Trustees Success Story

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AU Student Gives Back Through Federal Work Study

Mayra Rivera CAS/BS '13, with students in October 2012, has worked with Kid Power in Washington, D.C., for two years. Courtesy of Mayra Rivera.

When Mayra Rivera, CAS/BS ’13, was a senior at Bell Multicultural High School in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., she was No. 2 in her class of 173 students. But as the daughter of El Salvadorian immigrants and with her mother a small business owner, Rivera wasn’t sure if she was going to apply to college.  

“I never heard of American University, even though I live here in Washington, D.C.,” Rivera says. “But during my junior and senior year, we had a representative from AU come over and give us a presentation, and I started thinking about it.”

Rivera applied to AU, and, thanks to a competitive financial package, she accepted. Four years later, with multiple federal work study (FWS) positions under her belt and a passion for working with children, Rivera is taking advantage of an assortment of student employment and volunteer opportunities both on and off the campus. As a first-generation student, Rivera is changing her family’s expectations about a college education and blazing a trail for her younger relatives while still finding ways to give back to her community.

Rivera has plans to use her degree in health promotion to educate children about the power they have over their bodies and choices. The adaptability and individuality of the subject appealed to Rivera.

“You have the power to change your health—to eat healthier, to exercise—and I feel like the reason why a lot of people don’t stick to diets or don’t go and work out is because they don’t know, they lack the education,” Rivera said. “So with health promotion, I’m learning how to implement programs and ways to approach how to make changes today.”

Sharing those lessons with children has been the main thrust of Rivera’s FWS positions with DC Reads and Kid Power. Introduced to the organizations through the Career Center’s Student Employment Coordinator, Tasha Daniels, Rivera worked with DC Reads for a year and then transitioned to Kid Power, where she has been for the last two years.

Students looking for FWS positions or part-time jobs on campus should regularly check the AU Student Jobs website, www.american.edu/studentjobs, keep an eye on list-serv or department emails that may advertise positions, and should be persistent, Daniels says. Look often, both before and during the semester, to see what kind of opportunities are out there, she suggests.

“Finding any job is a process,” Daniels says. “Keep applying until [you] land a position. … Submit professional application materials—resume and tailored cover letter—to increase [the] likelihood of landing a position.”

With both of her FWS opportunities, Rivera has been able to stay local and focused on her educational goals. During her time at DC Reads, Rivera worked with students one-on-one at CentroNía, a bilingual charter school in Columbia Heights—a five-minute walk from her home. At Kid Power, where Rivera both works as a FWS employee and is conducting an internship, Rivera is applying her knowledge about physical health and nutrition while leading whole classes.

“I was able to give back to my community,” Rivera says, and her impact is still felt years later. “The mom of the girl who I tutored at DC Reads works at Target and I also work at Target, and we always talk, and I always ask her questions about her daughter—I just saw them, and she’s grown up. And it’s nice to see they remember me.”

Rivera ensures the students remember her lessons about health, too. Thanks to encouragement from her Kid Power supervisor Shaden Dowiatt, Rivera is involved in the program Veggie Time, teaching students about gardening and nutrition.

“She’s fantastic; the kids really, really love her,” says Dowiatt, SIS/MA ’10, LAMB Site Director for Kid Power. “I think she relates really well to the students; she’s always very positive, smiles a lot, is pretty easygoing. Her passion and her focus is obviously on health education. This year she’s been doing an internship with me—she’s helped develop some of the lessons about nutrition and I’ve encouraged her to share those lessons with the students.”

And Rivera isn’t the only AU student at Kid Power. The organization employed both university alumni and 44 FWS students in fall 2012—about five to six AU volunteers are located at each of Kid Power’s 10 sites, Dowaitt says—and that atmosphere creates an undeniable sense of camaraderie.

“This past summer, we had this close connection,” Rivera says of her AU peers who also worked with Kid Power at their summer camp. “We all hung out at night, we had dinner and stuff together—we created this little AU family.”

And as for Rivera’s own family, they’ve been affected by her college choice, too. Although her mother was initially skeptical of her decision to apply to AU and hoped Rivera would help her with her small business, she’s grown to appreciate that Rivera “wants to do more”—“she’s always encouraging me, and now she brags about me going to college,” Rivera says. And Rivera’s younger sister has followed in her footsteps, and is currently a student at Georgetown University.

With graduation coming up in May, Rivera hopes to volunteer with other health- or children-focused nonprofit organizations and eventually gain employment at one; graduate school isn’t out of the question, either. But for now, she’s staying with Kid Power, hoping to introduce students to healthy recipes and eating habits. Without these FWS opportunities, Rivera says she’s not sure how she would have been able to so effectively prepare for her career.

“I never heard of Kid Power or DC Reads before federal work study, but it’s my interest to work with kids and to help them,” Rivera says. “If it weren’t for [FWS], I don’t know how I would get this experience.”