation, SWAT, Negotiations, and more than 200 additional police, investigations, leadership, and management courses. Espinoza has been honored by the Police Department for successfully resolving hostage situations and solving multiple homicides as a detective; and was also recognized as Supervisor of the Quarter in 2007.

An active member of the West Valley community and many local professional organizations, Espinoza serves as an adjunct instructor for Estrella Mountain Community College and Grand Canyon University, and a teacher of State of Arizona Law Enforcement programs. Espinoza truly exudes excellence in our community.

Justin Decknick

Vice President of Sales and Branding

EMCC alumnus Justin Decknick is currently the vice president of Sales and Branding at Truly360, the largest Google Trusted Agency worldwide. It was the 2008 recession that helped him come to the decision to pursue a new educational opportunity. “I found myself needed an extra set of skills to be competitive and attractive in the marketplace,” he said.

While Glendale Community College was a bit closer in location for Decknick, he wanted to see what Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) had to offer. During that initial visit, he found a time-saving route that made the possibility a bit more beneficial. He solidified his decision to come to EMCC after discovering all the college had to offer him. Decknick was encouraged to take a career assessment – a test that would help him in selecting a career path that would best fit his natural attributes and interests. “The assessment put me on the path to begin my pursuit of obtaining the general business degree from EMCC.”

Being involved in many different activities at EMCC is something Decknick cites as aiding his success. “I developed skills that I regularly utilize in my professional career,” he said. He served as president and was a founding member of the Entrepreneur Club, where he organized many meetings, delegated tasks and executed goals to support learning and development of his business skills. He was a speaker in the college’s “Brown Bag” series, which he said helped him learn to “communicate effectively to a crowd, develop methodologies in presenting information, and learning to understand complex situations.” Decknick was also a winner of the All-Arizona Academic Team scholarship, and the exposure he gained from that award has served as a positive credential in the aggregate market.

Decknick is a great example of how maximizing extracurricular opportunities at EMCC can help students build a solid pathway to reaching and transcending goals. He feels extremely positive about his experience. “I really enjoyed my time at EMCC, and feel it helped propel my professional aspirations forward.” In addition to the programs he participated in, he says the supportive environment was also a huge benefit. “I still drive by from time to time and although the landscape is a bit different, I still remember the sense of wonder I had about my future walking those very grounds.”

Jose Garcia

Continuing Student

Arizona State University

Degree/Area of Study: Spanish & Education

Class of Year: 2011

Jose Garcia believes that everything happens for a reason. After he graduated from high school in Gila Bend, Arizona, he planned to attend Arizona State University (ASU) and enroll in their architecture program. As he went to submit his application, there was a blackout that took place, rendering the process undoable. “I am a religious person,” said the Roman Catholic Garcia, “and I think this was God’s way of letting me know that it wasn’t the right time for me.” He ended up at Phoenix College, trying out an architectural drafting course to become introduced to the industry and realized that it wasn’t the course of study for him, at all.

He took the next six months to reflect on life to best figure out the future, and that turned into 18 months, as some of those life questions aren’t so easily answered. “I started working at different restaurants and after a period of time, that became frustrating. I wanted to make more of the honors I received in high school, and people in the community wanted to see that happen, as well,” he continued. “I was in tears daily and I knew it was time to get back into school.”

Transportation was a major issue that Garcia faced. At 10 months old, he was diagnosed with epilepsy, something doctors figured out had been developing since he was in the womb. So, at the point in time he was ready to get back to his path of adult education, driving was still not a part of his life. He discovered bus route that could get him from Gila Bend to the EMCC campus, so in 2008, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a declared major of Spanish. A change from his initial thoughts of architecture, it was a Hollywood movie called "Spanglish" that initially motivated him in that direction. “There’s a scene where someone was interpreting and it made me realize that I wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter and eventually work in the courts. I aspire to be a language instructor.” That trip involved several hours a day on the bus to make this happen. Garcia’s spirit was persistent and in charge.

His travel time was also extensive when he continued his course of study from 2011 to 2013 at ASU. He credits Valley Metro’s transportation system with helping him, as they had the routes that could get him where he needed to go, despite the distances involved. He finished at ASU with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Spanish.

After spending so much time utilizing public transportation, there’s been an exciting change for Garcia. After so many years with his epilepsy seizures at bey, his doctors are allowing him to pursue obtaining a driver’s license. He’s in no hurry, however. “In rural areas, I can drive,” he said. “But I need to continue practicing.” “I still use public transportation while I practice.”

Currently, Garcia is looking for a job in his field and exploring a court interpreter program, as well as the possibility of becoming a language teacher. He has received honors at all of the schools he has attended and credits his time at EMCC as exceptional. “I had a wonderful advisor named Marsha Carlen,” said Garcia. “She was an angel; and especially helpful in getting me started with my CLEP test. All of the EMCC instructors I had were amazing. My criminal justice classes were great and I am just so glad I went there. I really love to learn and for me going to school is neither a bore or a chore. It helps me expand.”

