At WU, Saraí Rivas discovers her passion for helping minority youths

by University Communications,

When Dina Saraí Rivas ’13 enrolled at Willamette University, she was both thrilled and terrified.

She was a first-generation college student. She had never been apart from her family in Woodburn, and she didn’t know what to expect.

At first, she had trouble adjusting.

“When I was in a classroom with other students of color, I felt more comfortable participating. If I was the only student of color, I felt uncomfortable,” says Rivas, a sociology major. “I got nervous. Things didn’t come out the way I wanted.”

In time, Rivas found her way — going on to mentor youths at Willamette Academy, enrolling in summer programs in Ecuador and China and interning at the State Capitol.

But her experiences as a freshman stayed with her — so much so that she later researched the challenges underrepresented students face in college.

Her paper, “Overcoming Adversity: Fostering Resiliency through Education,” marked the culmination of her involvement in the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative, a summer research program that pairs select undergraduates with faculty members.

Rivas turned her paper into her thesis and presented it at a national sociological conference in Nevada this spring.

“LARC gives you an opportunity to do something on your own,” Rivas says. “In my experience, I not only had a chance of doing what I liked, it defined what I want to do in the future.”

Finding their way

For her project, Rivas interviewed about 20 graduates of Willamette Academy. The nonprofit program provides academic support in the way of reading, writing, math, science and technology to underrepresented students from the seventh- through 12th grades.

Everyone Rivas interviewed for her project raved about the attributes of the program, but some said they still had difficulty transitioning to college life.

Of the three schools the academy graduates went on to attend — Chemeketa Community College, Western Oregon University and Willamette University — students who attended Willamette reported experiencing the biggest adjustments, Rivas says.

She believes this is because Chemeketa students go to class and go home, while Western students feel a greater sense of belonging because of the large percentage of minority students enrolled there.

“At Willamette, where the minority population is not as obvious, they felt they had to work harder to develop their own communities,” Rivas says.

Making a difference

Fueled by her findings, Rivas says she’s committed to helping more students succeed in college, and she wants to partner with administrators, professors and students on ways to achieve her goal.

“I’m really happy I made the choice to come to Willamette,” Rivas says. “The challenges and struggles I went through helped me in different ways. Now I know I can make a change through education.”

Having worked with Rivas on the LARC research — which was a part of a larger project related to social education policies — Brianne Dávila describes Rivas as a dedicated young woman committed to making a difference in the world.

“Saraí was an active participant in our shared learning throughout the summer,” says Dávila, who teaches sociology at Willamette. “Her research findings will be of interest to anyone committed to better serving students of color in higher education.”

Josh Bilbrew, Willamette Academy’s program director, agrees. He says Rivas has been an “agent for empowerment” for his students, and through her research, he relishes the opportunity to further strengthen the academy’s offerings.

“Her research and scholarship has served to shed light on the long-term effects of our efforts, and provides considerable insight on ways to strengthen our programs,” he says. “Saraí's dedication and passion for equity within education is evident in all that she does, both in and out of the classroom.”

Moving forward

In part because of her LARC project and her time spent with Willamette Academy youths, Rivas says she wants to be an educator — perhaps by one day running an academic support program herself.

She’s getting her start through United Scholars, a project she co-founded with another Willamette student. Through the program, she meets monthly with youths from her alma mater, Woodburn High School, to tour local colleges and answer questions about college life.

“I used to think that law and politics would be the way to change things, to create a better life for people,” she says. “But by coming to Willamette, I realized there are other ways I can do this. Working with students and being able to support them is my passion.”