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People Are Awesome: This 21-Year-Old Rutgers Student Is Running For School Board

This is the first year New Brunswick, NJ has a voice in deciding who controls their schools. Stephanie Rivera is stepping up to make sure it's heard.

"So you're a Rutgers student? A student with no real life experience who wants to be on a school board?"

My name is Stephanie Rivera. I am a 21-year-old junior at Rutgers University and that's the reaction I hear from critics of my candidacy for New Brunswick, New Jersey's Board of Education. For over 20 years, our school board was appointed by the mayor rather than elected by community members. Then this past November New Brunswick community members tirelessly campaigned in support of a referendum to change the school board to an elected one. This is the first year where the community has a voice in deciding who controls their schools.

I am a child of an immigrant, so the culture I grew up with was one of obeying authority. I was rarely encouraged to share my opinion, or voice any position that might be controversial. Politics was not talked about in my house. All my life I believed the world of government was reserved for white, wealthy men who'd graduated from Ivy League schools. In no way did I ever see myself, a young, 4'11" Filipino woman, fitting into this mold.

Never did I think former U.S. Assistant of Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, would say, "I would vote for Stephanie if I lived in her town."

Never did I think my voice had the power to change things.

All that changed after my sophomore year of college when I discovered the severity of the inequalities in our education system. I decided to create a blog to bring attention to these issues; Not only did I find my voice, but found what other young voices are capable of doing. This past winter, I received a phone call from a friend who'd heard about me through my blog. He mentioned that there has been talk among him and fellow Rutgers students about how, given my involvement with New Brunswick youth, commitment to education justice, my overall perspective and the ideas I have to offer to the New Brunswick public schools, I should consider running for the school board.

With serious consideration of what this meant—making a three year commitment, balancing finishing my senior year and being a public official, not being able to teach at New Brunswick High School after I earn my teaching degree, and being subject to constant criticism—in February I handed in my petition to officially be a candidate.

I am running because I want to ensure someone on the board is there to be a voice for the community, parents, and New Brunswick's youth. I want to make sure someone on the board is not only fighting for the community, but is an ally working with the community.

I am running because today's youth need to know we cannot underestimate what we are capable of. We must challenge all the lack of faith in us and the odds against us. If you have a vision, and truly believe inside your gut, heart, and mind that you are capable of doing something others can't think you can do—you must do it.

Yes, I am only 21-years-old. Yes, I am still a college student who has a lot left to learn. But does this mean my volunteer work with students inside the New Brunswick schools—working with the actual students affected by the board’s decisions—doesn't matter? And why does being a student—who is going to school to become a teacher—automatically equal not being knowledgeable about education policy?

There is no set age at where we can begin making solid, positive changes in our communities, and in this world. We must dismantle society's established norms, or they will dismantle us. I would not be running for this position if I did not believe I was qualified for the job—there are already enough politicians with no real understanding of what schools need doing that already.

I have a restless drive for justice, especially for education at the K-12 level because this is a civil right, not something that should only be guaranteed to a lucky few. I want to leave this world knowing that I did everything in my power to create a more just education system. That starts with doing the work to help my own community.

Stephanie Rivera is a cofounder of Students United for Public Education and is the president and founder of Rutgers' Future Teachers Association.

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Image courtesy of Stephanie Rivera

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