The gap between college degrees for Elmo Lopez Jr. was 40 years, 100 miles and an internet connection.
The Laredo native and chief executive officer of Gateway Community Health Center in his hometown graduated with a Master of Business Administration from the Baylor online program in December 2018. The last time he had walked the graduation stage was at the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Business Administration in 1978.
"I had been working in the corporate world since 1985, and I never necessarily needed a master's degree," Lopez Jr. said. "When I changed from a for-profit healthcare company to a not-for-profit healthcare company, it was time to get an MBA."
That wasn't the only motivation for Lopez Jr., 62, to return to higher education. All three of his children — Veronica Sandoval (St. Mary's University), Amanda Lamar-Lopez (University of Texas at San Antonio) and Elmo Daniel (Texas A&M International University) had master's degrees before he enrolled, as did his parents from the University of Texas.
"When I had my children, I made sure to get them educated as much as I could afford," Lopez Jr. said. "I encouraged them to get their master's degrees, because I knew they were going to get into very competitive fields and most of the people who get the opportunities for jobs and successful careers have master's degrees."
The flexibility of the online MBA program allowed Lopez Jr. to earn a master's degree while running a healthcare company that serves 33,000 patients.
"It took a lot of discipline," he said. "I worked on my classes every day. They were 7-week classes, which was great. I had night meetings and board meetings and had to work around those. Assignments were often due on weekends, so Saturdays and Sundays were study time."
Even with a vast amount of upper-management experience, Lopez Jr. found the online MBA program reinforced his real-world know-how.
"Most of the things I learned, I had learned about them before or read about them and was familiar," he said. "However, I didn't know some of the theories that applied to the things that I did or was doing. This program helped me perform better at my job and connected the dots."
Marching to Success
Lopez Jr. followed in his father's footsteps by playing trumpet in the Longhorn Marching Band. Both of his parents were career educators.
"Their parents pushed them quite a bit to earn master's degrees, but my parents never pushed much for that," Lopez Jr. said. "We never got master's degrees because it wasn't really that necessary back then."
By 1985, Lopez Jr. was vice president and a commercial lender at International Bancshares. He made the switch to healthcare as a business development officer of Doctors Hospital of Laredo in 1997.
"I was handling a fairly large account for the hospital," Lopez Jr. said. "They were looking for some administrative help and offered me a job. I became a chief operating officer, not because I knew the hospital business at the time, but because I knew management. It took off."
Boy, did it. Lopez Jr. spent the majority of the rest of his career as either a chief executive officer or a chief operating officer of local hospitals.
"We have about 60 doctors and dentists and other clinicians and do many services under one roof, from medical care to dental care to behavioral healthcare," he said. "I keep quite busy."
Lopez Jr. chose Baylor for its online education experience and credibility. He spent most of his free time on schoolwork after enrolling in 2015 while taking one course per term.
"Most healthcare companies require a brick-and-mortar-type of college degree," he said. "They don't necessarily accept other types — especially if it's online. They want an MBA from a Baylor University, a University of Texas or a Texas A&M University.
"Baylor was one of the first universities that offered an online master's degree in business, which helped me. Living and working in Laredo with a full-time job, online was the only way I could have done it."
Green and Gold Crescendo
Lopez Jr. had his family — especially his wife, Sara — encouraging him for the duration of the online MBA program.
"She helped me a lot," he said. "If I was watching TV and not studying, she'd tell me to turn off the TV and get to work. She was my biggest supporter and biggest fan. She is very proud of me. I owe a lot to her for that."
Of course, his children were also happy to see him join them in "the master's degree club." He made A's and B's in all of the online MBA courses.
"My children were excited and proud," he said. "My parents were also excited — my dad is 91; my mom is 90. Several of my friends — especially colleagues in the healthcare industry — have their master's degrees and encouraged me to get mine."
The final verse of the return to college was graduation day. Lopez Jr. celebrated with his family and met several of his professors, like Dr. Emily Hunter, Dr. Van Gray, Dr. Gary Carini and Dr. Tim Kayworth.
"That was something else," Lopez Jr. said. "I have been to other graduations in December. For my son's commencement, there were about 200 people in his class. I expected 200-300 people graduating at Baylor. When I walked in, there were a 1,000 people. It was pleasure to see and meet all of these folks who helped me along the way."
Although retirement is in sight for Lopez Jr., he believes the online MBA is worthwhile at any stage of a career.
"If you want to be in upper administration in any type of healthcare setting, whether it's outpatient, clinics, or inpatient hospital settings, they require a master's degree," he said. "Definitely look at Baylor. The professors are great. They have been doing online for quite some time, so their experience is helpful. That's what is key to the Baylor online success. I am proud to have an MBA from Baylor University."
Learn more about the Baylor online MBA program.
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