Travel the world or finish your degree, musician Nick Lopez didn’t have to choose

Southwestern College alumnus Nick Lopez, left, with his former music professor and mentor Dr. Jorge Pastrana.
Southwestern College alumnus Nick Lopez, left, with his former music professor and mentor Dr. Jorge Pastrana.

Nick Lopez began his career as a college student at Southwestern College the traditional way. It was 2011, he had just graduated high school and he decided to major in music. He would park his car, walk along Jaguar Walk and head to his classes throughout the Chula Vista campus.

Lopez decided to major in music so he could take music theory and composition courses to advance his skills as a guitar player and a musician. But Lopez had already made a name for himself in the local music scene with his old band, Brave Coast. Between going to college and working part-time, Lopez found a way to squeeze in “terrible” house shows and “lousy” tours throughout the state and the country between breaks and summers.

“We would drive seven hours to play a house no one showed up at,” Lopez said. “We just hoped we’d at least make $20 to get to the next show.”

While on the road, he crossed paths with Capsize, another local post-hardcore San Diego band. So when Capsize was looking for another road-worn musician in 2013 to fill in as a guitarist for their first European tour, they called Lopez. It was a welcome call for Lopez and a good jump from empty house shows to venues throughout Europe, but he didn’t want to put his educational goals on pause.

“I’ve always had an aptitude for education,” Lopez said. “I’ve always loved school and loved learning. Education is definitely my top priority, but I always wanted to make school and music work together.”

Because Southwestern College offered so many online courses, Lopez didn’t have to choose between a life as a touring musician and his education. So Lopez switched his major to English, another passion of his, and through online courses he was able to continue taking classes while touring more than 200 days of the year. Lopez finished enough requirements to transfer to Southern New Hampshire University, and is about a year away from receiving his bachelor’s degree in English, also completely online.

Currently, Southwestern College offers more than 275 classes a semester online taught by around 125 instructors. Southwestern College provides many resources for students for students like Lopez who take the unconventional road in their college careers. They have their own dedicated orientation, both in-person or online, and they have access to online tutoring through the Academic Success Center.

Lopez performing with Capsize last spring in Birmingham, England.
Lopez performing with Capsize last spring in Birmingham, England. (Photo courtesy of Nick Lopez.)

For Lopez, studying in the library or at home turned into studying on tour buses and backstage of venues throughout the world, including Europe and America.

“I’ll start writing an essay in our van before we have to set up our gear. Play the show, get food, check into a motel past midnight, study some more, then set my alarm for 9 a.m. so we can drive for six more hours to next show,” Lopez said.

Although he didn’t start as a student at Southwestern College until 2011, Southwestern College has been a part of his entire life. His parents are professor Kathleen Canney Lopez and the late Phil Lopez, former English professor and faculty union president.

“I remember growing up and falling asleep at union meetings,” Lopez said.

Lopez began taking private guitar lessons from his future Southwestern College music professor and mentor Dr. Jorge Pastrana after Lopez’s father taped a hand-written note on Dr. Pastrana’s office door.

“My 12-year-old son Nico has been playing guitar for about 1½ years now, and he’s really good. But he needs the focus, discipline and breadth of formal lessons to grow,” Phil Lopez’s note read.

Through private lessons and later on as a student in his college music courses, Dr. Pastrana taught Lopez structure and traditional techniques, including a foundation in classical music, and added a level of professionalism to his music and style.

“He taught me about how to play music mindfully,” Lopez said. “And not just play just to play, but really think about every little thing you’re doing. He was single-handedly responsible for taking me from a guitarist and turning me into an actual musician.”

When Lopez was making the jump from small house shows to international tours, Dr. Pastrana was one of the people who gave him guidance, but also pressed him to stay on track with his education.

“He’s really taken advantage of the technology we have and he can be in Germany and still work on his degree,” Pastrana said. “If he would’ve said, ‘I’ll just do it when I get back’, it can quickly turn into 10 years later and he could still not be done with his degree. Nick can go and tell other students, ‘I toured the world, but I made sacrifices to finish my education.’”