Tiffany López had not planned to go to college.
Even finishing high school seemed uncertain after she had to flee an abusive home at age 15 and work full time at fast-food restaurants to support herself. Higher education didn’t seem likely, let alone earning master’s and doctoral degrees, along with some of the most prestigious awards in academia.
López sits on a couch in her spacious corner office at UC Irvine, the surroundings hinting at the prominence of the position she started in July: dean of the nationally ranked Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t look at everything I’ve done and say, ‘This is a life I could have never imagined for myself, (that) my family could have never imagined for me,’ ” she says. “And it all happened because of my education.”
If people were typefaces, López would be bold.
She’s artfully clad in a fuchsia shift dress, crisp white blazer, and black-and-white-framed glasses that can only be described as avant-garde. The bright colors and high contrast are a nod to her theater background, where she has helped produce a wide variety of stories as a dramaturge since her college days. She says a striking visual ensemble impacts her mood and reminds her “to be really present, and to think intentionally about the choices that we can make. They’re a way to embrace living intentionally and design-minded.”
For nearly 30 years, López has dedicated her life to helping students design better lives, by increasing their opportunities for higher education and arts access. López is esteemed as a hybrid artist, scholar, administrator, community organizer, and champion for diversity. She created programs to increase inclusion, community engagement, and leadership training as a professor of English and theater at UC Riverside and then at Arizona State University. Along the way, she was promoted to an endowed chair position at UC Riverside. At ASU, she became director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and then vice provost for inclusive excellence.
“That’s really how I see my role as a leader and as an artist and as a scholar—(as) a conduit.”
The abridged version of her list of accolades includes the first César Chávez Fellow at Dartmouth, a Fulbright scholar, and the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.
Which accomplishment is she most proud of? “This one,” she says about her new position. “I would say everything else that you might read about that I’ve done, all roads lead to this one.”
A native Southern Californian, López wanted to return to her roots. Her history encompasses not only the geographic location but the mentors and school systems that changed her life.
“When I was in high school, I would have never said, ‘Hey, the pathway I see for myself is to become a dean!’ That has to be created,” she says, referring to the many teachers who helped her see her potential. “It’s very important to me that we’re building pathways from the university into the community and (vice versa) for our students.”
More than many academics, she can identify on a deep level with UC Irvine’s diverse population of students—especially with the 84 percent who are people of color, the almost 50 percent who are first in their families to attend college, the 45 percent who come from low-income families, and the nearly 3,000 transfer students from community colleges. Their story is hers, too.
“I feel like that’s one of her superpowers—creating these pathways for other people to be able to be leaders as well.”
Growing up, López relished the culture of creativity around her in Goleta, near UC Santa Barbara. The granddaughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico, she was enchanted by the traditions her grandmother passed down, like storytelling at the kitchen table.
There was an abundance of free public arts initiatives in the 1970s. Since money was often tight, López and her two younger siblings enjoyed the accessible creative programs offered at libraries, parks, and the university. While the arts gave López “an outlet for imagination and dreaming,” they were also a refuge from an increasingly turbulent home life. Reading books and writing skits kept her childhood joy alive, she says, “while I was in circumstances that required me to be very mature very quickly, as the oldest in a violent household.”
Her father, she wrote in an essay, was “a raging alcoholic” who physically and verbally abused his wife and children. The violence and mistreatment escalated throughout López’s childhood, culminating in her father deserting the family. “Part of abandoning his family was just leaving my mother, who was a stay-at-home housewife, to fend for herself while he went on and did whatever,” Lopez says. “And my mother hadn’t been employed. She didn’t have any fallback, and her own mental health was deteriorating.”
Between her father’s abuse and her mother’s inability to care for her and her siblings, López feared for their lives. She fled her home and called Child Protective Services at age 15. Her siblings were removed from the home. López never went back. The family of a friend took her in, on the condition that she work to help support their household.
López got a full-time job at Burger King. Every day after high school, she worked from 3 p.m. until midnight. It would have been easy to drop out of school. “I was not a great student, obviously, with circumstances like that,” she says. But three supportive teachers prevented her from giving up. They allowed López to rest during class if she needed to, as long as she promised to earn her diploma.
