Marine veteran Andrew Relopez was driving along South Coast Highway in Encinitas a few years back when a billboard touting MiraCosta College’s new bachelor’s degree program in biomanufacturing caught his attention. “I went on the internet to find out what biomanufacturing was all about,” Relopez recalled. “I said, yeah, I can get into that.”
Indeed. On May 22, Relopez will be the student speaker when the first cohort of graduates in the groundbreaking biomanufacturing program are honored during a reception and recognition ceremony. Relopezz’s years of moving from job to job after leaving the Marine Corps are over. Instead, he’s establishing a new career in an in-demand industry that is experiencing explosive growth.
“It was hard work, no doubt,” said Relopez, 32, who credits his wife, Andrea Relopez, with providing the support that has been critical to his success. “A lot of long days and long nights. But if you want to achieve something great, you’re going to have to put in the work.”
Relopez is making history. MiraCosta was among just 15 community colleges in the state securing approval to offer a bachelor’s degree under the California Baccalaureate Degree Pilot Program. The limited number of colleges were allowed to offer one degree that would prepare graduates with the skills needed in high-demand profession and in a major that wasn’t duplicating a program at nearby University of California or California State University campus.
Relopez couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. Born in Long Beach and raised in Hemet, he enlisted in the Marines after graduating from San Jacinto High School. Relopez served with the Marine Corps infantry from 2005 through 2009 based at Camp Pendleton and saw combat during his seven months in Iraq during the surge of 2007. He tried college a couple times while transitioning to civilian life but gave up the books for a series of jobs ranging from a security guard at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to a bouncer at a bar in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
He recalls becoming intrigued with the sciences while watching a scene in the movie The Martian in which Matt Damon played a stranded botanist learning how to survive on the red planet. The next day, Relopez happened to drive by the billboard in Encinitas promoting the MiraCosta College biomanufacturing program.
After researching the profession, Relopez met with a counselor, set up an education plan, and began taking the prerequisites needed to join the initial cohort of 23 students enrolling as juniors in the fall of 2017.
All but one of those initial 23 students will be graduating in May.
“I like the idea of being in a profession where I can contribute to saving people’s lives,” said Relopez, who has already landed a job as MiraCosta College’s interim science laboratory technician supporting upper and lower division courses in the biomanufacturing program.
“It’s a very unique degree to have,” Relopez added. “It is something that is very specific to the biotech hub we have here in North County. All the coursework was developed in consultation with the industry, which identified special skills that were needed. It’s not theoretical. This degree prepares you for life-saving research that is going on just down the street in our own community.”