This Newark high school counselor was discouraged from applying to college. She’s determined to help her students ‘achieve their dreams’

A woman wearing a black sweater and white shirt poses for a portrait at her desk. The room has one golden-colored wall and one white one, with framed pictures and diplomas on the walls.
Stephanie Rivera-Beltre helps Newark Collegiate Academy students apply to college and pursue promising careers. (Courtesy of Stephanie Rivera-Beltre)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

As application deadlines for colleges and universities creep closer, the office of Newark high school counselor Stephanie Rivera-Beltre bustles with students seeking her advice on their essays and applications.

During this season, her workload can be overwhelming, and her days especially long. But walking her students through the college admissions process and encouraging them to pursue the futures they want is what brings happiness to Rivera-Beltre — and it’s what motivates her to keep going.

“It really does bring me so much joy,” said Rivera-Beltre, college and career match counselor at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy. “It is so awesome to see how excited they are about applying to schools and programs.”

Perhaps her students’ excitement comes from having a counselor whom they can relate to and who understands them. Rivera-Beltre is a Brooklyn-native Afro-Latina 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. Her guidance counselor’s discouraging feedback nearly crushed her dreams of pursuing higher education.

That experience, although devastating at the time, led her to the role she has today — her dream job. After getting her bachelor’s and master's degrees, she became a college preparatory counselor in Brooklyn, later moving into a teaching position for nearly 11 years. A few months ago, she joined the KIPP NJ team at Newark Collegiate Academy.

Rivera-Beltre recently shared with Chalkbeat how she overcame adversity, the advice she gives to her students, and what gives her hope at this moment.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your experience with school, and how does it affect your work today?

One of the reasons I decided to become a counselor was so that what happened to me in my senior year of high school would not happen to any of my students. While I was at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, I maintained an 85 average. When it came time to apply to colleges, my guidance counselor told me that average wouldn’t be good enough to get into a four-year university. She looked at me and said, “Sweetie, you are not getting into a four-year school.” I can’t even tell you how much I cried. I couldn’t believe that someone in her position would say that to a student. 

Still determined, I decided to go to my best friend’s guidance counselor to work with him. His opinion was that an 85 average could get me places. I applied to 17 colleges and universities and got into 14. I went to Binghamton University, a State University of New York. I got my bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in social sciences with a concentration in student affairs administration. 

I have never and will never discourage a student from applying to a school that they think they might not be able to get into. I share my story with them, so they know that it is possible to achieve their dreams.

What led you to become a college and career match counselor?

While at Binghamton, I joined the executive board of a program that mentored inner-city eighth graders and provided them with support needed to get into higher education or a promising path after high school. Making sure those students were able to see brown 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 to lead kids in a direction they never envisioned for themselves or thought they could even achieve is the fuel that makes me do what I do. 

Among those you counsel, what issues do you see emerging after months of remote learning, social distancing, and social isolation?

The biggest issue I see is kids being able to focus, sit down, and actually get work done. Students were remote for 18 months, and you can see how It has affected them. They became used to not having people tell them what to do and when to do it. Most of the time, they were on their own schedule and did their own thing. I’ve noticed many students are behind in certain subjects. They’ve mentioned it’s not the same learning via computer as learning one-on-one or in front of a teacher. Many students needed that human interaction to learn and get through the day, but some definitely excelled during remote learning and taking classes at their own pace.

Students also seem to be using cell phones and mobile devices even more than they used to. During lunch, they’re spending more time on their phones instead of interacting with each other. 

Several of my students are also seeking a virtual option for college. They tell me they like the flexibility that a virtual option could offer, allowing them to work and make money to provide for themselves and for their families. 

What advice do you give to students to help them cope during this period? What about their parents?

The advice I can give students during this time is to keep pushing forward. None of us adults know what it’s like to be in high school during a pandemic, let alone everything else that’s going on in their neighborhoods and in their lives. I tell my kids that they are some of the strongest people I have ever met. I let them know that there is nothing they can’t do if they put their minds to it.

As for parents, as cliché as it may sound, I tell them that patience is key. They need to make sure that they have grace with themselves as well as grace with the children. Sit down with your children, ask them how their day went, how they’re doing, and just to share what’s going on in their lives. It’s important for families to know what’s going on so they can support each other in the best ways possible.

You spend your days trying to help your students. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

I begin every day with a 30-minute meditation at 5:30 a.m. It helps to balance me out and focus better throughout my day. I try my best not to bring any work home with me unless it’s absolutely necessary. This is why I get to work early, just after 7 a.m., and sometimes stay late after the day is over. With 70 students on my caseload, I meet with 10 daily — though it’s usually a lot more than that. 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 spinning class or meet with friends for dinner and drinks. My absolute favorite day is Friday. I go home, put on my pajamas, and watch my favorite shows until about 10 p.m., when I go to sleep. 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 that they give each other and the smiles on their faces after they submit their applications gives me hope today. This job is not easy by any means, but it is so rewarding. What gives me hope is these children living in the middle of a global pandemic and still wanting to make a difference in their lives. I’m living my dream right now. I get to help students see their potential and worth in a world that sometimes dismisses them. I know my kids will succeed because they have a strong support system at school.

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