Most people in the Lehigh Valley know Jerry Rivera as a superstar from Freedom High School.
The recent Bethlehem Area School District graduate achieved widespread acclaim when he won a full scholarship to Princeton University after years of demanding work and the support of teachers and family. His Princeton journey begins this fall.
What most people do not know is that before national nonprofit agencies swooped in to award Jerry for his hard work, and before teachers and administrators at Freedom began to recognize Jerry for his Princeton achievement, there was a program called Generation Next that Jerry enrolled in when he became a first-year student at Freedom High.
It was his early introduction into the Generation Next program, Jerry said, that made him believe getting into Princeton was even possible.
“Generation Next helped me believe I could achieve,” said Jerry, a 17-year-old Latino student, the first in his family to attend college. “It made me believe that if I apply myself and take advantage of the opportunities in front of me, I can achieve anything.”
Jerry’s success, and the success of other students of color like him, is what Generation Next is all about, according to proponents of the program.
Generation Next, a program of local anti-poverty nonprofit Community Action Lehigh Valley, is a college readiness, access, and completion program created to reduce racial disparities in educational achievement.
Wide disparities in bachelor’s degree attainment by race and ethnicity still exist, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. In the U.S., more than 68% of Asian or Pacific Islander adults aged 25 to 29 have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 45% of whites, 28% of Blacks, and 25% of Hispanic young adults, the report asserts.
Moreover, Black high school graduates have lower salaries and higher unemployment rates than any other racial group. The gender gap among Black students also is wider than in any other racial group, with two out of three Black college students being women, the report notes.
Generation Next works to reduce these gaps.
The program works with students of color to prepare them for college admission, integrate them into college life and prepare them to complete a post-secondary program. It also works to introduce students of color to vocational trades they otherwise would not consider.
Generation Next students receive programming within their 9th, 10th, and 11th (junior) years to develop the essential skills needed to navigate high school and college while building a better understanding of themselves and their potential. Without a program like Generation Next, students of color in area schools would often go without specific programming that recognizes their unique needs. And, without intense support, students of color would continue to fall through the educational gaps.
Since the Community Action program began in 2019, more than 500 students have begun matriculating through the program and more than 40 so far have graduated high school and gone on to college.
The program resides in four Lehigh Valley Schools: Freedom and Liberty High Schools in Bethlehem, William Allen High School in Allentown and Easton Area High School in Easton.
Jerry isn’t the only student who has achieved success through the program.
Angel Wanjira graduated from Easton Area High School this year and begins classes at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. Siddiq Small graduated from Liberty High School in 2023 with football accolades and begins sports medicine studies at Millersville University.
Jerry, whose family could not have afforded college without financial support, has become the program’s beacon of light. He shows other students of color that, with the right support and programming, college success is within reach.
“We are absolutely proud of Jerry and the success he has achieved,” said Dennis Levy, chair of the Generation Next Advisory Board, which helps oversee the implementation of the program.
“Programs like Generation Next are essential in helping students of color overcome barriers such as racial and ethnic bias. It also recognizes the potential for greatness that all students have, regardless of their background,” Levy said.
“Our goal is to identify more students like Jerry and put them on a similar track to success,” said Jenylin Rodriquez, the Generation Next program coordinator who recruited Jerry into the program.
“Jerry was a quiet and shy kid when I first met him at Freedom High. By the time he graduated, he had gained a confidence he didn't have before,” Jenylin said.
Jerry’s mother agreed.
“Our family is so grateful for Generation Next,” said Gladys Rivera, adding that she is thankful for the support of programs that support those in low-income or marginalized communities.
Jerry said he applied to Princeton because the university offers a wide range of majors in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and he likes Princeton’s emphasis on independent work.
Jerry said he is interested in technology, electrical systems, and problem-solving, but he is still weighing his options when it comes to potential majors.
As he embarks on his Princeton journey, he said he is a bit intimidated, but also excited. While he realizes he is moving to a completely unfamiliar environment with new teachers and students, he knows he has the support of his Generation Next family who will continue to support him through college and be the resource he needs for times when he may get stuck.
“Generation Next helped me realize that no matter how tough things get, I know I can always reach out for help. And help will be there.”