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Fire and technology are two passions that Vicky Lopez has fused together.

And it was first ignited by the military.

“I think the military found me,” laughed Lopez (they/them), a first-generation Cal State San Bernardino computer engineering student, who was introduced to the military by a friend. “It matched my lifestyle, ambitions and goals.”

Lopez, who served in the U.S. National Guard for six years, was the first in their family to join the military, with their little brother now following in their footsteps. While serving, Lopez was introduced to another opportunity: firefighting.

“I did firefighting with the military. I helped with some of the big fires that happened in 2018 and 2019. The National Guard got activated,” explained Lopez.

After their first introduction to firefighting, Lopez eventually worked at the San Dimas Technology and Development Center, which is part of the U.S. Forest Service. Lopez met engineers who had experience with firefighting and who conducted experiments and created technology for firefighters and their safety – this especially piqued Lopez’s interest.

“That’s where I really got the idea that I can combine both my passion for fire and technology together and try to pursue something in that field,” said Lopez, who plans on graduating from CSUSB in fall 2025.  

Lopez has always had an interest in computer and phone repairs, often taking devices apart and putting them back together. They also learned a lot of mechanics in the military.

“That’s what’s really given me the tools to combine something,” they said. “My goal is to create either devices or help with current devices that are out there to help with the safety of either firefighters or first responders or military, as well as just to keep them safe or to help them in their field.”

Lopez further explained, “When they’re out on the field, a lot of dangers are out there that not a lot of civilians are aware about. So, my goal is to help them with their safety in their everyday tasks. I’ve been through a lot of that stuff firsthand and I have an idea of things I’d like to work on. I just now need the help of researchers and professors to kind of make those visions come true and keep learning and advancing my skills.”

Lopez is also interested in drone technology to help with the safety of firefighters or military personnel. “AI is something that can help us learn faster or even in our training without actually putting human life out there and risk it,” they said.

Lopez eventually became a full-time firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and was even part of a hotshot crew for three years – a crew that works on the hottest part of wildfires.

“It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Lopez expressed. “I was deployed to numerous wildland fire incidents across the country, and I was able to witness firsthand the impact that these fires had on the communities and the environment.”

Lopez moved up the ladder and ultimately became the assistant engineer. While Lopez was appreciative and proud of how far they have come, they decided to embark on a different journey.

“Eventually I was going to get myself up the ranks, but I decided I wanted to finish school,” Lopez said. “I thought it was more important. And a few factors – family and health. It’s very, very hard on your body. So, I wanted to finish school before I made any other decisions.”

Now a CSUSB student veteran, Lopez has immersed themselves into the on-campus Veterans Success Center (VSC).

“I like the Veterans Success Center; it has been very helpful for me and they’ve made me feel at home. I’ve met a lot of friends and mentors there,” Lopez said. “I feel like I’m actually getting the help that I need and the support that I need here, so that’s why I chose CSUSB.”

Lopez works as a VSC student assistant, where they help other student veterans with their benefits by assisting them with paperwork and connecting them with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lopez also helped fellow student veteran, Ralph Figueroa, reinitiate the once dormant on-campus Student Veterans Organization, where they help plan events and other activities for veterans and their families.

“I signed up with him. We took our orientation classes and we got initiated this last year,” said Lopez, who serves as the treasurer. “There’s a lot of stigma that comes with the military and mental health. So, I’m just trying to mitigate that so we can have a safe space not only in school, but outside of school.”

The organization, Lopez explains, is for student veterans to talk about their experiences, from life as a veteran to what issues they are going through.

“It’s a hard transition sometimes just going to school full-time and getting back in that study mode, and learning how to study again and all those things on top of all the stuff we deal with as veterans,” Lopez explained.

The Student Veterans Organization, which officially launched this past spring, started out with five members. It has now grown to over 40 members with more joining every week.

The organization also works with the CSUSB Palm Desert Campus to ensure events and resources are present on both campuses.

“That’s our main goal,” Lopez said, “to inform, educate and support.”