Camden Native and Rutgers Law School 2021 Graduate Prepares for A Career of Advocacy for Her Community

Jenise Rivera

Jenise Rivera

By Jeanne Leong

Growing up in Camden, Jenise Rivera witnessed police officers stopping friends and neighbors – mostly Hispanic males – randomly. “Police asked people questions that shouldn’t really matter,” Rivera says. “Like when people were hanging around just talking, sitting on steps outside their homes, and kids doing what they normally do, being rambunctious.”

National distrust between minority communities and the criminal justice system – born from years of injustices – prompted Rivera to pursue a career in law, where she can use her skills to represent and advocate for her community in legal matters. This May, she will receive her juris doctor degree from Rutgers Law School in Camden.

As a student, Rivera served the Rutgers University‒Camden campus and Camden community by volunteering to help prepare tax returns for low-income residents, informing high school students about educational and vocational opportunities, and assisting people with legal issues.

“I have the tools to explain the legal system to others whose lives are affected by it,” says Rivera. “I am able to be the advocate needed when the justice system is disproportionately affecting minorities or when someone needs a hand understanding legal principles.”

In the summer of her first year at Rutgers Law School in Camden, Rivera developed both interest and insight into criminal law during an internship at the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, where she conducted research and prepared domestic violence and human trafficking cases for trial.

“That was one of my most gripping experiences of law school,” says Rivera. “Hearing the details of our cases was heartbreaking, but it motivated me and gave me the drive to help our victims.”

A stroke of serendipity led Rivera to law school. As an undergraduate at Rutgers University‒Camden, Rivera was undecided about a career path. That changed while she was an intern for New Jersey State Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez. Rivera accompanied Cruz-Perez’s legislative aides to a state-of-the-city address by Camden’s mayor. At the event held at Rutgers‒Camden, Rivera met then-Chancellor Phoebe Haddon, who encouraged the honor student to attend law school. “She talked about her experience and gave me tips, so I thought, ‘I guess we’re doing this.’”

Jenise Rivera speaking at the annual Alianza banquet

Jenise Rivera speaking at the annual Alianza banquet

After graduating from Rutgers‒Camden in 2018 with a double major in psychology and urban studies, Rivera remained on campus to pursue her law degree at Rutgers Law School.

Rivera, the first in her family to go to college, overcame some obstacles to attend law school. She knew little about what lawyers do. After she applied to Rutgers Law, her financial backing fell apart, and she was concerned that she would not be able to pursue a law degree. Rivera reached out to Rhasheda Douglas, the assistant dean of the Minority Student Program, who encouraged her to continue pursuing her goals. Rivera was accepted to Rutgers Law School with a generous financial aid package.

The rigors of law school were overwhelming at times. Through the support of her family, and faculty and students in the Rutgers Law community, Rivera has succeeded.

In addition to the pro bono work that she performed as part of her education at Rutgers Law School in Camden, Rivera gives back to her hometown by advising students and sharing her college and law school journey at “college night” events at Camden high schools, including at her alma mater, Camden Academy Charter High School.

As president of Alianza, the Latinx law students’ association of Rutgers Law School in Camden, Rivera organized a donation drive for personal care items to send to people affected by the 2019 and 2020 earthquakes in Puerto Rico, where her grandparents and aunt live.

To ensure that Latinx high school students in Camden can receive financial support needed to pursue a college degree, Rivera, along with the Alianza founder Carmen Garcia and former Alianza president Kiomeiry Csepes, are leading the effort to raise funds to endow the Carmen M. Garcia Bright Futures Scholarship.

In early 2020, Rivera was developing an after-school program for Camden high school students to teach such life skills as financial literacy, planning for further education or career options after high school, and getting financial aid for college. The program was postponed due to the pandemic lockdown.

Rivera also serves as a student representative on the Coalition of Legal Services Providers in South Jersey, an organization of representatives from various practice areas that communicate and strategize the best ways to assist and provide services to the community.

For Rivera’s commitment to social justice and equality, she was honored with the Mary Philbrook Public Interest Award from the Rutgers–Camden law school.

Rivera’s interest in law is inspired by her mother Denise’s big heart in extending a hand to help family and friends improve their lives by taking in relatives who are trying to get back on their feet, helping to fill out immigration paperwork, and assisting in job searches.

“I carry her spirit with me, through my dedication to service,” she says.

Rivera’s mother moved to Camden from Puerto Rico as a teenager. Through her own determination, she assisted in reuniting numerous families through the immigration process. She also helped Rivera’s stepfather, a native of the Dominican Republic, in bringing his three young children to New Jersey in 2016 to live with the family.

Jenise Rivera and her mother Denise at the Legal Education Fund Scholarship award ceremony

Jenise Rivera and her mother Denise at the Legal Education Fund Scholarship award ceremony

Rivera has had to advise her two teenage stepbrothers and young stepsister about safety issues when they are walking around the neighborhood of the family’s small town home. “If they are stopped by the police, they might encounter problems. This is a heartbreaking and unfair discussion that so many people have with their young children,” she reflects.

Rivera’s passion for social justice was further nurtured through her work in Rutgers Law School’s Entrepreneurship Clinic, which assists small businesses in southern New Jersey. She developed an interest in property law, which she is considering as a career path, but Rivera also has a keen interest in criminal law.

“My involvement in the clinic and love for property is what has kept me open to private practice,” says Rivera. “Regardless of what I do, I want to do something I love. Whether it’s assisting individuals in their property endeavors or assisting individuals in the criminal law context, service is a part of what I love.”

After Rivera graduates from Rutgers Law School in May, she will begin a judicial clerkship in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Division in Camden.

“Too many times, my community is affected by the justice system and there is no one who understands where they are coming from, no one who explains things, or even speaks their language,” says Rivera. “That needs to change. I see the issues and intricacies, and how the system is flawed. Regardless of where I end up, I now am able to advocate for change and draw on my experiences and education to affect and influence my surroundings.”

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