Marialena Rivera graduated in 2007 with a BBA in BHP and marketing and a BA in government. She then went on to earn master’s degrees in teaching from Pace University and public policy from UC Berkeley. She is currently working towards a PhD in policy organization, measurement and evaluation at UC Berkeley. She has served as a policy analyst, taught middle school in the Bronx, and started a non-profit called B.R.I.D.G.E. with her BHP classmates Pegah Javidpour, Sarina Hickey, and Melissa Pons. Most recently, Marialena delivered the keynote address at Subiendo: The Academy for Rising Leaders, a program sponsored by UT Austin, where she inspired high school seniors to get involved in public policy and become leaders of positive change.
You have 3 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees, and are working on a PhD. What has motivated you to keep going?
I have always loved school and have always been a very curious person. I am lucky that I have been able to keep going. When I finished my undergrad, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Opportunities presented themselves to me at different times, like Teach for America (TFA). When you are doing TFA, you are doing a master’s at the same time, so that is how that degree came about. I met a professor when I was doing my public policy master’s, who talked to me about my growing interest in research and doing a PhD.
You were a teacher for two years in the Bronx as part of the Teach for America program. Why did you apply for Teach for America and what insight did you gain from your teaching experience?
When I was a senior, I felt I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. My parents sacrificed a lot so my siblings and I could go to college. I wanted to do something my parents would be proud of and something to give back, since they gave me so much. My roommate in college was working for TFA recruiting college students and the more I learned about it, the more interested I became in the program. After five weeks of training, I was placed in a high needs classroom in the Bronx. I found that there was a wide variance of skill levels among the students, and I didn’t really have enough training for how to address the variety of academic and emotional needs. We had some successes and I was doing the best I could, but I really saw a need to fix some of the deeper issues I had seen in my classroom at a policy level. I decided to go to public policy school to study some of the root causes of the problems I was seeing.
Public policy is a passion of yours. How do you define public policy and how do you encourage people to get involved?
I define public policy as people recognizing problems in society and figuring out how to use laws, regulations, etc. to fix those problems. I think people have to come to public policy out of a personal motivation. The people working in public policy that I know are very passionate about something, which usually came from a personal experience or something they saw that really bothered them. For me, it was my experience in the classroom that prompted my work on education. Everyone has gone through something difficult or knows someone who has. No matter what your issue is, know that you can do something about issues that bother you. There are so many problems right now and we need as many people as possible working on these issues.
What research are you currently conducting?
I am working on a couple different projects with faculty members at Berkeley. I am working on a study of Teach for America, exploring how TFA has affected participants’ career trajectories. I recently worked with a team looking at the Oakland School District and the community schools model that they are implementing. I am also working on my own research. I was recently awarded a fellowship through the Social Science Research Council to help me develop my research for my dissertation, which will be on public financing for school districts. I am looking at the impact of tax policy on equity for students and am looking at bond election data and debt instrument usage. Data collection includes interviews with private organizations, state officials, and school district employees. I hope to make recommendations on how tax policies at the state level can be improved to make them more equitable, and improve the student experience.
You have received multiple awards and fellowships over the years. What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Of all of the things I have done, I am most proud of teaching. I don’t think I have ever poured my heart and soul as much into something. When I was a finalist for the Sue Lehman Excellence in Teaching Award at the end of my time with Teach for America, it was just a small token of appreciation for my work and the work of my students, but I was proud of that accomplishment. Still, I felt like I wasn’t as good as I should have been, and I believed the kids needed more. All of the work I have been doing the last few years has been motivated by my desire to help kids like the ones I taught in New York have a better classroom experience.
Tell me more about the non-profit you started with fellow classmates and what it was like getting that off the ground.
It was an amazing experience. I worked with three other BHP students and we started with just an idea based on a problem we saw. We knew there were migrant farmers’ children who weren’t graduating high school at the same rate as others. We entered the LBJ School’s Social Innovation Competition and won $10,000, which got us started. We applied for non-profit status, set up a board, started meeting with community leaders and other non-profits. A lot of other organizations were willing to help us. We were chosen to go the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference. We met Bill Clinton and his staff and got a lot of great ideas from them. We also participated in two other competitions, for which we were runners up. We developed a summer program, where we organized service projects related to the migrant farmer population in South Texas. We have done that for 4 years now and have partnered with other organizations for that. I have stepped away for a bit so I can focus on my PhD. My partners are still working very hard on it and are setting up a mentorship program and a college fund.
What do you see yourself doing after you complete your PhD?
I want to continue to work in education policy. I see myself either going the academia route and becoming a professor, or working at the state level for the department of education or for state legislators.
What advice do you have for current BHP students?
Be open to options inside and outside of business. So many of the people I graduated from BHP with are using business skills in ways that we might not have thought of. Business skills can be applicable in non-traditional career paths. I would also encourage students to get involved and make a change in their community, even if they are starting small, they can still accomplish great things.