SUNY Oswego's coordinator of student involvement, Magdalena "Maggie" Rivera, recently was named one of 2018's Successful Business Women, sponsored by the Central New York Business Journal and BizEventz.

Rivera received her distinction -- specifically citing her for "multicultural diversity" -- July 18 at an awards breakfast at Embassy Suites at Destiny USA. She joined nine other honorees for the third annual awards, in such other categories as mentorship, community achievement and career achievement.

For nine years, Rivera has actively guided and assisted the leaders of student ethnic and cultural organizations in the yearlong planning and weeklong presentation each September of  the college's ALANA -- African, Latino, Asian, Native American -- Student Leadership Conference.

She also formerly served as the college's Greek Life advisor, Student Association Programming Board advisor, faculty resident mentor through Hart Hall Global Living and Learning Center, and as project assistant for several study abroad trips through the Office of International Education and Programs.

Rivera spoke recently about her past, her jobs and duties, and what defines her style:

What was your reaction when you learned of this award? 

I felt honored that I was one of the women selected! It felt good, but it also aligned with the different kinds of work at different stages of my life that I've done since I arrived in the United States. They (the selection committee) had learned of some of the work I had done in the Syracuse area, where I came to live from Puerto Rico.

Can you tell us about your life as a child in Puerto Rico? 

I was born in the southern part of the island in a town called Coamo. All my four grandparents were farmers. I had a really great childhood. I grew up on my grandmother's farm. She got up at 5 in the morning, so everybody had to get up and do the farming. I grew up with that type of work ethic. It was great to be outdoors all the time. I would climb the trees to pick the mangoes, avocados and other fruits. I would fly my kite. I'd go to school and come back to work. Everybody works together -- in order to eat you have to plant. Growing up in that environment, I think, shaped the person that I am today. 

Were any family members directly affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria? 

We come from a very large family, so I still have a lot of family there. They did live without electricity and (running) water for an estimated five months. The whole island was in darkness. That meant there was a news blackout as well. It was agonizing. Our family members turned out to be fine. My grandmother's house was getting a new roof, so that was lost and they lost some of the things inside. But they recouped.

Have you been back to Puerto Rico since then?

I traveled there recently for my personal vacation and to visit my grandmother. I will be going back soon; I have been asked to be a volunteer leader in traveling with a group of students at the end of July for SUNY Stands with Puerto Rico. 

When and why did you move to Syracuse?

My mother worked in a sewing factory in Puerto Rico, and the factories started closing down. My mother had a sister who had moved to the Syracuse area. I completed eighth grade in Puerto Rico and was almost 15 when I moved to United States.

What kinds of employment experiences did you have in Syracuse?

They had a summer youth employment program. I became connected with St. Lucy's Church on the West Side, the Spanish Action League, and a club that offered after-school programming for young people run by the community. I even did a census one summer. Even after high school, I worked in the after-school program. I served on the board of Manos, which is a program that offers education for young children in the English as a Second Language program. I was an ESL student myself after I arrived in Syracuse. As I grew older, I always kept my ties to my network in the Syracuse area.

Where did you go for higher education?

After high school, I moved back to Puerto Rico for a year and spent time with my grandmother. I needed to move back here to further my education, and a friend I had known all through high school invited me to move to Binghamton with her family. I applied to Binghamton University and got admitted under EOP (the Educational Opportunity Program).

How did you do at Binghamton?

It wasn't easy. I come from a family with low resources. Nobody had ever been in a college setting before. We were navigating the system from what little we learned in high school. I completed two years at Binghamton. There were some bumps in the road, and my family in Syracuse needed me.

How did you come to study at SUNY Oswego?

We didn't even know Oswego existed. But some friends in Fulton connected me with an agency in Oswego that provided services to the migrant workers. They hired me as a secretary and I worked there a number of years. The woman who hired me said, "You show that you're very motivated. You definitely have the material to finish college." She introduced me to the college here. I completed my degree in Latin American studies and Spanish in 1992.

Where did you go after that?

