By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH
Aerospace engineer, speaker and stand-up comedian Shayla Rivera has let nothing hold her back. Becoming fluent in English within five months, giving stress management seminars after previously working for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and appearing on Comedy Central are just a few of the many notches under Rivera’s belt.
Rivera used her story and her many different experiences to motivate University of Mary Washington students and audience members of all ages on Thursday, Sept. 25 at the Underground in Lee Hall.
Rivera was the keynote speaker for Latino Identities Month, an event hosted by the James Farmer Multicultural Center and the Latino Student Association that began on Sept. 15.
Rivera’s keynote was one of the many events that Latino Identities Month offered to students. Other events included a bilingual poetry reading by Cuban-born Rita Martin, a film series highlighting Latin America hosted by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and an interactive workshop where students could learn Bomba, a dance with Puerto Rican, Spanish and African influences.
Senior English major Emily Humberson was glad that the LSA and JFMC were taking advantage of the variety of programs available and making them accessible to students.
“Events like poetry and comedy shows are things people will come out to anyway. They give channels for students who would already be coming to these events a way to learn about these issues,” Humberson said.
During her talk, Rivera spoke about being 17 and moving to Texas to attend Texas A&M University. Moving to the U.S. from Puerto Rico was a difficult adjustment, according to Rivera, and she had to learn how to speak English in addition to learning about aerospace engineering.
“I remember talking with my professor in English a few months after starting school, and realizing ‘wow, I’m actually doing this,’” Rivera said.
This experience gave Rivera the courage in take risks later in life. Rivera graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a minor in psychology. Rivera joked about the differences between her two fields of study.
“Because, you know, if we ever discovered life on other planets, I could give them therapy,” Rivera said.
Rivera spent the next several years giving seminars for stress management after attending a conference where she felt drawn to how the speaker was able to present and inspire his audience. Enough people told her that she would be a good comedian that she decided to investigate for herself.
It took one workshop in stand-up comedy for her to realize that they were right, and she switched to comedy.
“If there’s one thing I did right in my life,” Rivera said when discussing the enormous variety in her career, “it was that I was willing to take the next step. Making that decision took me in a million different directions.”
Rivera encouraged students in the audience to trust their instincts and to not let anyone lock them into socially acceptable roles.
“We’re conditioned by limitations,” Rivera said.
Rivera followed this statement with a message to not be afraid of taking risks. Rivera led by example, stepping off the stage and engaging people in the audience by asking questions and learning about them.
As a comedian, her speech was peppered with humor, particularly when nothing the differences between Puerto Rican and U.S. culture.
“My boyfriend told me he was taking me for a hike for my birthday,” Rivera said with a laugh. “I’m a Latina, I had no idea what a hike was. As it turned out, I ended up getting a six-mile walk for my birthday.”
Paying attention to the differences between cultures and embracing those differences without judgment inspired Rivera to pursue a career in comedy.
“We don’t want to become a gray mass,” Rivera said following the show. “Our differences are what make us unique.”
Rivera’s own uniqueness and her desire to understand and unleash the potential of every person in the audience made her keynote a valuable part of Latino Identities Month at UMW.