If it were up to Sylvia Rivera, College Possible Philadelphia board member, all students would learn project management. “Life is full of projects,” she says. “Some are big and some are small. Coordinating a birthday party, selecting a college to attend, and even writing a senior paper is a project. How we manage each project depends on the time, experience and resources available. When students learn these skills early it helps them intentionally plan, create a schedule to meet deadlines, consider ways to mitigate risk and execute with less anxiety. Not only are these life skills; they’re highly transferable employment skills for any industry.”
As program administrator for the Project Management Institute (PMI) Educational Foundation, Rivera is well-versed in the skills required to keep any project running smoothly, skills she is passionate about imparting to colleagues and students. Her current role allows her to impact education on a large scale, working with teachers, administrators, school district personnel and other programs across the country by demonstrating that project management skills can be used as a framework for successful projects. “My goal is for all students to learn project management as a life skill for college and career readiness.”
It was this passion for helping others succeed that brought Rivera to College Possible. “I immediately fell in love with the organization when I reviewed the curriculum. It was by far the most comprehensive model I’ve ever seen to help students launch and persist in and through college to graduation.”
In College Possible, Rivera sees parallels to her work: College Possible coaches serve as “project management” coaches, helping students understand the processes and timelines they need to follow in order to reach their goals of a college degree.
Blazing a Trail using Someone Else’s Map
Before joining the PMI Educational Foundation, Rivera served for more than two years as the Postsecondary Education Manager at YouthBuild Philly Charter School. There, she worked with students transitioning from high school into college, with an emphasis on dual enrollment and summer bridge programs. In this role, she saw far too often how a lack of confidence could have far greater impact than a lack of ability.
“Regardless of geography or income, if you’re a first-generation college student, you’re blazing a trail using someone else’s map. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t even know all of what you should or could be asking. Combine that with test anxiety and a lack of confidence in your ability to be ‘smart enough’ to pass a college entrance exam or other standardized test, and you have a very high need to build student confidence.”
For first-generation college students, developing the confidence to dream of college, applying to institutions that once seemed beyond reach and navigating the complexities of a college campus are instrumental to persistence and success. Rivera believes that learning the keys to time and project management can give them the space they need to build their confidence and advocate for themselves.
That confidence, as any employer knows, can be elemental in job searches and career growth. As students develop their voices and cultivate their interests in their chosen field, Rivera believes, they become sought after in a workforce seeking out fresh perspectives and ideas for the future.
Changing the Narrative
The future of Philadelphia’s students is always on Rivera’s mind. According to a 2015 report, only 24 percent of adult Philadelphians are college graduates, substantially below the national average. The impact of this can be seen in higher than average unemployment in the city as well as slower job growth when compared with similar urban areas.
For Rivera, this is both a personal and professional challenge. A native of Pottstown, PA, Rivera earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Pennsylvania and has made her home in Philadelphia. Her alignment with College Possible’s mission runs deep. The data tells us of the financial impact of a college degree, but for Rivera, it goes beyond lifetime earnings. “What you learn can never be taken away. Regardless of life circumstances, knowledge is something you’ll always possess.” In her service on the board of College Possible Philadelphia, her goal is to help expand the program’s reach to give more Philadelphia area students exposure, awareness and access to higher education while elevating student voices and perspectives in the conversation.
“If students can first learn that they each have a powerful voice and share their story from an asset-based perspective, they can change the narrative of their future regardless of what their circumstances have been.”