Before she became an FBI agent, 2008 Michigan Tech graduate Nicole Lopez guarded terrorists in military prisons and conducted night raids as part of an elite military team identifying High Value Targets in Afghanistan. None of the accomplishments came easy. Hearing loss, discovered in early childhood, presented extra hurdles.
But the psychology major, who minored in military arts and sciences and Spanish (later earning a master's in forensic psychology), knew that figuring out what you want and pursuing the goal for as long as it takes will take you where you want to be—from Army ROTC cadet and setter on the Michigan Tech Women's Volleyball team to a fulfilling career investigating violent crime.
Q: You experience moderate hearing loss in your left ear. Is there technology that's been helpful?
A: My parents noticed my hearing loss when I was young. I was missing a bone in my middle ear and needed an ear drum replacement. I underwent several surgeries. By the time I reached high school, a hearing aid was recommended, but a standard aid didn't make a significant difference. During my college years, a new bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA) was found to have great success for those with single-sided hearing loss. Because I was an ROTC cadet, it was recommended I wait until the Army officially approved the device. In 2013, the Army paid for my BAHA implant; I receive follow-up treatment through Veterans Affairs. In recent years advancements have been incredible. My device allows for Bluetooth connection (I can answer phone calls and listen to music through my hearing aid!).
Q: When you couldn't enlist after high school and programs including West Point turned you down because of hearing loss, what kept you going?
A: Once I had my mind set to be an Army officer, I refused to accept rejection, especially when I knew there was a chance to pay for college. I researched all the options and exhausted every avenue until ROTC granted my hearing waiver during the national application process. During my medical screening, I submitted additional paperwork to show that I could perform the duties required to pursue a military career. The waiver allowed me to be a cadet at whatever school I was accepted to.
Q: Why did you apply to Michigan Tech?
A: When I started looking at colleges, I narrowed my list to schools where I could pursue a civil engineering degree, play on the volleyball team, and join ROTC—a very limited number. Michigan Tech offered me full scholarships for both volleyball and ROTC, but it was my recruiting visit that landed the deal! I fell in love with Tech the minute I stepped on campus. While I changed majors after my first year, I never regretted the decision I made for choice of school.
Q: You call the Cultural Support Team "the coolest job I'm ever going to hold in the military." What was so impactful?
A: The Cultural Support Team (CST) was a new program when I applied. Most people weren't aware of the impact women were having on the battlefield in Afghanistan. During selection, I was up against women just like me: the top females in their units with the highest physical fitness scores. But rather than competition, I found a support system that encouraged each of us to be our best. After training, each woman deployed with a separate all-male Special Operations team considered the military's best of the best. Our job was to help teams access half the population that was previously unreachable: the women and children. In Afghanistan, it is culturally inappropriate for a male to talk to a female, much less search a female. When teams went on night raids looking for High Value Targets we accompanied them to search and question women and children. CST work contributed greatly to the mission. The program still exists. More doors have opened, including removing the ban on women in combat and allowing us to pursue careers in any branch of service.
"Nicole was one of those students who best exemplify Husky tenacity. Her motivation, determination, and work ethic as a student, athlete, and member of the ROTC program was exceptional."
Q: After Afghanistan, you set your sights on the FBI Academy. What appealed to you about a job with the Bureau?
A: I left Army active duty in 2013 because I'd already held the exciting positions I strived for. It was time to build a life beyond constant deployment. I'd been a military police officer for over five years, so I knew I enjoyed law enforcement. Working for the Army Reserves as a civilian while I went through the federal application process confirmed my need for a job that was not desk-centric. Looking back, I have no idea how I was able to wait four years to receive an offer, but I don't regret waiting now that I am in this field.
Q: You investigate violent crime. What's satisfying about your profession?
A: Violent crime investigation is exciting because of the fast pace and variety of cases. Every day is different. I work a wide range of investigations— from gangs and drugs to bank robberies and extortion. I am not at my desk every day, or completing monotonous tasks. The job requires strong self-initiative and drive, but is very rewarding when you see positive outcomes and get to hold individuals accountable for their crimes.
Q: Is it true that watching Hallmark movies is one of the ways you de-stress?
A: Completely true! I love a cheesy Hallmark classic. So much of my work life is unpredictable and can contain a lot of stress or adrenaline. Sometimes I crave predictability, knowing that there is always going to be a happy ending. I also work out and play sports to relax. I find my way to a volleyball court as often as I can; I still dabble in broomball and other sports when leagues are available. I try to keep my fitness level steady so I can stay mentally stable and physically fit for my career and the Army Reserves.
Q: What does it feel like to be in People magazine?
A: It's still pretty unbelievable. I was hesitant because I knew my entire life would be exposed to the internet once the interview published. But the feedback I've received is nothing short of amazing! Most rewarding is how many friends and acquaintances showed their daughters the story.
My grandfather, drafted as a marine in World War II, was my hero. I was honored to follow in his footsteps into the military—but his generation didn't talk about their experiences. I went into the military without truly understanding what I was getting myself into. My hope is that the article will give women who have never considered these career fields a fresh perspective from someone they can relate to. I also love that I can share the story with my son when he's older.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.