Student Association President Matt Rivera wants to hear students’ stories
Rivera aims to usher in a more professional, student-involved era
When Matt Rivera was growing up, he and his family had been struggling to find the “time, patience and work that a military family needs.”
This struggle drove them apart. Rivera’s mother, stepfather and sister had all served in the military. After living in Germany almost his entire life, Rivera, a senior music theatre major, left on a plane to New York City three days after his high school graduation, leaving his family behind.
When Rivera arrived in New York, he interned at the Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit that houses homeless LGBT youth. As an intern, he said he learned the value of listening to others’ stories – a skill he hopes will help him as he takes over as UB’s Student Association (SA) president this upcoming school year.
Rivera was elected SA president in April after his party received roughly 70 percent of student votes. SA serves to represent UB’s student body and has a $4 million budget, which is collected from student funds through the mandatory student activity fee of $104.75 per semester.
But his time before coming to UB will have the greatest impact on how he decides to run SA.
Rivera said while working at the Ali Forney Center, he focused his energy on helping others. He used his background with event planning and his passion and enthusiasm to distract from his own struggle of his family being split apart.
“I met people who had to leave school and go back in their 30s, mothers who had lost their children, other people who were torn away from their families in their younger years,” he said.
Rivera said at that time, he was looking for a reason to go to school, despite not having his family around. It was a possibility, but it wasn’t definite. His mother and stepfather were in Germany. His biological father and stepmother were in New Jersey, but he didn’t see them or speak to them often.
H then saw the chances of him attending a four-year university strengthen after hearing similar stories from other people who went to school.
He decided to come to Buffalo with these stories as an inspiration.
Rivera worked with UB Academies before being elected SA president. He also served as a resident adviser, Western New York Prosperity Fellow and SA’s director of Student Affairs.
He said his new life has been a challenge, but a healthy one.
“The best advice I can give to someone coming to the university is to just do, do anything – it might not be something to put on your resume but who cares, just get involved with anything and the personal value it will bring to you will be priceless,” Rivera said.
Rivera said listening to others’ stories has been a defining lesson for him and it is part of how he plans to use his position as SA president to further a message of equality.
He ultimately wants people to change the way they interact with those around them.
“Basic communication, talking and listening is so important to this idea of equality,” he said. “If you take the time to listen to a hateful message, that is valuable, because that person will then be more willing to listen to you.”
Silvana D’Ettore, a first year UB graduate student who is friends with Rivera, said his greatest strengths draw from his ability to listen to others, even if he doesn’t agree with them. With this mentality, he wants to draw the student body closer by emphasizing their differences.
“[Rivera] would like to have more diversity within SA in terms of ethnicity, race and sexual orientation because the Student Association should accurately represent the entire student body,” D’Ettore said in an email. “I know Matt will strive to make changes while listening to the opinions of the students.”
Rivera said while he is “very much into the idea of equality,” he will not push it on students. Instead, he believes conversation and hearing from where other people are coming from are the only ways to challenge prejudice.
“We call people racist, we call people homophobic, and while yeah, those are real life, dictionary terms, they should not be the first words to come out of someone’s mouth when they hear a hateful message,” Rivera said.
Part of his plan to make SA more inclusive includes a more extensive involvement with the international student body, something going beyond the traditional orientation.
Hadar Borden, an administrative director in UB Academies, has known Matt since he was a freshman. She believes his inclusive nature and his desire to “pull others with him” makes him an ideal leader.
“[Rivera’s] experiences, his travels and just the way he’s embraced opportunities here at the university, give him an incredibly thoughtful perspective… he’s always looking out for others,” Borden said.
Sarah Crowley is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org