By Tristan E.M. Leach
For graduate student Rachel Rivera, inspiration comes in the form of experiencing life. Rivera, who is currently receiving her master’s degree in school counseling, has dedicated her life to helping others and using her experiences to inspire students, staff and her community.
Before coming to Rider, Rivera attended Montclair State University for her undergraduate degree. It was at Montclair where she found her passion for Residence Life, becoming a resident assistant (RA) because she wanted to make a difference.
“I genuinely just wanted to get involved. I had had a lot of leadership experiences up until going to college, and my undergrad was a school of 20,000 plus students,” said Rivera.“It is really easy to feel small in such a large space.”
Rivera was inspired to apply for the position by other RAs and started the process of the 20-page application. It was crucial that everything was done in an exact way or applicants would not move on to the interview process.
“I was really motivated to do it because I had such a passion for getting involved and helping people. I just wanted to make an impact on my campus,” said Rivera.
And make an impact she did. Rivera learned how to take on huge responsibilities and also keep a positive attitude. She emphasized that being an RA was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life because of the impact she had on her residents.
For the next three years, Rivera made a lifetime of connections and found that she wanted to continue making a difference in people’s lives. Rivera found that many students and fellow staff members had poor mental health and often could not find the right outlets or people to go to.
Rivera said, “The mental health aspect, being able to have a diverse experience with crises and helping people and counseling people has been really impactful for me.”
After graduating from Montclair State with a degree in psychology, Rivera applied to be a community director (CD) at Rider. This past summer, in mid-July, Rivera and 14 other hand-selected CDs moved onto campus to begin training for their positions.
Alongside her during the training was friend and fellow CD Kylie Dillon. Dillon is in her final year as a CD and is receiving her master’s in business communications.
“We met on the very first day of CD training, August 1, 2021. Our relationship started off of our mutual liking of the singer Olivia O’Brien and discussed that we would both be seeing her in concert,” said Dillon.
Rivera began growing her relationship with Dillon and her fellow staff members from Residence Life and soon met her staff of Community Assistants (CA). Rivera and her fellow staff members helped train the CAs that had been selected by Residence Life staff and the CDs. For two weeks Rivera and her colleagues participated in the training of each other’s staff.
Rivera oversees five CAs, all of whom are undergraduate students. However she has also developed a relationship with the other CAs on campus. For Rivera it is important to connect to everyone who works with her, and she considers Residence Life her family.
“I get to be a face for all the community assistants campuswide, which I take a lot of pride in. Feeling like a lot of them feel comfortable coming to me,” said Rivera.
One of these CAs is Kiley Kearney, a sophomore psychology major, who is a CA in Wright Hall.
Kearney said, “Rachel is always there and so understanding. She is also very kind and caring about not only her staff but the community.”
For Rivera, every day is filled with hardships from several health issues that have been with her nearly her whole life and now affect her as a CD. At age 11, Rivera received surgery for extreme scoliosis; her spine was at an 89-degree curvature and was also pushing itself forward, leaving Rivera with kyphosis, an excessive curvature of the back that causes people to become extremely hunched over. Rivera suffers from weak hands and finds it difficult to walk, even years after doctors diagnosed her and started finding cures.
“My discs on the bottom of my back were slipping off of each other, causing significant nerve damage. I’d be walking in, say, a grocery store, and I’d have to sit in the middle of the aisle because I could not walk anymore because my legs were numb. I’d get what I called sparks of pain,” said Rivera.
The surgery later turned out to be one of two. The first put a stop to the slipping of the discs at the base of Rivera’s spin, and the second, six months later, was for the curvature of her spine. Rivera’s spine was successfully corrected to 18 degrees, but Rivera still has extreme problems with her back.
Rivera also has Marfan syndrome, which is a connective tissue disorder that affects the elasticity of the body. Rivera’s scoliosis was further impacted by the disorder, causing her spine to essentially become too loose.
“I have mobility issues. I have really weak hands which are getting worse as I get older. I have heart issues … Something that is significant with Marfan syndrome is the aorta in the heart can become dissected, which is a significant problem, especially if you don’t know what is going on,” said Rivera.
Rivera went on to speak about Jonathan Larson, a famous playwright and composer, who ended up passing away from dissection of the heart due to Marfan syndrome. One of the slogans for this syndrome is “Know the Signs, Save a Life.”
It was speculated by Rivera and her family that she had the syndrome since she was 9 years old, but she wasn’t diagnosed until she turned 19. The doctor did not believe that Rivera had the disorder because she only had seven of the 24 symptoms.
“I am so blessed and grateful that I don’t have a lot of the signs and symptoms of Marfan syndrome. I still try to advocate for the disorder because it’s something that affects so many people,” said Rivera.
Rivera said that her experiences have pushed her not only to become a leader but also an advocate. For Rivera, speaking up for those who may not have a voice or a chance to use it has been extremely important. She hopes to become a school counselor for elementary-level students.
Until she graduates with her master’s, Rivera continues to be CD of Lincoln Hall and participates in other jobs in Residence Life, such as teaching the CA class and attending events, meetings, training and recruitments.
“This role teaches you a lot about yourself that you didn’t realize before,” said Rivera. “I love the people aspect and the connection aspect. It has been one of my favorite things about the position.”