By: Aurelia Spaulding
“I was walking around campus telling God ‘I want to make a difference in this world, and I want to create change’,” Julia Rivas said. This prayer she spoke led to nearly a decade of situations lining up for her to do just that.
Rivas was born in El Salvador, and spent most of her childhood in New Jersey until moving to Kentucky at the end of the eleventh grade.
“Dad said he made all these sacrifices so I could be somebody and not have to work as hard physically as they (he and my brother) did,” Rivas said.
Moving from West New York, New Jersey to Bowling Green, KY provided a lower cost of living and different opportunities for work, but it also provided a change of environment for Rivas. Bowling Green, KY had fewer people of color, including Latinos and African Americans, compared to New Jersey, according to Rivas. That difference, she sometimes felt at school.
“The guidance counselors were way too busy helping the students they actually knew, and (students) they believed were going to succeed,” Rivas said.
Rivas considered the sacrifices her family made for her. She wanted to make something of herself by continuing her education, but she did not know where to start with planning for college.
“I started asking people. I started working as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher’s aide, and I took a year off (after high school graduation),” Rivas continued. “The ESL teacher I was working with said I could be a good teacher. ‘You need to find yourself some help.’ He said to me.”
By “help,” her teacher meant that Rivas needed to find someone to walk her through the application process and find scholarships. She needed to know what college was like and what was needed to enroll and be successful. Dean Kahler, who at the time served as Associate Vice President for the Office of Enrollment Management at Western Kentucky University, turned out to be a source of help for her.
“He helped me with scholarships,” Rivas said. “Then, I started asking other people about avenues to pay for college.” She asked and applied for everything that came her way.
Julia Rivas was the first in her family to go to college. Her father and brother started a trucking business to help pay for her first year. She continued to work while attending college, but she ended up pursuing an Interdisciplinary Studies degree instead of an education degree.
“I couldn’t pass the praxis,” Rivas explained. Praxis(r) is a standardized test given to students desiring to be teachers, and it is used for licensing and certification processes, according to ets.org/praxis.
Rivas took the Praxis(r) test three times before deciding to change her degree to Interdisciplinary Studies. “I started to think that maybe God wanted me to do something else, and I started thinking about the possibility of doing other things. I started thinking about my personality and how I love to work with others and perhaps working in a room by myself for a long time wasn’t for me. Maybe it was better for me to work in another type of nonprofit sector,” Rivas explained.
Rivas’ thought process is not uncommon for students who desire to be teachers, especially students of color. “This is one of the biggest obstacles that students have to face, another standardized exam,” Rivas explained.
“Most students have problems passing the Praxis(r) CORE, which is the first praxis(r). Once students pass that, then they have to take their program courses. And right before student teaching (which may be the last semester before graduation), then they have to take two, or in some cases, more Praxis exams,” Rivas continued. “So it makes it very challenging for students to see themselves finished and ready to be great teachers. At least that’s what I felt.”
With a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree, Julia became the first in her family to graduate from college. She later earned a Master of Arts degree in Student Affairs. Rivas now works with recruiting minority students and assisting students with the Praxis(r). She also teaches adjunct at the college level.
Informing Kids About College: HOPE and WKU Project LIFE
Julia Rivas’ experiences with college led her to found HOPE in 2009 with Khaler to promote education and the Latino culture. HOPE, which stands for Hispanic Organization for the Promotion of Education held fundraisers to raise money for scholarships and visited schools to talk to Latino students about college.
“I really wanted to come to a university and have that foundation to become somebody.” By speaking to students in high school and middle school, Rivas and other members of HOPE were able to educate youth on the importance of pursuing higher education, careers, and salaries.
For many of the students that HOPE spoke with, the pursuit of college meant crossing the hurdle of financial aid.
“As an undergrad, I didn’t have federal financial assistance because I was not a resident. I only had Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and I had to renew every 18 months.”
This is a permit that allowed Rivas to work, and according to her, at the time, it was about $600 a year to renew. Students on TPS or undocumented are not eligible for federal scholarships and financial aid.
“A lot of them do not pursue higher education,” Rivas explained because of the cost of college.
In order to pay for college, they must pay out of pocket or obtain scholarships or loans from other sources. The necessity for financial assistance is what makes HOPE needed.
In 2018, HOPE awarded two $500 and two $250 scholarships for Western Kentucky University and Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College students. HOPE maintains four endowments to allow for the continued provision of scholarships for Latino students.
Currently, HOPE does not regularly visit schools to speak to students, but Rivas continues work with college preparatory programs for underrepresented youth with the Young Male Leadership Academy and Project LIFE through WKU in partnership with local school systems.
Rivas started WKU Project LIFE in 2018 to work with Latino students at the GEO International High School. Multiple times a month, educational professionals speak to the students about topics related to college and career readiness. Rivas also works with the Young Male Leadership Academy, which is a partnership between WKU, Warren County Public Schools, and Bowling Green Independent Schools. The program also promotes college and career readiness for African American and Latino males.
El Salvador – Making an Impact on Vacation
Rivas married at age 22 to an American Citizen who is also from El Salvador. This union caused her to be eligible to apply for citizenship. Not long after receiving citizenship, her family traveled home for the first time in more than a decade.
“We were not able to travel until I got my residency card. The first time we went, I had not been there in about 13 years and my son was about two years old. The first year was about seeing the country. The second year was about how we should do something.”
“Seeing the limited resources broke my heart. It changed my perspective,” Rivas shared. She told her husband, “If we go, I feel like we have to do something.”
The school closest to their family home in El Salvador had one teacher over the entire school. Rivas described the infrastructure as “sad.” She explained the playground had rusty metal, and the children lacked school supplies.
Rivas returned to America and began a GoFundMe to pay for improvements to the school. More than $1,000 has been raised thus far and donations of clothing and supplies have been received.
The money raised helped build two washable restrooms and a sink Rivas said, “Previously it was just a hole in the ground.” The children and one teacher had dirt as the bathroom floor. There was no toilet to use, sink to wash hands, or floor to sweep.
“It felt like (it was) something small, but it was big in their life.” Rivas continued, “So there is a lot more to do, but I have some ideas.”
According to Rivas, this school, Hacienda Canada, is the poorest school in the sector. The others have more funding and more faculty. The Rivas family began working on the school in 2017 and continue each year during their annual visit.
Now that you have a better picture of Julia Rivas, imagine again that day she walked around campus telling God, ‘I want to make a difference in this world and I want to create change.’” Although she believes there is more to do, this blog is a salute to Julia Rivas for her desire for a real change.