Sisters, Best Friends, Nurses: Four sisters pursue nursing through HCC
The four Rivera sisters have always been a close-knit group, even thinking of each other as best friends.
Now, they have another common bond, all having graduated or soon to graduate from Howard Community College’s nursing program.
Rocio, Gloria, Andrea and Elizabeth Rivera were born to immigrant parents who moved to Howard County to give their young daughters more opportunities. The sisters’ reasons for pursing nursing all differ slightly, but come down to a desire to care for people and to be an advocate for patients in their time of need.
“Our parents have always taught us to take care of each other and take care of those in need,” Rocio said.
Rocio, the eldest sister, started at HCC out of high school in 2003, with an interest in the medical field, but not a clear idea of what direction she wanted that to take. She took a break from HCC, choosing to serve in the military for a time. When she finished her time in the military, Rocio said she worked as a medical receptionist at Howard County General Hospital. It was there she got to see the nursing profession first-hand and realized what her true calling would be.
“It just seemed to me like my destiny was just following me rather than me following it,” she said.
Elizabeth chose HCC for its affordability and the strength of the nursing program. She can’t quite pinpoint when she decided on nursing as a career.
“As far back as I can remember, I was always inclined toward helping people,” she said. “That inspired me to be a nurse.”
She completed the program in 2019 and today she sings its praises.
“I loved it,” she said. “Although it was difficult, the teachers and professors really knew what they were teaching and they would take the time for us.
“We learned so much and were able to practice what we were learning. Now, working in the field, I remember everything I learned – the program really prepared us.”
For Gloria, the decision to enroll at HCC was, in part, recognition of the decision and hard work by her parents to give their daughters the best possible life.
“I wanted to take advantage of all these resources and opportunities that our parents tried so hard to give us,” she said.
She, too, decided on nursing at a young age. She also knew early-on that she wanted to work in a nursing position where she could take care of babies.
“My passion is to go into the neonatal intensive care unit,” she said. “I love babies, and I want to take care of those that need a little more love, attention and care.”
Andrea didn’t initially plan to go into nursing, and enrolled at HCC to complete her general studies. Seeing her sisters pursue degrees and careers in nursing influenced Andrea, as they talked about all of the opportunities that nursing offered.
“They always talked about the opportunities,” she said. “Knowledge in that field is never-ending and you can switch specialties – I wanted a field that was very, very diverse and where it’s encouraged to change specialties and to keep learning.”
Their experiences at HCC and now, in nursing, are a common topic of conversation among the sisters. They provide support to each other and share stories about their days at work or in school. For the younger sisters, that shared experience helped them succeed at HCC.
“Coming into this program with advice from my sisters who know me and know the program, it cleared a pathway for me,” Gloria said. “They said don’t procrastinate and don’t get behind – I knew I needed to be prepared.”
The four are also first-generation college students who found community and resources through the Ambiciones program at HCC, designed to support first-generation students and their families throughout the college experience – from application to graduation.
Ambiciones offers services that include academic advising and tutoring; mentoring and coaching; financial aid, scholarship and work-study opportunities; career counseling and internships; and personal counseling.
The program was created in 2015 with a focus on Hispanic and Latinx students, said Sandy Cos, assistant director of Ambiciones. HCC found these students weren’t having the same level of success as their peers while enrolled, both not graduating at the rate of their peers and not maintaining enrollment at the same rate, she said.
That first year, 25 students were identified and placed with an advisor who helped connect them to support resources at HCC. The program has evolved since then, and now supports students before they’re even enrolled, educating them through their communities about the importance of college and about financial aid opportunities that can help cover the cost of tuition and other expenses, Cos said.
“Many of our students are first-generation,” she said. “Many have parents who didn’t attend college here in the US, or who are only familiar with the system in their home country.”
Once enrolled, students are added to the Ambiciones cohort, which focuses on four areas of support: admissions and advising; creating community; financial aid and scholarships; and graduation and transfer.
That aspect of community is about both lending support to students and about helping them find their own community of peers, Cos said.
Ambiciones currently serves 115 students, a big jump from that initial 25 in 2015. That’s about eight to ten percent of the Latinx population at HCC, Cos said. However, as the program continues to grow and to understand best practices, it has shared that knowledge with other support services throughout the college so that other groups can more effectively support the Latinx population as well, she said.
“We’re always strategic and trying to grow because we know the need is here, but at the same time, we can share ideas with the greater college,” Cos said.
Many of those services were of great impact to the Rivera sisters, yet, what was just as meaningful they say, was the personal connection and genuine caring Cos and other staff had for them and others in the program. Cos also introduced them to other resources, including Brandon Bellamy, associate director for Student Support Services at HCC, who became another important link in their support system at HCC.
“I met them at such a precise time in my life,” Rocio said. “I was a single mom of two children and resources were vital.
“Sandy pushed me, gave me advice, and opened up so many resources within HCC.”
Cos noted that the support each sister received speaks to the ability of HCC to meet students where they are at in their lives.
“What I think stands out about HCC and community college over all is that even though the sisters were in different places in life, they were all able to receive support from HCC because we serve all students,” Cos said.
In return, the Rivera sisters have become enthusiastic spokeswomen for Ambiciones, sharing its impact with other students and with potential students from their community.
“Whenever I ask one of them to talk to students about their experience, they’re always available,” Cos said. “They’re always willing to mentor and willing to support other students.
“They speak to the ethos of the program: You can’t do it alone. They believe in that.”
“You can’t do it alone,” is exactly the advice the four Rivera sisters now offer to other first-generation students today.
“Don’t be afraid to get help,” Andrea said. “In the culture I grew up in, it’s not always encouraged to ask too many questions, but when you get to college, that’s exactly what you need to do.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by her sisters.
“I know it can be scary to be first-generation and not know what questions to ask,” Elizabeth said. “We may not know there are things out there to help us, but don’t be afraid to ask.”
“If (students) hear about a program like Ambiciones, or something offering to provide help, look into it and don’t be afraid of receiving that help.”
And finally, take a deep breath and face any fears, Rocio said.
“Looking back to when I came out of high school, and going into HCC, my biggest fear was asking questions – I would fear that I’d sound dumb or that my fear was dumb,” she said.
Once she met Cos and started asking questions, the insight and resources she received helped Rocio understand that her fears had been insignificant. Today, she’s simply glad she knocked on that door.
“Just knock, because if you knock, someone is sure to answer,” she said. “You’ll see the fear is all in your head.”