Mayra Arroyo, of Rowan University. Photo courtesy of Mayra Arroyo.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

VINELANDMayra Arroyo had no plans to go college while in high school.

But when she became pregnant with her daughter her senior year, she realized plans — as in life plans — had changed. Now, Arroyo has her master’s degree, is a former Vineland city councilwoman and school board member, and sits on the board of directors for the Puerto Rican Action Committee.

More importantly, she serves as a student advisor at Rowan University where she has been able to motivate students by sharing her stories and life lessons, connecting with students in ways she never would have imagined in high school.

“I remember while I was in high school my dreams then — prior to having my daughter — was to graduate, get a job in the casino working as a dealer, getting an apartment and a car,” Arroyo told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “I never even thought about going to college. No one ever encouraged me or talked to me about going to college.

“My parents were very supportive, however. As they were first generation coming here to the United States, they both quit school and worked really hard to take care of us. So once I became pregnant with my daughter, I knew that I had to make better decisions and to ensure that I gave her a better life and I wanted to be present in her life, like my parents.”

A Life Changed

Today, Arroyo is coordinator of the university transfer services and an advisor at Rowan, and has earned her associate’s degree from Cumberland County College (now Rowan College South Jersey), her bachelor’s degree from Stockton University and master’s degree from Springfield College.

The daughter, who was her college inspiration, Charissa Burgos, is now a freshman recruiter in the Rowan’s Office of Admissions. Along with being a member of the Vineland Board of Education for seven years, she served on Vineland City Council four years.

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Puerto Rican Action Committee awarded its lifetime achievement award in 2014, but the 51-year-old was quick to say she’s still young at heart and has a lot more to give. Arroyo has received numerous awards for her service and dedication to the community. She was also inducted into the Cumberland County College Distinguished Alumni in 2002 and in 2003 inducted as an EOF Distinguished Alumni.

The Path Forward

The road to her life started at Cumberland Community College where she said the support she received from the Educational Opportunity Fund, better known as EOF, was a game-changer and gave her the confidence to fully embrace the opportunities in front of her.

“The support that I received, not only financially, but the emotional and educational support that I received from my EOF counselor really helped me to believe in myself that I can finish college,” Arroyo said. “Today’s students have computers and don’t have to go to the library. As a mom, I have to manage my time.

“I had to be well organized, and I worked. I went to school full time. I had a little part-time job and it was tough, but my daughter was my inspiration, because I knew that I was doing this not only for me, but for her,” she said.

Coming Full Circle

After Arroyo earned her bachelor’s degree from Stockton in 1993, she started work within a month after graduation as a social worker at old Newcomb Hospital in Vineland — the same hospital where she gave birth to her daughter as a teenage mother.

“It was interesting because they took care of me prenatally and here I am coming back to serve them and the women that are coming through that clinic. The majority of people there remembered me as a patient. My boss doing my review said, ‘You know that the hospital didn’t want me to hire you. I’m so glad I did. You have been such an asset to us.'”

It was just the confidence booster the then young Arroyo would need not just to carry on, but pass along to other young people she would encounter later in life.

Lessons Learned

Arroyo said serving on the school board (2002-2008) prepared her for city council (2008-2012). She said she found working with city officials easier than working with her school board members.

“My experience on council, being that I was on the school board for seven years, taught me, prepared me to be a council woman,” Arroyo said. “I will tell you, it was very challenging as a Latina. You were always outnumbered when it comes to the diversity of the elected officials that you were sitting with, but you built thick skin.

“But my term in council was definitely a different experience than I had on the school board. The council members that I serve with, the one thing that I really appreciated was that we always agreed to disagree and remain respectful to each other regardless of what we believed in and how we voted. I really appreciated that because you didn’t get that or I didn’t get that when I was on the school board,” she said.

Arroyo started her career in the education field when she was hired as an academic advisor at Cumberland County College in in 2002. She would move on to Rowan in 2006.

“I love my job at Rowan,” Arroyo said. “I really love working with students. I’ve been blessed that I’ve had opportunities within Rowan to work in different offices and really learn about the different programs. The most interesting thing is working with students and making that connection with them and making sure and helping them and leading them to be successful, and making them believe in themselves.

“I get to work with students and help them believe in their dreams and finishing college. It is so heartwarming to see them be successful, seeing a lot of them become lawyers, educators, whatever their dream was. So, yeah, it’s awesome,” she continued.

Arroyo said even though her parents, who are from El Dorado, Puerto Rico, never went to college, they were encouraging of her dreams.

“They both came here when they were young,” Arroyo said. “It’s interesting that I get to talk to my dad, and lately I’ve been asking a lot more in-depth questions. And I’m learning more about my dad and had not realizing the struggle that he had when he came to [mainland United States]. I’m very thankful for them.

A Blessed Journey

“I believe all my life journey, everything that I’ve done and all of the jobs or careers that I’ve had, have been a blessing because I’ve been able to meet and work with some really awesome people, and help some really amazing young ladies and young men. A lot of them call me the campus mom. They’re like, ‘You’re my mom away from home.’ I love it. It means a lot to me,” she added.

Arroyo had hoped to become the first Latina Cumberland County freeholder, but she lost to incumbents Joe Derella and Jim Quinn as a Republican in 2015. The loss, though, has hardly come to define the life she has created for herself the those around her.

“I just received a phone call, well, a visit from a friend saying, ‘Hey, when are you going to run for office again?,'” Arroyo said. “‘When are you going to run for office again? We really need someone who really cares about the community. Someone who is respected in the community.’

“I’m going to see. I’ve been asked several times, so I’m not keeping my foot out yet, but this election was not the time for me,” she added.

A Daughter’s Appreciation

Mayra Arroyo (R) with daughter Charissa Burgos, who are both on the staff at Rowan University. Photo courtesy of Mayra Arroyo.

Burgos said she has grown to appreciate more of her mother’s accomplishments.

“I work in the admission’s office and I get to see all of the work that the staff put into the EOF program, but also the impact that it has on first generation students, and just seeing their journey from freshman to senior year,” Burgos said.

“I think being able to be in for eight years, it’s just really opened my eyes to see my mother’s journey as a first-generation student, the difficulties she may have faced and it just gives me a lot more appreciation, because she didn’t allow anybody to put her in a box. Whether she came from low-income or she was a teenage mother, she still prevailed,” Burgos said.

Burgos said it has been nice that they both work in fields they are so passionate about at Rowan.

“To see her impact on other first generation students and to be able to share her story has been great,” Burgos said. “For me also to be a product of her and everything that she sacrificed and from that lens, helping students on their journey helps me relate.”

Arroyo had made those relationships blossom her and others all of her adult life.

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