Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality
Professor Jenny Rivera
A No-Nonsense Attorney with a Passion to Teach
Professor Jenny Rivera has always loved TV shows with lawyers as protagonists. As a child, she hoped to join the ranks of the legal profession to "do good and help people."
The first-generation, New York-born Puerto Rican was raised by her single mother. An older sister was killed after a mugging; and her brother, four years older, has become a highly successful trial lawyer—"the real lawyer in the family," Rivera says.
The family came of age on the Lower East Side, as Rivera's mother eked out a living working in glove and hat factories, attaching buttons to clothing and performing other odd tasks. Rivera attended both St. Bridget's and St. Michael's Catholic schools in New York. At St. Michael's, a guidance counselor dared her to apply to Princeton University; she did and earned a financial aid package that defied her imagination and provided her the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school.
Princeton was a cultural shock. "I had never been surrounded by so many wealthy people," she says, her eyes widening. "I did not realize that the education I always thought was so fabulous and that I had received up through high school was below the level of the education and preparation of so many other students. Everyone seemed to have the secrets that I didn't get at my little parochial school."
It was at Princeton that she truly appreciated the impact a teacher can have on a student's life and career. Her calculus professor, noting that she was struggling with his course, pulled her aside one day and offered to assist her with her math studies. Rivera regularly attended Friday afternoon tutoring sessions with the scholar, and by semester's end, she had moved from a struggling student to one with a solid grade on the final exam.
"I experienced the positive impact a professor can have when the teacher is willing to work directly with a student and commits to assisting the student achieve success," says Rivera, 47.
Although she often felt isolated, she flourished. "By the time I entered law school, I was grounded. I had expectations that I would do well and I would succeed. When I entered law school, I did not have role models of successful Latina lawyers—or any Latina lawyers, for that matter— but I never thought that meant I couldn't try."
Rivera succeeded in her quest to become a lawyer: she earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law, where she was named a Root-Tilden Scholar, a prestigious program that recognizes top students dedicated to public interest careers. In law school, Rivera was committed to her studies and to activism, and was recognized for her success in both. She served as an articles editor for the Annual Survey of American Law, publishing her first article, and served as co-chair of the Latino Law Students Association. Her interest and commitment in legal intellectual discourse continued after she received her J.D., and she eventually returned to law school, after practicing as a civil rights lawyer, and earned her LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law.
After graduating from NYU School of Law, Rivera clerked in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Pro Se Law Clerk's Office. She then joined the Legal Aid Society's Homeless Family Rights Project, and that was followed by her position as Associate Counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. She also clerked in the Southern District of New York for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who currently sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rivera recently served on the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and was honored by Hispanic Business as one of the Elite Women of 2005, by El Diario/La Prensa as an Outstanding Latina Woman, and has been honored by the Manhattan Borough President and the New York City Chapter of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women.
The classroom, though, has special meaning. "I love teaching and working with students. CUNY students are bright and committed to social justice, and it is a great honor to be part of the education of the next generation of public interest lawyers."