When Sol Rivas was asked to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Chicano/Chicana commencement at California State University, Stanislaus, she didn’t understand why.
She could easily name a number of other people who she believed were more qualified to inspire a group of hopeful graduates. All she did, according to her, was her job. But sometimes all it takes to inspire others is to do one’s job with passion.
The 31-year-old Merced native works as an assistant director for the Merced County Office of Education’s Head Start program, where she is in charge of the supervision and management of educational programs for low-income children and their families. Having been raised in South Merced, Rivas understands the need and importance of implementing such programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
“It wasn’t easy growing up in South Merced,” Rivas said. “The perception that’s out there ... there’s reality to it. There’s gangs, there’s drugs and there’s poverty.”
“Growing up in that neighborhood, you have a lot choices to make as a teenager,” Rivas continued. “And was I perfect? No, I wasn’t. But I think growing up there made me the person that I am today, and it really makes me appreciate the things I have now.”
Rivas learned the value of hard work at a young age. She began her first job at age 14 and hasn’t stopped working since.
“I knew that I had to work as soon as I could to help support my mom financially, I just knew it,” she said.
It was that early struggle that made Rivas realize the key to a better future was education. “I would look at the people around me and I would ask myself, ‘What do I have to do differently to live a better life?’ ” Rivas said. “My mom was a good parent, she loved me unconditionally, and we always had food even if it was just beans, but I knew that the reason for our struggle was (the lack of ) higher education.”
After graduating from Merced High School, Rivas worked full time and attended Merced College. As soon as she and her mother had saved enough money, she transferred to California State University Sacramento, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in social work.
“As soon as I graduated, I started looking for jobs back home, because I knew that if I was going to make a difference somewhere, it had to be in my community,” she said.
She later obtained her master’s degree in educational counseling from the University of La Verne.
Rivas started her career as a family support service provider for the Merced County Office of Education’s Head Start program. She then moved on to First 5, where she served as a program specialist. After a couple of years, she reapplied to Head Start, this time as the program’s service manager. Within a year, she was promoted to her current position.
Besides her administrative work as assistant director of the Head Start program, Rivas constantly helps design workshops for the personal growth of Merced families.
According to Rivas, one of her greatest accomplishments has been the implementation of the Parent Leadership Training Institute, which she co-founded with MCOE supervisor Rosa Barragan. The program, which aims to give parents tools to help their children, gathered more than 400 attendees at Golden Valley High School in February. During the one-day conference, parents learn skills ranging from understanding special learning needs to how to prepare healthier meals for their children.
“Parents have to be the primary advocate for their children,” Rivas said. “And we’re here to provide them with the necessary tools.”
For Rivas, the work she does is all possible through collaboration and the help of others. She has joined with the Human Services Agency to create programs that promote positive fatherhood and address issues of obesity, nutrition and literacy.
Ana Pagan, Merced County Human Services Agency director, has collaborated with Rivas for more than 10 years and has had the opportunity to see her grow professionally.
“Sol has a real passion for this community,” Pagan said. “She was one of those at-risk kids that made the right decisions; she really is a role model for young women.”
Pagan said what makes Rivas stand out is the genuine interest she has in giving back. “Sometimes you have to remind her to take a deep breath because she’s just so excited about everything.”
Brian Mimura, program manager at the California Endowment, has also worked with Rivas, a few years ago at First 5 and now through collaborations with Building Healthy Communities.
Mimura described Rivas’ personality as being as bright as her name, which means “sun” in Spanish.
“She is full of energy, and she has this humble, approachable and warm personality that helps her in connecting with the community.”
Mimura said he admires Rivas’ dedication and commitment to the people of Merced.
“Part of that commitment is that she came back to Merced after leaving for college,” Mimura said. “Many leave and never come back for good, but she did; people like her are gold nuggets.”
Although her modesty doesn’t allow her to see herself as role model, Rivas hopes that her speech to the Chicano/Chicana graduates at CSU, Stanislaus inspired at least one soul.
“I saw it as a blessing. This was an opportunity to talk to our youth of color and empower them, or at least try to,” Rivas said. “I just tried my best to remind them that you can’t forget where you come from, and to always find ways to give back to the community that made you.”
“Life can be tough,” she added, “but I’m a product of the belief that anything is possible.”