I took the civil service exam to be a social worker. Oswego County hired me as a caseworker in the Mexico office. I worked about six or seven years in Social Services. The county came up with a plan to help pay for one or two courses. So I applied for a master's program in counseling and psychological services, and took one course at a time at SUNY Oswego, little by little. I completed my master's degree in 2006. I additionally did a year here for a certificate of advanced studies in student development.

What other jobs have you done at SUNY Oswego?

After completing my education, I was hired on a temporary, part-time basis in First-Year Programs to cover a leave. A job came open in the CSTEP (Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program) and McNair Scholars programs. I was hired as a specialist. An opening became available in the EOP program. I was hired as an academic planning counselor. This opening -- student involvement coordinator -- happened after only two months. It was a really hard decision -- the EOP program was my old stomping grounds, as they say. But I felt this job would align more with my counseling, my student development. I felt that I could continue to serve the EOP and the OLS community even though I came over to Campus Life.

What advice do you have for young women and non-native English speakers?

One central thing that I would say is to be persistent. Be persistent and find your own interest. There's going to be challenges along the way. You cannot give up easily. You have to regroup yourself, continue on and move forward. Be yourself, always be humble and maintain your roots. Learn networking, building relationships with people. Our students in ALANA and Hart Hall have been able to benefit from the relationships I have built in the Syracuse area. For example, La Familia de la Salsa has come here throughout the years. Get involved in your community. Early on, I volunteered for Harborfest, the YMCA and other community service.

How do you approach your job as student involvement coordinator?

I always believe the first thing is to listen to the students. Find out where they're at, what stage of their college development they're at, what are their interests and what is the course of study. Connect those things together, and work to position them in an area where they can grow and develop and leave here to go into the professional arena. I try to find out where the opportunities are. Then I let them sit in the chair. I have had students (literally) sit here in this chair, and I say, "You take over, you do it. If I do it, you're not going to learn." Empower them to take the initiative and do it. For ALANA, I have students who run the committees. They do a lot of work, and they recruit other students. They open the doors for everyone.

What are you proudest of in nearly a decade of coordinating ALANA? 

How much ALANA has grown because of the students. They have always found their way here, through peers or faculty or staff, to learn about ALANA. New students have brought new ideas. ALANA has throughout the years seen many different initiatives. It's a credit to those student leaders who have stepped forward to run ALANA, now through 32 years. That is something SUNY Oswego should be proud of, to last through all of these years.

What else do you do as student involvement coordinator?

Many hats we wear here. Helping with many events that we organize through Campus Life. Orientation -- for example, providing information through tabling, being part of presentations. Supervision of graduate assistants and federal student workers we have here throughout the year. We have a student involvement assistant that I hire, train and supervise. I support student organizations and clubs with Mike Paestella and the rest of the staff. I coordinate two cultural months: Hispanic Latino and Italian American heritage months. We collaborate with the Student Association. Pretty much anything that could happen on any given day -- it's such a dynamic area to work in. I now also coordinate and supervise the Student Involvement Awards.

What is Maggie Rivera's "secret sauce"?

When I arrived from Puerto Rico many years ago, I was one of the first group that later became the ESL program in Syracuse. Here I was in a regular 9th grade; I knew a few phrases, a few words in English -- "the sun," "chocolate." How am I ever going to make it, day after day in these classes? We laugh about it, but I really learned English watching Elvis Presley's movies, "TelAuc," "Love American Style." (Laughs.) I would stay up late at night. Finally somebody got the notion to create an ESL program, with core (academic) courses in the morning, and in the afternoons gather about 25 students from all over the world together in an ESL class. We were all in the same boat. We helped each other. We bonded with each other. I was so determined I was going to pass that grade! I feel that made me such a strong person. 

How do you pass that kind of strength and persistence on to students?

I have a lot of conversations with many students. Life happens. Life gets in the way sometimes. I ask them to take a moment, take a deep breath. Think about the situation and how you're going to react to it. Don't simply react, because the outcome could be bad for you. Find someone you're comfortable with to talk, so you can think it through. Then take reasonable actions to continue moving on, to be successful.