Brenda Rivera had her dreams all figured out at age 14: She was going to graduate from an esteemed high school in New York City; she was going to go to John Jay College; and she was going to become a lawyer.

Her letter of acceptance to the high school, though, arrived too late, when her family moved back to Puerto Rico. Her father, a mail carrier supporting a family of six, sat her down one day and told her he could not afford to send her to university. And she never ended up pursuing law.

Then came three daughters to raise and 12-hour work days, and Rivera thought she had lost her one chance. Instead, she would focus on ensuring her children would get an education — and that would be enough.

It could be that a small part of her never fully bought that.

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NDMU graduate Brenda Rivera is the only student honored onstage at the university's graduation ceremony downtown. (J.M. Giordano/The Baltimore Banner)

Now 59, Rivera sat in one of the conference rooms in the preschool where she works. It is the day before she graduates from Notre Dame of Maryland University and she is excited, but she worries too. What if she trips and falls? Or what if she walks too soon, before cue? She hasn’t walked on a stage like that before.

“In my wildest dream, I would have never thought that I was gonna go back to college,” Rivera said.

As a Nuyorican, it was hard to grow up in the city not knowing many Latinos, Rivera said. She barely knew Spanish, aside from what she could gather from her mother. Children in her school made fun of her clothes and shoes, which weren’t as nice, but they were what the family could afford. She felt “othered,” as if she didn’t belong to the one place she had ever known.

Right when she applied to the high school she felt would direct her to everything she needed, her father decided to move the family back to the island, after Rivera and her sister were caught amid a shooting by their home. Set to live in Carolina, a city east of the capital of San Juan, Rivera cried when she got accepted.

Days were safer on the island. She could walk to school without having her parents hold their breath. The school was small, she said, and everyone knew each other — and knew her as the gringa, even though her parents were from Puerto Rico.

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But she made do; her aunt handed her a copy of the newspaper and had Rivera read the articles out loud, correcting the pronunciation when needed. Some of the teachers, Rivera remembered, did not speak English. And sometimes those who taught the bilingual classroom set on trailers outside the school didn’t show up.

Rivera eventually learned Spanish just fine, and when she was about to graduate from high school she voiced what had stuck with her since the family moved to the island to her father.

“I’m sorry, we just can’t do it,” he told her. He was making maybe $25,000 a year as the sole provider for the family. “We just can’t send you to college.”

So she let it go. She got a job as an administrative assistant, where she rewrote the instructions on a manual to a computer system in the office where nobody knew how to work it. Then at 24, after she got married, she moved to the mainland, where she worked at employment placement agencies, helping job seekers with their resumes.

New NDMU grad Brenda Rivera (left) is surrounded by her daughters, Isabelle (center) and Emily, and mother, Candy Figueroa. (J.M. Giordano/The Baltimore Banner)

And then, in her 30s, her daughters were born.

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Even before she had them, Rivera vowed her daughters would have the opportunity to go to college. So when they came of age to go to school, Rivera paid attention to what they were doing in the classroom so she could help them at home. She became known at school and got to know the teachers, one who saw something in her and asked if Rivera would be interested in being a preschool assistant?

Rivera, of course, would have to get a certification through the Maryland State Department of Education to teach preschool. And those 90 hours of learning awakened something in her. If she could take that course, even with a job and raising her daughters, who’s to say she could not go back to school?

She took baby steps. She enrolled in a single class at a community college to study psychology — just one class to see if she could do it.

She did just fine. And, when she transferred to Notre Dame, she excelled. Enough to finally earn that degree and walk across the stage in a cap and gown Wednesday.

“Brenda was fantastic from the very, very beginning,” said Katherine Beauchat, a professor in the school of education. “She just would express just a passion for learning.”

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Rivera went to college through a nontraditional route amid a teacher’s shortage, Beauchat said. So Rivera never took anything for granted.

“It was that much more impactful to her because of the journey that she had to get where she is,” Beauchat said. “And so that’s just going to make her an even more impactful, profound teacher.”

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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