She graduated and enrolled in California Community Colleges—the first in her family to finish high school and attend college. She wanted to manage a branch of Burger King and needed an associate degree in business. As López was finishing her degree, a group of teachers again changed her trajectory. Her humanities instructors noticed her natural writing ability and creativity. They suggested she transfer to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Being a first-generation college student with no prior exposure to educational pathways, López didn’t know the difference between associate and bachelor’s degrees. “I was like, ‘Transfer? Where?’ This is the importance of having mentors,” she says. “I had never had anybody see something for me that I didn’t see for myself.”
Her teachers helped her navigate financial aid and transfer to Cal State Sacramento, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in English. It was the start of an educational chain reaction. López’s academic prowess garnered prestigious scholarships and fellowships, enabling her to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in English from UC Santa Barbara and win a literary award from UC Irvine along the way.
López cites the countless students she has taught and had an impact on over the years as the most rewarding part of her journey. Before she was finished with her own education, she started mentoring younger students, such as Patricia Herrera. They met at Dartmouth in 1994, where López was completing her doctoral dissertation as the first César Chávez Fellow at the university, and Herrera was a freshman.
López took Herrera, also a first-generation college student, under her wing. López shared her story with Herrera, encouraged her, invited her home during holiday breaks, and inspired her to consider postgraduate education. Herrera had never met another Latina pursuing a Ph.D. and hadn’t thought of attaining one herself. “She was a model for that,” Herrera says. “I feel like that’s one of her superpowers—creating these pathways for other people to be able to be leaders as well.”
Several years later, Herrera earned the same prestigious César Chávez Fellowship and completed a doctorate. She’s now an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Richmond, Virginia, and she and López are still good friends.
“(López) really is an inspiration for how you can make it, how you can pursue your passion, how you can put (past trauma and challenges) to the side for a moment and do what you want to do,” Herrera says.
Cesar Ortega and Miriam de la Torre, López’s honorary “adult children,” were first-generation students in López’s English and theater classes at UC Riverside. Ortega says he wouldn’t have earned his degree without López’s encouragement. He struggled with writing in a second language and was embarrassed by his accent. López would “create a space that felt safe to be us in our skin—in the arts and in life,” he says.
Ortega and de la Torre married and are pursuing more education. De la Torre is working on a master’s in occupational therapy at USC, and Ortega is applying to graduate schools to study higher education. They still talk with López weekly. “I think she’s an artist in the way that she engages with people, that she creates art by bringing people together,” Ortega says. “And I’m excited for the young Cesars, Miriams, and many other people to really explore art, to think that they are artists in their own way, and to be able to explore that voice they have.”
“We need people who’ve had her experiences in leadership, because they’re going to understand the situation that so many of our young people are facing,” says Liz Lerman, professor in dance at the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at ASU and a MacArthur Genius Fellow. “Tiffany has so much to offer because she’s lived a complex and difficult life. … She really believes in academia as a transformational place, because that’s what it was for her.”
López’s vision for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts merges every facet of her career. It’s best illustrated by the glinting, tubular metal ring on her left hand, which López says is modeled after an electrical conduit. “I wear this ring to remind me of my own vision as a leader, which is to bring together different kinds of things. So it has two distinct types of metals,” she says, pointing at the silver and brass in the band, “but also, it’s a conduit. That’s really how I see my role as a leader and as an artist and as a scholar—(as) a conduit.”
Like her ring, she seeks to unite seemingly unrelated elements—the school’s fine arts with the university’s renowned scientific research—and create channels to connect students with mentors and leaders in their fields. “I think a big goal is really bringing a spotlight to the way that the arts are exploring research questions,” she says, describing how the current generation of creators and scholars are using artistic disciplines to examine topics such as sustainability and social justice.
“They’re really interested in being a variety of things, like an engineer who’s also a poet. So I’m very excited about (creating) avenues for our future arts leadership and our future cultural leadership and innovators to be able to think about engaging with arts, just as a very organic way of exploring the questions that they’re wanting to solve for their moment and for the future.”
She plans to build on the foundation already in place with the integration of the arts with STEM subjects. The second part of López’s vision hearkens back directly to her winding educational journey. In addition to expanding the university’s community engagement with the arts in Orange County, she hopes to develop further mentorship and networking opportunities for students with influential artists and leaders.
“The bottom line is when you empower people to personally be their best selves, it creates paths that not only better their own lives, but better the lives of their families and their communities,” she says. “And that’s really what the University of California and higher education is set up to do, is to help people better their life paths through education.”