When Brenda Barrett-Rivera '13 talks about her journey to the College of Education’s Family and Human Services (FHS) program, it’s hard not to think about how narrowly she avoided becoming a cliché. As an unwed teen mother graduating from her high school near the San Francisco Bay Area, she carried her diploma in one hand and her fidgeting 1 ½-year-old son, Michael, in the other. She added a few more kids and a husband to her family, and moved to Chico, Calif. in her early twenties. She waited tables at a diner to make ends meet, pressing the pause button on her ambitions while she dedicated herself to raising her kids.
“Ironically, being a diner waitress is actually very similar in a lot of ways to working in human services,” she says with a laugh.
Her ability to connect with people drove her into caregiving, a world where the most intimate of services are often preceded by the briefest of introductions. Her work with hospice allowed her to be a part of the precious last days of people’s lives. She was honored to hear people’s life stories and humbled by the experience of holding a dying mother in her arms.
If there was a watershed moment for her, it was the death of her first hospice patient, which coincided with her first day of junior college. It was then she decided to focus on something related to psychology or social work, and that the higher-ed train wasn’t stopping for anyone as long as she was on it.
When her aunt died of lung cancer, she and her husband, John, moved to the rural community of Walton, Ore. to take over the store she owned. About this time last year, the house they were renting was foreclosed upon, they were essentially homeless, sharing a fifth-wheel trailer behind the struggling little store for three months. Still, her education continued. She took classes at the Lane Community College Florence extension, building gen-ed credits for what she knew by then would become a full college career. Acting on a tip from a counselor at LCC, she attended a presentation by FHS Program Director Dan Close and left knowing that this was where she belonged.
Her background qualified her for the McNair Scholars Program, a federally funded TRIO program designed to take first-generation students with strong academic potential and demonstrated financial need through college and into doctoral programs. Her hard-earned gen-ed credits transferred, and she now is starting her senior year in the program. She’s already doing graduate-level research; her abstract on the topic of homeless fathers was accepted by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, where she will present her research in October. By then she will have found out about how she did on the GRE, and which graduate program in Oregon she’ll enter next fall.
“If I think back a year ago, to all the doors that have been opened since arriving here at the U of O … I didn’t even know some of the things exist that I’m getting to be a part of now,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
Once Brenda becomes Dr. Barrett-Rivera, she hopes to continue on an FHS-oriented path, perhaps teaching and continuing her research, the latter of which has become a passion.
“I would love to be able to teach in a program like FHS at some point, and to take all that I’ve experienced and learned from my own life and others, and whatever is to come, and to be able to frame it in a way that’s similar to what I’ve learned here. It’s a very people-first program, and from the way students are supported to the way the curriculum is taught … you’re taught so many components of human services but you never lose sight of the fact that it is about people first. That’s a very important part of how I like to look at life and issues and helping people, is to never forget that each of those numbers is a person.
“[FHS] is such a good base to work from. I think you come into the program and you may or may not have an idea where you think you’re going to take this, but within the first term so many options have opened up – areas of learning and ideas – it feels like the sky’s the limit. It feels like you could follow your passion in many different directions with the guidance you receive in the FHS program.”
Much of Brenda’s guidance in FHS has come from her academic advisor, Lauren Lindstrom, who is a huge fan.
“Brenda is a remarkable individual,” says Lauren. “She probably never thought she would attend college, and here she is at the University of Oregon conducting some really compelling and highly relevant research about parenting in poverty. Her work describing the experiences of homeless fathers will have immediate benefits for local community programs.”
Nontraditional students like Brenda bring life experience and perspective to the undergraduate environment – something we rarely think of when we talk about diversity. Her journey may not have been linear, but she got there by refusing to compromise on her goals.
“I feel so fortunate to live in a time and place where a teen mom can realize her dreams at 38 years old,” she says. “I’m so thankful for people who see in me, and others like me, the potential for doing good things in this world. I have a COE scholarship this year that I am so honored to receive, from a family close to the College who sees that I am supposed to be here. That’s an awesome feeling – I feel like I am supported in so many ways here.”