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'A mirror to our students': UNC grad and DC Teacher of the Year gives back


UNC alumnus Justin Lopez-Cardoze was voted the 2020 DC teacher of the year and used his award to create a scholarship. Photo courtesy of Justin Lopez-Cardoze. 

Learner, teacher, role model, Tar Heel — these are some of the words used to describe the 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year, Justin Lopez-Cardoze.

“When I was in high school, I knew that it was something that was a passion of mine, but it didn’t really surface until I was at Carolina in my junior year,” Lopez-Cardoze said, referring to why he wanted to teach.  

Lopez-Cardoze graduated from UNC in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. 

As an undergraduate, Lopez-Cardoze was a teaching assistant in Chemistry 102L. He said he received a GAT Teaching Award from the department in 2010 for his performance, further inspiring him to pursue a career in education.

“This is the perfect profession for me,” Lopez-Cardoze said. “To teach and to learn how to teach, was something that I was really passionate about and still am to this day.” 

Gidi Shemer, teaching associate professor in biology, taught Lopez-Cardoze in his human anatomy and physiology class at UNC. He said Lopez-Cardoze was enthusiastic and passionate, always wanting to grasp the material.

“The fact that he decided to go to be a teacher, I was so happy with that decision because this is exactly the person I would imagine him,” Shemer said. “I would love this person to teach my kids, because he was so submerged in the whole thing of knowledge and how to pass the knowledge.”

Lopez-Cardoze later received his master's in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. Afterwards, he began teaching at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington D.C., where he said he knew he could relate to students and make a difference.

“I view my students as very powerful,” Lopez-Cardoze said. “I truly believe that middle school students — and any student for that matter — can truly make a difference, no matter how old they are, no matter what their backgrounds are, their experiences, race, gender, every identity marker under the rainbow that you can think of.”

Lopez-Cardoze found out he was nominated for 2020 D.C. Teacher of the Year in the spring, and that the honor included a monetary award. 

“After I was nominated and found out there was a cash component, my immediate thought was to fulfill a dream of mine, which was to found a scholarship,” he said.

After winning, Lopez-Cardoze gave $5,000 of the award to create a scholarship. His original idea was to match the $5,000 he received with community support to create a $10,000 scholarship — but he said the generosity of the community has elevated his goal to a $20,000 scholarship.

He said he was inspired to create a scholarship for students who, like him, have a passion for STEM and want to pursue higher education, but do not have the means to do so. 

“It got to a point where the adversities which I was experiencing at home became so severe that I didn't think that financially, or in general, I would be able to attend university at all,” Lopez-Cardoze said.

During his senior year of high school, Lopez-Cardoze applied for an Aubrey Lee Brooks Scholarship through the College Foundation of North Carolina. He received the scholarship and, subsequently, a full ride to UNC.

“That changed my life because it made me feel like I was now able to leave the nest knowing that I made it,” Lopez-Cardoze said.

Lopez-Cardoze works as a faculty member under Laina Cox, the middle school principal at Capital City Public Charter School.

“He is inspiring,” Cox said. “He is unapologetically himself and for middle school students, that is key. You know this is the age where they are really looking to come into their own, identity wise, and he is just extremely proud of who he is and really shows that with his students.”

Aside from his role as a teacher, Lopez-Cardoze serves in a variety of leadership positions at his school. For one, he is a middle school representative on the school-wide Equity Core Committee. 

“I describe him a lot of times as a mirror to our students," Cox said. "They can see themselves in him and then they aspire to be like him, as scientists, as a caretaker, all of those pieces.”


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