49 members of first-generation family celebrate achievement
Enelia Rivera started crying in the lobby of the Colorado Convention Center at 8 a.m., before she even walked into the hall to find her seat for CU Denver’s Fall 2013 Commencement.
“So happy, so proud,” she explained in Spanish, wiping away tears.
She had good reason to be proud. Remberto Rivera, her first-born son, was graduating that morning.
Enelia Rivera has nine brothers and sisters. Her husband has 10 siblings. So, Remberto has dozens of aunts and uncles and countless cousins. Forty-nine members of his family came to his graduation; 17 of them arrived early for a family photograph. But in this very large, first-generation family of immigrants from Mexico, Remberto is the first person to graduate from college.
“It’s surreal to be graduating,” Rivera said. “It was always my goal, but it was more of a fantasy. Now it’s a reality.”
It became a reality because one family sought a better life in the United States, and because the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) saw potential in a first-generation son.
One Family’s Journey: “My parents didn’t feel they had a choice.”
Remberto Rivera’s father, who is also named Remberto, came to the United States from the Mexican state of Jalisco when he was 17 years old. Rivera’s mother followed him seven years later, when she was 18 years old. Rivera has heard about his parents’ childhood in Mexico only through their stories—no heat, no electricity, no running water, food shortages and clothes donated from the U.S.
“My parents didn’t really feel they had a choice,” Rivera said. “Once they heard about the U.S.—a place where you could make money, where houses had heaters—they came here.”
Rivera’s father became a U.S. citizen in 2005. Today, he works in construction. Rivera’s mother is a permanent resident. She cleans offices and is attending school to improve her English and her computer skills.
A graduate of North High School in Denver, Rivera started his college career at CU Denver as a student in international business, but he switched to accounting in the Business School, because he believed the program would lead to more job opportunities. It also appealed to the perfectionist in him.
“In accounting, it’s either right or wrong, so I work hard to make things right,” he said.
He points to one class with “the toughest professor,” as the “tipping point” in his college career. Intermediate Financial Accounting, taught by Assistant Professor William (Billy) Strawser, showed Rivera what it meant to prepare for class, study for tests and focus on his work. It was, he admits, a “life lesson.”
“Up until that class, I wasn’t sure I would graduate,” Rivera said. “But once I passed that class, I said ‘There is no way, after all this work, that I am not graduating.’ That class made me believe in myself. It changed my life.”
Denver Scholarship Foundation: “We help kids realize their potential.”
“There are so many Rembertos in Denver Public Schools,” said Nate Easley, PhD, executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. “What we do isn’t magic. We just help kids realize their potential.”
Remberto Rivera is just one of the 3,900 Denver Public School (DPS) students who have attended college on a DSF scholarship since philanthropists Tim and Bernadette Marquez created the foundation in 2006 with a $50 million pledge in the form of a challenge grant.
Remberto began his journey to college at North High School in a DSF Future Center, one of 16 in Denver public high schools. The center is staffed by a DSF college advisor who guides students through the college application and financial aid processes. DSF Future Centers are open to all DPS students, whether or not they qualify for a DSF scholarship.
Rivera was awarded a DSF scholarship, need-based aid worth as much as $17,000 over five years to DPS graduates attending college or technical school in Colorado.
“I could have tried to borrow money to go to school, but having the debt pile up is a big burden and a lot of stress,” Rivera said. “It was an awesome opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.”
After Rivera arrived at CU Denver, DSF kept a close eye on him to make sure that he was receiving all the academic and social support that he needed to succeed, including mentoring and tutoring.
“Our mission is college completion,” said Easley. “Students might need to take time off from school, because their parents need them or they find themselves homeless. But we don’t give up. We are dogged about getting them to complete college.”
Easley describes CU Denver as an excellent partner in that mission. Eighty percent of the students who have attended CU Denver on DSF scholarships have either completed or are working on a college degree.
“The success of our scholars at CU Denver is proof that our partnership is working,” said Easley. “CU Denver provides additional financial aid to our scholars, as well as the extra academic and social support they might need to help them succeed. We are all focused on college completion, and by working together, we make it happen.”
The Future: “He is going to be governor.”
On Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, Remberto Rivera walked across the stage, picked up his diploma and prepared for his next step: establishing a career as an accountant.
“The college experience, the teachers, the classes—all combined to make me a professional person,” Rivera said.
One of Rivera’s goals in attending college was to set an example for his younger siblings: Estefani, 19; Cesar, 14; and Janelly, 9. He has succeeded in that mission. Estefani is a sophomore at CU Denver.
“There’s no doubt that it’s tough for her,” said Rivera. “I remind her how I struggled, and then I explain how I made it work.”
Rivera has already had a work-study job with Seemorgh Investments. He dreams of working in a large accounting firm. He could not have come this far without DSF, and the foundation has not abandoned him. “Even today, DSF still is checking in with me,” he said, laughing.
“That kid has a lot of talent,” Easley said, with the pride of a surrogate father. “He is going to be governor one day. And I would be willing to bet money he will sponsor a DSF scholarship. Remember, I predicted it first.”