With college and university application deadlines approaching, the office of Newark High School counselor Stephanie Rivera-Pelter is teeming with students seeking her advice on their essays and applications.
During this season, her workload can be stressful, and her days are especially long. But guiding her students through the college admissions process and encouraging them to pursue the future they want is what brings Rivera Belter happy — and that’s what motivates her to keep going.
“It really brings me so much happiness,” said Rivera Belter, college and career match advisor at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy. “It’s so great to see how excited they are about applying to the schools and programs.”
Perhaps the excitement of her students comes from having an advisor they can communicate with and understand. Rivera Belter is an Afro-Latino native from Brooklyn with a Dominican and Puerto Rican background. She often tells her students about her own experience applying to colleges when she was in high school. The disappointing reactions from the guidance counselor nearly killed her dreams of pursuing higher education.
This experience, while devastating at the time, led her to the role she plays today – the job she’s dreaming of. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she became a college preparatory counselor in Brooklyn, later moving to a teaching position for nearly 11 years. A few months ago, she joined the KIPP NJ team at Newark Collegiate Academy.
Rivera Belter recently shared with Chalkpet how she overcame adversity, the advice she gives her students, and what gives her hope in this moment.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is your experience with school and how does it affect your work today?
One of the reasons I decided to become a counselor was that what happened to me in my last year of high school would not happen to any of my students. While I was at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, I maintained a GPA of 85. When it came time to apply to colleges, my guidance counselor told me the average wouldn’t be good enough to get into a four-year university. She looked at me and said, “Baby, you don’t attend four-year school.” I can’t even tell you how much I cried. I couldn’t believe someone in her position would say that to a female student.
Still determined, I decided to go see my best friend’s guidance counselor to work with. His opinion was that an average of 85 could get me places. I applied to 17 colleges and universities and got into 14 colleges. I went to Binghamton University, a New York State university. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a Master’s degree in Social Sciences with a concentration in Student Affairs Management.
I have never, and never will, discourage a student from applying to a school they think they may not be able to get into. I’m sharing my story with them, so they know it’s possible to make their dreams come true.
What prompted you to become a college and career match advisor?
While in Binghamton, I joined the Executive Board of a program that was guiding eighth graders within the city and providing them with the support needed to enter higher education or a promising path after high school. Making sure these students were able to see black and black people from the same places as them in leadership roles and environments like college campuses is what led me to this role in life. In all honesty, I know I was made for this. Helping people is my passion and helping me lead kids in a direction they never imagined for themselves or thought they could achieve is the fuel that keeps me doing what I do.
Among those you advise, what problems do you see emerge after months of distance learning, social distancing, and social isolation?
The biggest problem I see is kids being able to focus, sit still and actually get work done. The students have been away for 18 months, and you can see how that affected them. They are accustomed to not being told what to do and when to do it. Most of the time, they were working on their own schedule and doing their own job. I have noticed that many students are late in some subjects. They mentioned that it is not the same as computer learning as one-on-one or in front of a teacher. Many students needed this human interaction to learn and get on with the day, but some certainly excelled during distance learning and taking classes at their own pace.
It also appears that students are using cell phones and mobile devices more than they used to. During lunch, they spend more time on their phones rather than interacting with each other.
Many of my students are also looking for a default option for college. They told me they like the flexibility that the default option can provide, allowing them to work and earn money to support themselves and their families.
What advice would you give students to help them cope during this period? What about their parents?
The advice I can give students during this time is to keep moving forward. None of us adults know what it’s like to be in high school during a pandemic, let alone everything else going on in their neighborhoods and in their lives. I tell my kids that they are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. I told them there was nothing they couldn’t do if they put their minds to it.
As for the parents, as cliched as it may sound, I tell them patience is key. They need to make sure that they have grace with themselves as well as grace with children. Sit with your children, ask them how their day went, how they are doing, and just share what is going on in their lives. It is important that families know what is happening so that they can support each other in the best possible way.
You spend your days trying to help your students. How do you calm down after a stressful day?
I start each day with a 30-minute meditation at 5:30 AM. This helps me balance and focus better throughout my day. I do my best not to bring any work home with me unless it is absolutely necessary. That’s why I get to work early, after 7 am, and sometimes I stay up late after the day is over. With 70 students in my cohort, I meet 10 students a day – although it’s usually much more. When I get home, I relax by listening to music, cooking a nice dinner, and finding something good to watch on Netflix or Hulu. Sometimes I go to the gym for Zumba or a workout class, or meet friends for dinner and drinks. My favorite day is Friday. I come home, put on my pajamas, and watch my favorite shows until 10 p.m., when I go to bed. It’s the best way to end a stressful week.
What gives you hope at this moment?
What gives me hope at this moment is seeing the faces of my students as they apply to colleges. The love and motivation they give each other and the smiles on their faces after placing their orders give me hope today. This job is by no means easy, but it is very rewarding. What gives me hope are these children who are living in the middle of a global pandemic and still want to make a difference in their lives. I’m living my dream now. I get to help students see their potential and value in a world that sometimes rejects them. I know that my children will succeed because they have a strong support system in the school.