Alumni Q&A: Wilnelia Rivera Part I

Wilnelia Rivera is pictured. Courtesy of Wilnelia Rivera

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wilnelia Rivera (LA ’04, AG ’13) graduated Tufts with a double major in international relations and women’s studies, now known as women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She returned to Tufts to receive a master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning. Rivera has served stints with grassroots organization Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s campaign. She is also founder and principal of political and policy consulting firm Rivera Consulting. The Daily sat down with her for the first of a two-part Q&A to discuss her experiences at Tufts .

The Tufts Daily (TD): How did you decide to attend Tufts?

Wilnelia Rivera (WR): So my … AP Calculus teacher went to Tufts. And I had no idea what Tufts was, to be honest with you. This will age me — this is more about the era I grew up in — but at that age, especially my junior year in high school, I was convinced I was going to NYU [New York University] because I wanted to be the next Felicity and I thought that New York was the coolest thing since sliced bread. I grew up in Massachusetts, so I think that’s a factor too, like you have that itching feeling of “I just want to get the heck out of here and go somewhere else.” But I actually listened to my mother’s advice and I went to all the campuses. Even though I liked Tufts, what made fall in love with Tufts was Ms. Gerber, who was my math teacher. The truth is, she would find every single possible way to — during my junior year — talk about Tufts. She even gave me a keychain … I never really wanted to go, but, the truth is, once I applied and got to campus and got to meet some of the professors, my mom was like “I feel like this is a better choice.” Honestly, for me, the enormity of all the other schools just scared the crap out of me … And there was something about the close-knit environment of Tufts that felt more inviting. Also knowing that home was only an hour away on a train actually gave me some comfort, even though I never really used that train that often while I was actually there.

TD: What did you study at Tufts?

WR: I was an international relations (IR) and women’s studies double major. I think, like many people that go to Tufts, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Then I went to whatever the open house orientation kind of things are and I sat around and looked at all the people in the program and said, “Yeah, I’m not making a career out of this.” The reality is I’ve always loved history, and I always loved politics, but I was only really doing the science thing because that’s what my mom told me to do. You know you listen to your parents when you’re younger but then you get to school and you realize you have some choices you can make on your own. And I remember going into the IR open house and not having a clue really what it was about. I just remember being fascinated and thinking, “This is what I’m going to study.”

And women’s studies — it wasn’t something that I actually went [into] saying, “I’m going to do this.” It’s more like I ended up taking lots of courses and the professors — I always remember them; Professor [Modhumita] Roy, Professor [Paula] Aymer — just really became my mentors. And as they became my mentors, I fell in love deeper with the interdisciplinary part of women’s studies. It also gave me the opportunity to study things I wouldn’t have otherwise, like theater, art and music, so it was really cool in that sense. I feel like it complemented some of the hard, theoretical, political things that I was studying. So I ended up taking on women’s studies as a major as well. For me, I always say, my women’s studies degree was more of my cultural, civic kind of shaping, not necessarily what I ever thought I was going to do for a living.

TD: What sort of extracurriculars did you do at Tufts?

WR: When I was at Tufts, being a double major and also being a semi-nerd, not a full nerd, I actually didn’t care too much to be involved on campus. I had a close-knit group of friends. I pledged a multicultural Greek sorority my sophomore year, and they were city-wide — Boston-based and also New England-based — so a lot of my extracurricular I actually did [with] the multicultural Greek sorority. I helped establish the Multicultural Greek Council to create a structure on campus for other Multicultural Greeks to be legitimized as a student group. It’s not a surprise that I focused more on structural change than actually doing program activities. It says more about what I think is fun and what my theory of change is. So I really focused on that while I was on campus, and really getting decent enough grades where I knew my mom would be proud enough and not get on me. For me, I just love learning, so I’m one of those few students that actually enjoyed studying for the sake of studying, not necessarily because I was doing it for the class it pertained to. I’m a dreamer — when you do this kind of work, I think there’s a part of you that’s a natural dreamer — so reading has always been part of my escape. Both of my majors honestly just complemented what I love doing anyway.

TD: What are some memorable moments that stick out as defining your Tufts experience?

