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Isaac The Unstoppable: Veteran Embarks on New Mission to Earn His Degree at RCSJ

10/29/2020

Deptford Twp. – Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) student, Isaac Rivera, is many things — father, husband, veteran, mentor, full-time scholar — but the one thing the Vineland resident is not is a defeatist. “I don’t let anything stop me,” he states, without hesitation. “I’m not a person who creates excuses.”

Rivera enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17 years old. Like many, he watched the horror of September 11, 2001 unfold from his high school classroom in Delaware. As the Twin Towers were struck, he was consumed not only with fear for his country but also for his older brother and sister working in New York. Both siblings escaped unscathed – his sister making it out of the city on the last subway train — but the experience left Isaac with an unshakeable desire to protect and to serve his county.

He took well to military life, but his intended career was cut short by an explosion that resulted in multiple surgeries, physical disability, and an honorable discharge from service. In the years that followed, Rivera would move to Arizona and later to New Jersey, start a family, work closely with the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) on his rehabilitation, and hold a series of positions in the telecommunications field. For a time, he was satisfied with his civilian career.

“When I started off working in telecommunications, I found myself competing against individuals who had a degree and I found myself winning. I thought, I don’t really need a college degree if I’m making really good money,” he admits. “Now things have shifted in the country; you really do need a degree. You can’t just say you’re smart and you know how to do things. There are so many people out there looking for work.”

Career uncertainty provided the goal, but it was a second brush with death that became an unlikely source of direction. Following a motor vehicle accident, the VA hospital recommended that Rivera receive a CT scan; the scan revealed a brain tumor, and the resulting surgery saved his life. When Rivera found out he qualified for tuition assistance through the VA’s Veteran’s Readiness and Employment program, he set his sights on entering the medical field — eager to have the same life-changing effect on others.

Rivera considered several schools prior to enrolling, but it was RCSJ’s premier partnership with Rowan University that sealed the deal. “When I realized that Rowan (University) was coming in, I thought this is really different,” he explains. “This is going to open up many opportunities.” He enrolled at RCSJ as a Biological Science/Health Science major, with plans to transfer to Rowan University after earning his associate degree.

Over the following semesters, Rivera fought for his education through surgeries and viral meningitis — at times completing coursework from his hospital bed.  He found RCSJ’s Wellness Center and Veterans Services office to be a vital source of support.  They connected him with tutors, encouraged him to reach out to professors when health issues interfered with academic deadlines, provided advice on the best classes to take, and connected with Rivera in a way that only a fellow veteran could.

“Isaac Rivera is one of the most determined and persistent student-veterans that I’ve worked with,” reflects LaToya Gibbons, a recruiter at RCSJ who specializes in veterans’ services. “I’m amazed by his resiliency and his academic success as he balances being a father and an involved student, and how proactive he is when it comes to taking advantage of the holistic Military Services we offer to our students. We make it a point to assist students throughout their entire enrollment process, orientation to campus, and connecting to tutoring, mental health, and other services the College offers.”

“I see the finish line because of all of these resources — everything that’s been available to me — all of these people who have taken the time to talk to me. To listen to me,” said Rivera. “And a lot of that came from me taking the initiative. Saying, you know what — I need to talk to somebody.”

His biggest source of support is his wife, Mariaelena Rivera, who works full-time for the City of Vineland in addition to helping raise their three, young children. Navigating Nael’s virtual kindergarten schedule and Ellamarie’s virtual preschool schedule while caring for seven-month-old Isaac Junior is a lot to handle in addition to the demands of their individual lives and the anxieties of a global pandemic, but the couple tackles it with teamwork.

“It’s definitely possible to have a family and to go to school,” Rivera insists. “You can definitely do it. You just have to work together. That’s something I try to teach my kids. I say: ‘We’re a team. We’re not just a family, we’re a team.’”

As Rivera progresses closer to his ultimate goal of becoming a radiologist in a VA hospital, he has made it his personal mission to encourage fellow veterans to explore the educational opportunities available to them. “I always urge veterans to move forward,” he says. “Pick a school you want to go to, go sit down with the advisor and figure out what you want to do. Because there are options out there for you.”

The same proactive mentality that has driven Rivera throughout his life and motivated him to enroll at RCSJ, has also contributed to a degree of academic success that surprised even himself as he transitioned to virtual education along with the rest of the country’s students.

 “My veteran services officer asked me to email him a transcript,” he recounts. “When I looked at it, I was like . . . oh, my god! It brought tears to my eyes when I saw my GPA was at a 3.55. I couldn’t believe it.”

Rivera’s focus and dogged pursuit of success — in the face of obstacles that some might deem insurmountable – is a visible source of pride for the former soldier and future radiologist. “It kind of makes me feel like I’m back in the military, in a sense,” he explains. “It gives me a sense of pride and allows me to feel like I’m a soldier again – I’m on a battlefield, I’m overcoming obstacles. And, in the end, I’m going to be able to have a respectable position in a field that’s important.”

To learn more about educational resources and support for veterans at RCSJ, visit RCSJ.edu/Veterans.

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