Veteran Rob Rivera Aims to Inspire New First Responders

Be Orange

With hopes of inspiring the next generation of public servants, Rob Rivera G’18, G’19 shares his experiences as an Army veteran, EMT, and a Team Rubicon volunteer. #BeOrange

Rob Rivera poses in the Institute for Veterans and Military Families

The dedication to country and community that Syracuse graduate student Rob Rivera G’18, G’19 possesses is evident. It’s part of his history and part of his focus today as he pursues dual master’s degrees at the Newhouse School and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In short, he lives red, white and blue.

A Path of Public Service

For more than a decade, Rivera journeyed on a path of public service that he embraced with enthusiasm. As a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, he worked as a geospatial military intelligence analyst at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, observing drone and satellite reconnaissance and passing information up the chain of command. He also served his local community in New Jersey as an emergency medical technician (EMT). “I’d never done anything like that before, but it was something I felt extremely comfortable doing,” he says. “It’s not for everybody. The burnout rate is incredibly high, but it was a fit for me.”

National Guard Basic Training graduates in uniform carrying flags
Basic Training graduation at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri

In 2010, all that changed when Rivera suffered a spinal cord injury at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He became a medically retired Army veteran, and hauling crash victims out of vehicles was no longer an option. But Rivera has never been one to turn away from a challenge—and there have been plenty. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. As an EMT on that horrific day of September 11, 2001, he joined the heroic effort of aiding the injured and assisting in a triage area at Ground Zero, later learning that he had lost a good friend at the Pentagon.

Following the injury, he battled his way through three surgeries and signed on with the Wounded Warrior Project, which inspired him to set a goal of climbing the country’s most challenging non-technical mountains. He trained, rallied for financial support through social media, and knocked off his first challenge—Wyoming’s Middle Teton, alone in a single day—and he continues to check summits off his list. “The realization came quickly that I had two options—sulk and submit, or accept this challenge and climb this mountain,” says Rivera, whose physical recovery now allows him to volunteer with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that deploys emergency response teams of veterans and first responders to disasters. “My decision was to climb the mountain, both figuratively and literally.”

Rivera stands in climbing gear on the rocky terrain of Middle Teton
Middle Teton at 11,000 feet

Higher Education as a Veteran

As part of that quest, Rivera uncovered a new path to travel: Higher education. He enrolled at Middlesex County College—one of the top-ranked two-year institutions for veterans, he says—and earned associate degrees in education and criminal justice/police science, then received a full scholarship to New Jersey City University (NJCU), where he collected a bachelor’s degree in national security policy studies. He later received financial support through the military’s vocational rehabilitation training program, which assists veterans who were injured during service and are unable to return to their previous employment. He also turned to his entrepreneurial skills and operated his own photography business, drawing on his passion for capturing images. And just as he had found direction in high school by joining the Navy Jr. ROTC to steer himself clear from street life and through his Army career, Rivera knew higher education represented new opportunities and goals, a way to share his interest and experiences in public service and inspire the next generation. “My ultimate goal is to get into academia at the university level and teach criminal justice,” he says. “Essentially I’m trying to bring up future first responders—planting those seeds and trying to stimulate that growth in people is important.”

Professional portrait of Rivera in a suit and tie

In 2016, Rivera’s path led him to Syracuse University, where he enrolled in a College of Law/Newhouse School dual program. While he’s wrapping up a master’s degree in public relations with a focus on crisis communications, he shifted his intention from law school after his first year and decided to pursue a master’s in international relations with a concentration in global security at Maxwell. The plan, he says, is to return to NJCU, where he has been offered a spot in its doctoral program in civil security leadership, management, and policy, the first of its kind in the country.

He should be well prepared, for in “typical Rob Rivera fashion,” as he calls it, he has covered a lot of territory at Syracuse. He has embraced the veterans’ community and is currently the public affairs officer for the Student Veterans Organization. He’s been inspired by the support of the faculty of the Institute for National Security Studies and Counterterrorism and is working toward a certificate of advanced study (CAS) in security studies. He is also on his way to earning a CAS in peace studies and conflict resolution from the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration. For Rivera, all these pieces have a purpose and he’s tying them all together. For instance, while he has built on his experience in security studies, he has also addressed what he considered a need to improve his communication skills through his Newhouse studies. “To be able to communicate effectively is hugely important,” he says. “If I can strengthen my weakest area, I’m in a much better place.”

I think the emphasis that particularly the Chancellor and others on down have made toward the veteran community is noted. And it’s not talk. It’s real and it’s in action.

Rivera appreciates the University’s commitment to military veterans and their families and its proud history of welcoming thousands of veterans to campus during the GI Bulge following World War II. “The resources here are phenomenal,” he says. “The people here are ready to help you. They will drop what they’re doing and help you—and that’s something you don’t see everywhere. I think the emphasis that particularly the Chancellor and others on down have made toward the veteran community is noted. And it’s not talk. It’s real and it’s in action.”

Taking Action

With Rivera’s seemingly ceaseless energy, there’s no doubt action leads to accomplishment. When he enlisted, he says he felt it was “his turn to act” and follow in the steps of two grandfathers who served during World War II and two uncles who served during Vietnam. That personal action was there when he toiled through those horrid hours at Ground Zero, and it’s there now when he hits the books, focusing on a future in higher education that will help guide others to enriching lives in public service.

On a shelf in his home study, Rivera has a collection of rocks in individual wooden boxes. Each rock was plucked from a mountaintop he summited as part of that goal he had set for himself years ago. “They serve as a reminder,” he says, “that nothing is impossible if you put your mind, heart, and body into it.”

Jay Cox

This story was first published on September 28, 2018 and last updated on .


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