Through my eyes: “running on coffee and will power”

History teacher Mrs. Rivera opens up about her journey from high school to teaching, and the many roadblocks she had to overcome


Mrs. Rivera

Mrs. Rivera and her family

Mrs. Rivera, History teacher

One of the goals of the Holly Spirit is to tell the stories of community members in different ways. “Through my eyes” is a regular Opinions column in which members of the Holly Spirit give readers a glimpse into their lives and perspectives. 


When I graduated high school, I had no plan or a place to go.  For weeks, I watched all of my friends get accepted to various colleges and universities, but not me. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for my college applications fees, let alone college tuition.  I was a good student. I did well in all of my classes, but I never took any honors or AP courses. I was just average. 

Mrs. Rivera at her high school graduation (Mrs. Rivera)

My parents did not speak English and were unable to guide me through the college maze or help me financially.  Both of my parents worked in a factory full time during the day and my dad had a second job clearing offices at night.  Although they could not help me with homework, the expectation was that I would go to college.  My parents were college-educated individuals who left the island because of the lack of opportunities and came to this country to ensure my sisters and I had a better life.  I knew that I was on my own and I had to figure it out.  Once I graduated high school, I had to get a full time job (this was not an option but a requirement) and I had to help pay the household bills.  I also made the decision to sign up for community college.   

The next five years of community college would prove to be the hardest and most rewarding of my life.  I spent five years in community college because all I could afford to pay for were one or two classes each semester.  I went to school at night and every summer.  I failed a couple of classes and was put in administrative probation. Juggling a full time job and night school was not easy, but I pulled myself together.  

After community college I was accepted into Rutgers and spent another three years trying to get my Bachelors degree.  By the time I was ready to get a Masters degree, I was a mom with two kids and another one would be born during the final year of my masters program.  I remember giving birth and going back to the classroom a week later to finish up the class.  I was in pain, sleep deprived and overwhelmed with guilt for leaving my newborn behind. 

Being a full time teacher, a mother of three, and a student was incredibly challenging.  I had to organize my life in a way that would allow me time to study.  I had to sacrifice nights,  weekends and every school break to my education.  More than once, I had to study while rocking my children to sleep. I needed the support of my husband who would take the kids to the park or the zoo when I needed quiet time.  There were many times when it all became too much, but I was too close to the finish line to give up.  I was going to be the first person in my family to have a Masters degree.  I ran on coffee and will power. Giving up was not an option.   

Not all of us will be afforded the opportunity to go to a prestigious college right out of high school, but there are other avenues.  There is always a way, but you have to be persistent and never give up.  Maybe a four year college is not a possibility for you.  Maybe your best option is a community college.  Maybe college isn’t for you at all, and a trade school suits your interest best.  Believe me, carpenters, plumbers and electricians can make just as good a living (or even better) as many college graduates. 

You will miss some parties and vacation opportunities.  You may even fail a few classes (I sure did).  However, furthering your education in whatever form that comes will be the best decision you ever make for yourself.  It took me twice as long to get my college education, but I have no regrets.  I learned a lot about myself in the process. Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made.  It changed the entire course of my life.

Be persistent and stay the course however that may look for you.  You will get there. Eventually.