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For Senator Nellie Rivera-O’Reilly of the U.S. Virgin Islands, her ultimate joy is giving back to the community where she was raised. When a friend suggested Senator Nellie Rivera-O’Reilly, BSB/M ’08, run for public office in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), she shrugged off the idea. “I said, ‘Politics isn’t my cup of tea.’” But when that same friend produced enough signatures to get her on the ballot for the St. Croix district in 2008, she decided to go for it—and won.
Though the push for her to run for a spot on the legislature took her by surprise, it was simply a matter of course in the eyes of her fellow Crucians. “I always had a heart for service,” explains Rivera-O’Reilly, who even as girl was known for her generous spirit. “I always had a desire to volunteer and give back to the less fortunate.”
This kindness extended to the animals of the island, as well as the people she helped through her work on the local teenage hotline and in church programs. “I’d pick up [lost animals] and drop them off at the vet or the animal shelter. They’d say, ‘Here comes Nellie with a stray dog,’” she remembers with a laugh.
As she grew up, though, she turned her attention to more practical matters: namely, how she would make a living. After high school, Rivera-O’Reilly studied in Puerto Rico for a year before moving back to St. Croix to settle down. She landed a job as an office manager for a law firm where she found she was a natural, assuming greater responsibility at a rapid pace. She then began taking courses at the University of the Virgin Islands, “and before I knew it, I was a paralegal,” she says.
One day while driving to work, Rivera-O’Reilly was struck by the sight of children from a local housing community walking to school with their backpacks. “It tugged at my heart,” she recalls. “These little kids [were] walking to school in their beautiful uniforms and with their lunch kits, but they were not really getting an education. The majority end up dropping out and [going] to prison.”
As a mother of two sons, Rivera-O’Reilly wanted to do more for the at-risk children on the island, which has an unemployment rate that hovers above 13 percent. “That feeling led me to run for the school board,” she explains. She was elected to this volunteer position and spent the next four years working on education policy in an effort to bring about reform in a system she saw as failing.
So when Rivera-O’Reilly’s friend urged her to run for the senate, she ultimately embraced the opportunity to effect change on a broader scale. “You reach this [point] and realize, wow, this is not just being a member of a board or an advisor for a particular group of people,” she says. “This is about making a decision that must be in the best interest of the majority.”
Now in her second term as senator, Rivera-O’Reilly has maintained a focus on education. She’s currently working on charter school legislation and is an advocate for single-gender schooling, which she believes will strengthen the quality of education on the island. “I believe that every child who walks through the public education system should be given an equal opportunity,” she says. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that if you have issues at home, we are not able to teach you.”
She’s also working to increase women’s access to health care on the island. “I have been able to lobby for expansion of mammography for women in St. Croix,” she says. “[Previously,] there was only one provider of mammography.”
Rivera-O’Reilly, who herself had a breast cancer scare, believes that this shortage in services has contributed to a disproportionate number of local terminal breast cancer cases. Thanks to her efforts, a new mammography screening center is being built at the local hospital and should be operational by the end of the year. “We’ve also raised money for a mammography fund for women who can’t afford [one],” she adds.
Earning her bachelor’s degree in 2008 from University of Phoenix gave Rivera-O’Reilly the confidence to face these challenges and more for her constituents. “I probably would not have run for office if I had not had a degree,” she admits. “Who am I to write legislation or advocate for education if I haven’t taken the time to do that for myself?”
Rivera-O’Reilly is proud of the changes she has been able to make so far in her role in the legislature, and she is eager to do more if the voters give her the chance. She is currently running for a third term as senator, and if she’s re-elected, she’ll continue her quest for education reform. “If I am not elected, I will go to law school and fulfill that lifelong dream,” she says. “Whatever happens, I am excited.”
Regardless of the outcome, Rivera-O’Reilly will tackle it with her head held high, knowing how many people she has helped through her efforts to strengthen her community. “I have been able to stay true to myself and keep my feet firmly on the ground,” she concludes.