Turning a technical passion into a career in the Navy

UF DBA alumnus Sam Lopez's 24-year career in the Navy led him to the UF DBA program

Sam Lopez always knew he wanted to be involved in a technical career. The Bronx, NY native just wasn’t sure what it would look like.

After graduating from high school in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 1995, Lopez (MBA ’12, DBA ’20) enlisted in the U.S. Navy to learn about electronics since he couldn’t afford to attend college immediately. His dream sparked a 24-year career in the Navy that helped him earn two bachelor’s degrees, as well as an MBA and DBA from the UF Warrington College of Business.

He reported to his first role in the Navy aboard the USS John F. Kennedy in 1997. He was deployed for six months, allowing him to see 13 European countries.

“It was eye opening for a 21-year-old,” Lopez said. “I was able to see how big this world is and not just see the little city I was familiar with. It created my thirst for learning.”

For 12 years, Lopez worked as a technician in the Navy. He was part of a team that did maintenance on equipment to ensure the ship’s radio and flight deck communications were performing at peak efficiency. After four years, Lopez transitioned from ship to shore duty. He had a more traditional schedule, providing him with an opportunity to go back to school and earn his bachelor’s in business administration from the University of North Florida while stationed in Jacksonville. He would later add a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Florida A&M University.

As Lopez worked with way up in the Navy, his eyes were always set on becoming an officer. That dream became a reality in May 2007 when Lopez became an Information Technology Division officer. He led a team of 12 technicians and was responsible for all of the ship’s communications and computer networking system.

“The difference in the officer role was less room for error,” Lopez said. “Before that, it was just me doing the work. But at the officer level, there’s the pressure of a ship losing a network certification if you aren’t prepared for inspections.”

No matter how his role changed, the thirst for learning was always in the back of his mind. As Lopez moved into his officer role and had a more predictable working schedule, he took three years to get settled in the role before pursuing MBA programs. He enrolled in the UNF MBA program initially, but attending four days of in-person classes per week was going to be challenging.

That’s when a friend in the UF MBA program informed him of the available flexibility. He enrolled in the UF MBA Weekend Professional program and was able to pursue the degree he wanted while only coming to Gainesville for one weekend per month.

“The format was perfect for me,” Lopez said. “It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life and career.”

Six years after graduating from the UF MBA program, he was applying to the UF DBA program. He started the program and fell in love with the classes, learning about new subjects and being entrenched in topics of interest like leadership.

Lopez particularly points out Joyce Bono’s organizational behavior class as an important part of his time as a student. He recalled rough moments in his time in the Navy and watching his ship struggle with certifications and trainings while other ships thrived. As Dr. Bono taught, Lopez learned new leadership tactics that he immediately implemented with his ship.

“I got to learn from the professors who are also teaching and mentoring PhD students,” Lopez said. “Joyce Bono was a huge part of my DBA experience. She helped me think about how to answer questions qualitatively with data-based answers.”

Lopez turned his DBA into a career teaching at Trinity Baptist College in Jacksonville, where he teaches business, operations management, economics and financial management classes. He also teaches as an adjunct professor at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.