United States Marine Corps Veteran Mitchell Rivas refers to his association with Union Institute & University as the “perfect storm.” The extraordinary circumstances that brought the 33-year-old veteran to Union began with the illness of one of his 1-year-old twin daughters, Maryssa, and the need for a friend in Cincinnati.
His daughter’s rare condition, involving the transposition of the greater arteries with systematic hyperplastic left heart syndrome issues, brought Mitch and his family to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital from their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. They needed to stay with Maryssa for over a month while she underwent lifesaving heart surgery at Children’s Hospital, but they did not know anyone in Cincinnati. The family longed for refuge, support, encouragement, and a friend.
Union Institute & University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Nelson Soto, and his wife Ana entered the Rivas family’s life at the right time. “Our church in Lorain, Ohio posted our story among the congregation and it reached a friend of a friend in Cincinnati. After a four-hour ambulance ride, Dr. Nelson Soto was the first person to welcome me to Cincinnati. Nelson and Ana opened their home to us and our four children. Not only were we able to stay with them, but we found that we shared a strong faith in God,” said Rivas. “As our friendship blossomed, we began to share our life stories with each other. I explained that I had attended a community college after being discharged from the United States Marine Corps, but did not like college and really did not need a college degree. I told him I had a good job with the postal service and did not feel that a degree would benefit me.”
Dr. Soto – someone who has dedicated his life to improving access to higher education – saw this as an opportunity for Mitch. “I told Mitch he was the ideal Union student. Veterans, by the very nature of their training, have acquired leadership and organizational skills, and also discipline,” said Dr. Soto. “A college degree is the most outward-facing seal of quality that an individual can demonstrate. A college degree is recognized throughout the world. I knew that Mitch would be successful, but also, our flexible model would allow time to deal with the issues he was facing with his young daughter.”
“Nelson encouraged me to try college once more – at Union. This time, it worked. Folks in every office and department have helped me. Union has held my hand through the enrollment process. Union’s Registrar Lew Rita Moore worked with me to expand my VA benefits. She and her staff orchestrated the process of getting my previous credits transferred from the community college I attended in 2004-2005, along with the credits I earned with The Marine Corps Institute while I was on active duty.”
Now, Mitch is a full-time student. “I believe my bachelor’s degree in Leadership will help me advance my career in the United States Postal Service, where I currently work. Thanks to Union I am able to keep my full-time employment, support my family, and complete my college degree,” said Rivas.
Union Institute & University is a military friendly school explains Registrar Lew Rita Moore.
“It is a great honor to guide veterans as they embark on a civilian career,” said Moore. “Union Institute & University is proud to welcome America’s veterans, active duty military, National Guard, reserves and their dependents into our academic programs. It allows us to pay them back for their service by providing easy access and flexible programs. All of Union’s programs are designed to allow adults, and particularly, veterans and military personnel, to maintain their busy schedules and commitments while completing their degrees.”
In addition, Union is a partner in the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. This program allows institutions of higher learning to work with VA to fund tuition expenses that exceed either the annual maximum cap for private institutions or the resident tuition and fees for a public institution. The institution can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses and VA will match the same amount as the institution. Only veterans entitled to the maximum benefit rate, as determined by service requirements, or their designated transferees may receive this funding. (Source: Yellow Ribbon web site)
“The Yellow Ribbon Program allows Union to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to fund tuition costs above the annual cap mandated by Congress for the 2014-2015 academic year. The partnership allows Union’s program tuition and fees to be matched by the VA. The result is that our eligible military and veterans can earn their degrees without any debt or financial obligations. In many cases, the benefit can be transferred to a spouse or dependents,” said Moore.
This is a critical situation. The Student Veterans Association estimates that about one million troops will transition into civilian life over the next five years. About 900,000 veterans reside in Ohio. They are ready to contribute in their new lives, but many want to earn a degree.
Union Institute & University’s programs are designed for busy adults to not only acquire knowledge, but also to relate knowledge to actual practice, as Rivas quickly found out in his classes. “In my first semester Dr. Rick Chaffee has already taught me that the leadership degree that I earn at Union will be a direct reflection of the obstacles that I have faced in life. After an abusive childhood, my aunt and uncle raised me. As a teenager, my best friend’s father took me in as a son. Harry Brownfield Jr. was a successful businessman, a former Marine, a great father, and a needed mentor. He told me about his time in the Marine Corps, and I knew it was for me,” said Rivas. Circumstances beyond his control would limit his time in the Marine Corps.
“I loved my career in the Marine Corps, but due to a medical issue, a re-enlistment was not approved. It was a disheartening blow that I couldn’t stay in the Corps.”
Now that Rivas is not enlisted, he can spend more time with his studies and with his children, particularly Maryssa. Her complex heart disease causes apprehension, but as with everything in Mitch’s life, he takes this in stride, and tempers his fear with hope.
“Maryssa has a rare disease. The diagnosis is complex, but we have faith. She has successfully come through a two-part operation and faces a final cardiac procedure in 2016. She recently underwent a hip procedure and we think she will be out of a body cast in January 2015,” said Rivas. “We met one nurse in the Cardio ICU at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital who had experienced the same condition as Maryssa. This nurse is a living testimony that our baby can grow into a functioning adult,” he said. “Our experience in Cincinnati, from the hospital to Union, has given us hope.” There is every belief that Maryssa will live a fruitful and productive life. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital will continue to monitor and follow her condition into adulthood.
Mitchell Rivas’ faith has carried him through a turbulent childhood, his career in the United States Marine Corps, his return to college, and now the most difficult obstacle he has ever faced, the illness of his 1-year-old daughter. His new friend, Dr. Soto, the staff, and faculty will make sure Mitch’s college degree will help him in his career and his transition to civilian life.
Thanks to friends and great medical care, Rivas says, “I have never lost faith and I never will.”