Garcia’s story is inspirational, proving that when there’s a will, there is a way. He persevered years without living near any of the schools he attended, and it was often the same case for many of the places he’s been employed. He kept a positive attitude throughout and it has served him well. He hopes that everyone can take a cue from his style of pursuing life goals, “If you have a goal, a dream, a challenge to overcome, do whatever it takes to make it a reality. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Have faith in yourself and never give up.”

Jake Ormond

Degree/Area of Study: Business & Healthcare Administration

Class of Year: 2017

EMCC student Jake Ormond is a 2017 recipient of the All-Arizona Academic Team scholarship. As a hard-working scholar, he has long been following a path to success while also striking balance between school, work and life. In addition to his studies, Ormond works on campus as the administrative assistant to the dean of students. His perseverance has paid off. Scheduled to graduate in May 2017 with his associate degree in business, he will utilize his new scholarship to attend Arizona State University next fall to study public service and public policy.

Ormond has always seen the value in not only acquiring a great education but also in immersing himself in groups that help serve communities both on and off campus. While enrolled at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise, Ariz., Ormond was involved in a variety of groups, including Key Club and the school’s leadership council. His engagement in the former group led him to becoming a Kiwanis member; the organization is behind some of the largest youth service programs in the world. He also volunteered at his school’s bookstore which he says gave him an opportunity to interact with students and faculty, as well as learn the facets of that business. March of Dimes, National Youth Council, and Future Business Leaders of America are some of the other groups with which Ormond has been involved.

He chose EMCC for a variety of reasons – from financial benefits of community college to convenience of the location – but ended up being thrilled by the personal attention he received on the campus. “After extensive consideration, the community college had so many more advantages to offer such as smaller class sizes, being close to home, and the opportunity for stronger bonds between students and faculty,” he said. “Looking back on it, I know I would not be the same person if I had made a different decision.”

Ormond’s penchant for understanding organizational structures was fulfilled when he previously worked in the president’s office on campus, as well as in his current position. That interest in administration, along with his work experience, helped shape his career path. Originally planning to study medicine, he discovered that a career in healthcare administration would be satisfying and a great fit for his different skills and interests. “I would like to be a part of shaping the policies that impact health processes,” he said. He hopes that in his future career endeavors, he can work to help make patient experiences better.

Ormond says his experiences at EMCC were made event better by the faculty and staff members. He said they are “amazing and completely dedicated to student success. Having wonderful mentors and getting that one-to-one time gave me a great advantage. Estrella is an outstanding institution.”

Harold Branch

Regional Vice President, Creative Leader & Founder

LegalShield, HomeBase Poetry

Degree/Area of Study: Communications

Harold Branch attributes EMCC as his initial source of inspiration for getting into the communications field. Graduating nearly 20 years ago, Branch went through hard times as a young man. He grew up facing some challenging family situations and became a high school dropout. He came to EMCC through an opportunity to attend the college’s Genesis West program, that allowed students who had dropped out to simultaneously earn a high school diploma while pursuing a college degree. The goal of the program, he said, was “to put students in an environment that would be more conducive to learning than their previous institutions or situations.” It was a very positive experience for Branch; he finished with the high school diploma along with an associate degree in general studies. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in communications from Arizona State University.

As someone who tackles things head on and is driven toward success, communications proved to the perfect choice for Branch. He has utilized his knowledge and skills for successful results in both his career and personal pursuits. Professionally, he is the regional vice president for Arizona for the very successful company, LegalShield. He’s also a business trainer and sought after speaker that has toured across the United States and Canada, offering his inspirational perspectives on topics from sales to how to overcome fears.

As a part of Phoenix’s creative community, Branch is the founder of HomeBase Poetry, one of the country’s largest open mic poetry events – the event has been running for more than seven years. He has also been the recipient of numerous awards that highlight his community contributions, including Phoenix’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Living the Dream Award, and the Universal Learning Centre’s Courage in Learning Award.

Branch noted that his time at EMCC was life changing. “The program gave us a chance to experience things we never would have otherwise. In addition to our courses, we got to attend offsite events and see speakers and trainers; it was eye-opening,” he said. It was his communications instructor, late faculty member Cheryl Bradshaw, that really got him interested in the field. “She was mind-blowing and one of my biggest inspirations, along with others like Adolfo Gamez and Pearl Williams.”

“A couple of years ago, I was the EMCC graduation speaker,” he said. “It was an honor for me.” He loves seeing how the campus continues to grow and change. “It’s such a difference from two decades ago when it was just a few buildings,” he said, “now there are even more opportunities for students, and that is thrilling to me.”

Virginia Boyle

Degree/Area of Study: Public Administration

Class of Year: 2017

Virginia Boyle, known as Ginny, is a current Estrella Mountain Community College student and the 2017 recipient of the All-USA Academic Team scholarship for the college. Her hard work earned her that prestigious award, as well as many other honors, like being a Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society member. In addition to her public administration studies, it is her many collegiate and community activities that have help shaped the path of this Ohio native.