WR: My junior year at Tufts was particularly tough. The reason it was tough wasn’t necessarily because of academics, but … I had a physical accident where I developed massive migraines and literally couldn’t be in front of a computer. I’m like, “How the hell am I going to write? That’s what I have to do for all these classes.” Sometimes, when you’re in a different environment and you’re building your community, you’re young and you don’t really know what’s around you. You know you have friends, you have professors, but you don’t really know how much people are going to be invested in you. I think for me the most memorable time at Tufts was when I realized that I was reaching a wall with my health and that I needed to find a way to navigate my way out of this. I just remember my professors and my friends all basically, whether they realized it or not, had this intervention with me, and they were just like, “Look, we see what’s happening. I don’t know if you know, but you can get … a medical leave for a semester; do what you have to do. We’ll work with you to make sure your financial aid crosses over; it means you’re going to have to take classes in the summer but you’ll be able to figure it out.” Those professors and those friends are still core people in my life to this day. That’s something I always carry with me, because it was such an easy moment [when] I could’ve gone inward and not asked for help, but I actually did and went to the village I had built, and it’s something that, as a value, I carry with me in everything I do. In particular, a lot of first-generation students struggle with building community when they’re on a college campus. Ultimately, building that community is really what makes or breaks whether or not you’re successful in school. At the end of the day, if you’re there, you’re there because you’re smart. So that’s not the reason. It’s the social part that makes people sink or swim a lot of times when it comes to collegiate success.  It’s so easy to sometimes feel like the outsider. Sometimes you are the outsider, or there’s not more people in the room that look like you, but Tufts taught me how to engineer community. In many ways it’s actually what I’m able to do for my clients and in the work I bring, beyond the specialty knowledge, because of my ability to be in a place that might feel foreign to everyone else … and feel very comfortable. It’s funny, because only in retrospect can you really give credit to an experience like that. When you’re an undergrad, you’re too young to really appreciate those things for what they are. I would say that’s my favorite overall experience.

TD: Who are some of those professors that helped you out?

WR: So, again, it was Professor Aymer, Professor Roy, and Professor … her first name was Deborah, she was in the poli-sci department. I can’t remember her name right now; she might not be there anymore. The other one was professor Cruz, but she was a visiting professor, although she may have stayed there. She was in the IR department. I think a part of it, too, is that all these three professors, with the exception of the fourth one whose name I’m forgetting, they were also my thesis advisors because I was doing a thesis for each major. You develop a closer relationship with folks because of that. And that’s why I think that they, more than anyone else, were able to see the change in my behavior academically and understood that there were other things happening that weren’t necessarily material in front of me. But yeah, Modhumita Roy and Paula Aymer. I know both of them are still there, because I crossed paths with them when I was in grad school.

TD: What is one piece of advice you have for Tufts students?

WR: Find your people. Whether or not Tufts is an environment that reminds you of home, you have to find your people. I think that the kind of academic advice that you can receive, honestly most young people know it. And if they don’t, they have someone in their life that’s focused just on their academics. But I don’t think we focus enough on the social part that is very much make-or-break for a lot of students. So find your people, whatever that is. That means becoming uncomfortable. I know that for myself, especially my [first] year, if it wasn’t for my awesome friends, that are to this day my awesome friends who basically, [while] we lived in Bush Hall, would knock on my door … once and week and be like, “Hey do you want to come grab dinner with us?” [it would have been hard] … especially after one semester being like, “I’m not going to survive this place like this.” Sometimes, you psych yourself up when you’re young and, in a college environment, you think … “I’m going to be this whatever other version that I wasn’t in high school,” but the reality is you need a social network and people that are going to be there for you. So that would be my number one advice: Find your peeps and make yourself uncomfortable in going through that because you shouldn’t make assumptions about who your friends are going to be. I always say about my circle of friends from Tufts that, when you look at us on paper and when you look at us visually, you would never think we’re a solid, tight group of friends, but that’s the whole point. You have to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable and build your community. I know that for me, that was the difference between success in college and not.

Aneurin Canham-Clyne contributed reporting to this article.