Two Lives – One Goal

Riley and Nicole

Two Lives – One Goal

Nicole Rivera
2010 BA in Liberal Studies
2011 Multiple Subject Teaching Credential

Riley Fox
2013 BA in Liberal Studies
2015 Multiple Subject Teaching Credential
2020 MA in Special Education

Nicole Rivera was in third grade when her mother – who was using drugs – put her in charge of home schooling her younger siblings. Nicole hated it. Traditional school was the one place where she could escape feeling like a second mother.

Riley Fox had a radically different early life. Stability marked her childhood, and as a teenager she found a soul-satisfying reward working with students with special needs. At Fresno Pacific, her mission to serve those students crystalized when a professor asked: “What is normal, and who gets to decide?”

Nicole and Riley eventually became colleagues at Aspen Public Schools in Fresno – a three-campus charter school serving students from kindergarten to high school. Nicole is site director at Aspen Valley Prep Academy, one of two elementary schools in the Aspen system, while Riley is the new site director of Aspen Ridge Public School, which serves middle and high school students. Along with other FPU graduates who work at Aspen Public Schools (noted below), Nicole and Riley model to their students the service and leadership that are foundational at Fresno Pacific. “When I was an undergraduate at FPU, we talked a lot about the church being outside the four walls of any church building, and we at Aspen get to put that into practice,” Nicole says.

Here are their stories:

Chains of poverty

Nicole’s family moved a lot, which meant she and her siblings changed schools frequently. The children often missed school because of transportation issues. Their mother’s solution: start the home school that Nicole was expected to run as an 8-year-old. Four of her siblings were school-age; three were younger. “My mom was around, but my siblings and I usually took care of each other,” Nicole says.

A life-changing pivot came when the family began attending a small congregation that started a volunteer tutoring program, which eventually became a charter school with no boundaries. Nicole and her siblings were enrolled in the school where they found a stabilizing influence. Staff would pick them up for school, buy them clothes and ensure the family had sufficient food. “Our teachers knew our home life, and they pushed us to focus on our academics. They tried to help us get a good education so we could break the chains of poverty,” Nicole says.

That small school became known as Aspen Public Schools, and it was where Nicole began to dream of attending FPU. “In elementary school, I met some students from Fresno Pacific, and they loved their experience there. I liked that the university had a focus on ministry.” While at FPU, Nicole was inspired by Linda Hoff, Ph.D., former director of the Teacher Education Division. “I love her so much,” Nicole says. “She taught me how to be a good leader in all aspects of education and the classroom. She never let us slide by with just the bare minimum but expected us to go above and beyond.” Nicole says Dr. Hoff showed the importance of finding “your voice” among colleagues and administrators “to make a greater impact on student learning.”

‘Love and care’

While working on her teaching credential, Nicole started volunteering at Aspen, eventually moving to instructional aide, director of the after-school program, teacher and assistant site director before advancing to lead the school. As an administrator, Nicole says she encourages her staff to do what Dr. Hoff encouraged her to do: speak up on behalf of students. “Teachers are with students every day. We as administrators need to hear what their concerns are.”

Aspen still serves students who – like Nicole as a child – come from difficult home situations. The school not only focuses on helping them get to and maintain grade-level academic work, but it also addresses their social, emotional and mental health needs. One Aspen staff member providing that help is Theodore Bernard (MA ’22), a counselor at Nicole’s campus known to students as “Mr. B.”  Some of Aspen’s students have seen “more trauma than anyone ever should see. We love and care for them,” Nicole says.

On a personal note: Nicole’s seven brothers and sisters are doing well today – serving in the military, going to school and holding jobs in law enforcement and teaching. Their mother is drug free.

God’s perspective

Riley was a high school athlete, and one of her coaches introduced her to students with special needs through Special Olympics. From that beginning, Riley decided to become a teacher, and she chose FPU because of its reputation of graduating strong educators.

At the university, she found inspiration from Quentin Kinnison, Ph.D., associate professor and program director in the Christian Ministry and Leadership. “He had a course called Theology of Disability, and it opened my eyes to how disabilities fit into the kingdom of God. ‘Q’ [Kinnison’s nickname] asked questions that made me think: ‘Who does decide what’s normal?’” Dr. Kinnison says society attempts to shape ideas about the value and worth of people “in ways that are opposite of God’s perspective and part of our challenge is to recognize this ‘normalizing effect’ and to reject it for God’s perspective.”

Riley says she entered teaching determined to be part of “a paradigm shift of how our culture sees people considered to have disabilities and how we can learn from those deemed ‘dis’-abled.” As an educator at Aspen, she adds: “I feel my voice is really heard, and that is incredibly empowering.” Riley also was encouraged that peacemaking principles like restorative justice – something she learned about at FPU – are incorporated into discipline policies at Aspen. “For a lot of our students, it makes a huge difference because they feel valued and listened to, and if they’re the victim, they feel something was actually done.”

‘Opportunity to show Jesus’

When Riley was offered the opportunity to move into administration at the middle/high school, she was initially reluctant to leave her special needs students. Then she thought: “I have this personal mission to do good work and to continue facilitating changes in people’s attitudes about disabilities.” She realized she could keep doing that as an administrator, and she accepted the new role. “I feel God has pressed on my heart to be an advocate. I want to show our typically developing kids what it’s like to accept others and be a kind human. It’s an opportunity to show Jesus to our students.”

Riley (on left) and Nicole (on right)

Other FPU alumni working at Aspen Public Schools. (Names with an * are new teachers just hired.)

  • Amy Altschuler (TC ’22, BA ‘21)
  • Marguerite Belanger (MA ’23, TC ’20, BA ‘17)
  • Theodore Bernard (MA ’22)
  • Stephan Borba (TC ’17)*
  • Ashley Ciolkosz (current teacher credential student)*
  • Ana Duarte (BA ’21)
  • Brooke Fitzgerald (MA ’20, TC ’17)
  • Amanda Gonzalez (TC ’23, BA ’18)
  • Sarah Grice (BA’21, current teacher credential student)
  • Kristin Green (MA ’22, TC ’21, BA ’18)
  • Rebecca Howard (BA ’88)
  • Kyle Martin (BA ’15)
  • Ashley Mendoza (TC ’23, BA ’13)*
  • Megan Mori (current teacher credential student)*
  • Lisa Novella (BA ’22)
  • Regina Orosco (BA ’18, current teacher credential student)
  • Sara Vasquez (TC ’23)
  • Jamie Wenter (BA ’92)
  • Beth White (MA ’05, BA ’01)

Learn more about Aspen Public Schools.

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Doug Hoagland

Freelance writer