Boyle served as a liaison for the Hattie Larlham Foundation in connection with Cleveland Indians Charities and its outreach autism camps in the Goodyear achools, as well as a Phi Theta Kappa activities facilitator at Estrella Mountain, and did volunteer work at her parish with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, work with Aqua Fria Food Bank.

Through these affiliations, her hands-on work helped Boyle realize find her focus. The scholarship will allow her to continue her studies at Northern Arizona University where she will work to earn a bachelor’s degree in public administration, with a focus on advocating for meal programs and facilitating educational information about eating and good health.

A mother herself, Boyle knows the importance of food as a child’s daily foundation to success. “I want to be a part of helping parents and families not only access programs that allow them to receive food or funding for their meals, but also to help them learn about healthy shopping, cooking, and eating,” she said.

Like many students in the community college environment, Boyle went back to school after putting her college career on hold at a younger age to raise a family. She was concerned about what it would be like as an older student on a campus where many other students might be considerably younger. As she got involved with her studies and activities at EMCC, Boyle says that “the environment was so supportive that it helped me with my determination to be successful.” She credits the students, faculty, and staff with creating an open environment that is beneficial for students of all ages.

Cheryl Todd 


AZFirearms, Pot of Gold Estate Auctions, and Gun Freedom Radio

Degree/Area of Study: Psychology and Organizational Leadership

EMCC alumna Cheryl Todd believes that building a strong and dynamic business community helps to strengthen residential communities, and vice-versa. Her perspective comes from years of hands-on experience. For more than three decades, Todd and her husband of 32 years, Danny, have owned multiple “mom and pop sized” businesses. She was a career business woman before embarking on a higher education in her late 20’s, an endeavor she faced with some trepidation.

“I had no idea how I would do in college,” she said. “I was an above average high-school student, but had been out of school for so many years that I didn’t know what the college experience would hold.” Not only did it turn out to be not as daunting as she had worried, Todd says it couldn’t have gone any better. “Going to EMCC was the perfect experience for me. The teachers were so focused on student success that it gave me the courage to excel. I became a 4.0 student, which I didn’t know that I could be. It set my feet firmly on the ground, and on the road to success, by giving me that courage and confidence to know that I could achieve things.”

Coming to EMCC armed with extensive experience in the business world, Todd was used to often working solo, plowing through tasks in what she calls a “lone ranger” mode. Her time at EMCC helped her learn the value of working collaboratively. “As a longtime entrepreneur, it’s easy to get used to working solo,” she said. “My college experience taught me how to effectively work with others, how to build teams and complete projects together. I really learned how to rely on the talents of others for the success of all.” So satisfied with the initial foray back into secondary education, Todd secured a psychology degree and is currently working on a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

In addition to currently owning three Avondale-based businesses with Danny – AZFirearms, Pot of Gold Estate Auctions, and Gun Freedom Radio – Todd devotes ample time to local charitable and service organizations. The pair has won several awards for their efforts, including community service awards for founding First Responders Appreciation Day.

“Danny and I are very community-minded,” she said. “That’s why we joined the Southwest Valley Chamber of Commerce a few years ago. We like to serve our first responders and our surrounding communities in any ways we can. That has always been our priority, rather than just being focused on monetary success.”

Todd was recently appointed as the chamber’s chair-elect, a role she is thrilled to fill. “I am so excited to work with local businesses of all sizes, from the mom and pop shops, to the biggest around. I am honored to serve in this position.”

Charlotte Hackman

Medical Billing and Coding

Degree/Area of Study: Medical Billing and Coding

Class of Year: 2016

Charlotte Hackman was one of the 14 students who celebrated completion of their studies from Estrella Mountain Community College’s (EMCC) Medical Billing and Coding program in August of 2016. For Hackman, the celebratory event was even more exciting because, in addition to finishing this healthcare program of study, she was also the selected student speaker for the ceremonial event.

Hackman came to the United States in 1994, after graduating high school in Ghana, West Africa, her native country. Her sister received an associate degree in medical coding from Phoenix College, another institution in the Maricopa County Community Colleges. Her sister loved the program that she attended and encouraged her to consider it, so Hackman did her research and found out about EMCC’s accelerated program. She liked the idea of a learning process that allowed for knowledgeable and fast access into the career world; its hands-on experience was instrumental in the deciding factor. It was a choice that she embraced wholeheartedly.

“One of the reasons I was selected to speak,” she said, “Was due to my perfect attendance.” “and more importantly,” she continued, “I wanted to inspire others with my words.” “Being able to address fellow students and faculty, I talked about the fact that every person has greatness within them and when you start putting your plans into action, the world will see your greatness.” Hackman is looking forward to becoming an auditor in the medical coding field, and is continuing her education by pursuing an associate degree.