With every step she takes toward a sociology degree, Natalie Rivera is not alone.
The memory of her late husband, Ricky Rivera, buoys her spirit and fills her heart ─ a constant companion in her academic journey.
“He’s living through my eyes. Every time I earn an accomplishment, I’m honoring Ricky,” she says.
Rivera is able to pay homage as the Trustee Rebecca Eisen Scholar of the California State University Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The senior is majoring in sociology and will receive $6,000 to continue at Cal Poly Pomona.
“I never needed validation for anything I’ve done, but I think there’s a part in everyone one of us that wants to be validated,” says Rivera. “This is a green light for me. It’s a huge motivation to keep going and to pursue bigger plans.”
Rivera is one of 23 trustee award recipients, one from each CSU campus. The awards are given each year to students who achieve superior academic performance, overcome personal obstacles, demonstrate accomplishments and provide community service.
“By far, Natalie was one of the hardest-working and most dedicated students I’ve ever had,” says former Cal Poly Pomona Sociology Professor Michael Chavez, who taught Rivera in several classes. “She stood out. She went way beyond what was expected of the course. I can’t think of another student I’ve had who is more deserving.”
Adversity has punctuated Rivera’s life.
Her parents divorced when she was 8, and the middle-class life that she, her sister and mother knew in Chino was replaced by gritty, gang-marked turf in Santa Ana.
While her mother, Juana Carrera, worked full time and also on weekends to support the family, Rivera’s older sister, Lirio, became her foundation. Several years later, Raul Gamez became their step-father and “he was emotionally and financially supportive as best he could.”
But it was sister Lirio who hammered home a vital lesson: get a college education.
In 2007, Rivera had just earned an associate of arts degree in liberal studies and sciences from Chaffey College and was ready to start on her bachelor’s degree. Her pursuit, however, came to a halt when Ricky was diagnosed as having testicular cancer. Doctors gave him six weeks to live.
She abruptly abandoned her college plans to be with Ricky through grueling rounds of chemotherapy and to cherish the time they still had together.
After three years of battling the disease, Ricky succumbed to cancer, leaving Rivera devastated but unbroken. Between the chemotherapy that was wrecking his body and the cancer sapping his life, Ricky made her take a vow.
“He knew I had a love for education and a gift to connect with people,” Rivera recalls. “He made me promise I would not give up on life when he was gone. He said, ‘You have to keep living your dream.’ ”
For most of her time at Cal Poly Pomona, Rivera has attended classes full time in the evenings. Before class, she has worked with special needs students in the Rialto Unified School District and was an intern in the Crossroads program that assists women who have been incarcerated to start a new life. She also is a member of Alpha Kappa Delta, an international sociology honors society.
Rivera will continue to attend evening classes full time and work in the Rialto district during the day. She is on pace to graduate in June 2015. Rivera, 29, plans to pursue a master’s degree in sociology at Cal State San Bernardino.
“The professors at Cal Poly Pomona are very tough and thorough. You don’t get an A for effort. You have to do the work,” Rivera says. “They challenged and prepared me for the real world.”
One of the people who also has made an impact in her studies is Jose Juarez, an adjunct professor in the psychology and sociology department.
“Natalie was usually the first to participate in classroom discussions/projects and always came to class prepared to engage with others,” Juarez says. “Natalie was eager to learn and a great joy to have in class. She is very committed to her studies and takes her program very seriously.”
Rivera’s goal is to open a nonprofit home for at-risk youths on probation to give them a stable environment and help them turn around their lives.
“I know there’s people I can help. I am driven to do this because of Ricky,” Rivera says. “I don’t want his suffering to be in vain. He’s my inspiration.”
Rivera said she was notified of her trustees’ award on July 7. The four-year anniversary of Ricky’s death was July 6.