Academic Excellence Award

Dunwoody Diversity & Inclusion Award Winner – Elizabeth Rivas, Mechanical Engineering

Elizabeth Rivas: Dunwoody Diversity & Inclusion Award

In the three years since starting in the Mechanical Engineering program at Dunwoody, Elizabeth Rivas has learned the power of “yes.” 

From speaking up to joining in, Rivas is taking advantage of the opportunities surrounding her. Her involvement in everything from the Youth Career Awareness Program (YCAP), to Kate’s Club to the Festival of Cultures, is the reason she was selected for this year’s Diversity & Inclusion Award. 

Liz Rivas, right, along with Maggie Whitman, left, associate director of Women's Initiatives, volunteer their time at the Jeremiah Program.
Maggie Whitman, associate director of Women’s Initiatives, left, and Liz Rivas, right, volunteer at Jeremiah Program.

Choosing Dunwoody

Growing up in Willmar Minnesota, Rivas didn’t know too much about Dunwoody until she got an invitation from the College to apply for the YCAP scholarship. And it wasn’t until she decided to tour the College that she really became interested.

“Peggy [Quam] offered to give me a tour, and it really got my attention once I took a look around,” Rivas said. “I thought it was really nice of her to take the time to show me what Dunwoody is like. I just felt like she really wanted me there, and that’s how it started.”

Rivas had taken PSEO classes during her junior and senior year of high school and always knew she wanted to do something with her hands. 

“I wanted to be an auto mechanic at first,” Rivas said. “In high school I took small engines and advanced small engines classes. And even in my spare time I would watch my stepdad fix cars and I got interested. He taught me a lot of things.”

But Rivas also enjoyed learning about SolidWorks and when she took a digital electronics and Intro to Engineering class, her interest turned to Mechanical Engineering. 

I joined First Robotics in high school as well, and it really made me want to it as a career,” Rivas said. 

Taking Advantage of Opportunities

When Rivas first started at Dunwoody she was quiet, shy, and didn’t want to ask for help. As a result, Rivas said she often felt lost, alone, and frustrated. 

“Something changed in me during my second year,” Rivas said. “I just got tired of it and decided that I was going to ask questions during class and go to my instructors’ offices. I got more comfortable when I saw that they were really glad I stopped by and asked for help. They never said they were too busy. They’d just stop what they were doing and say, ‘Yes, of course I’ll help you.’” 

From there Rivas started taking advantage of other opportunities at the College. She joined Kate’s Club, which gave her the opportunity to talk with other female students and see what their experience is like. 

As the only female in her cohort of Mechanical Engineering students, part of the second class that will graduate from the program, and a first-generation college student, Rivas is finding multiple ways to connect with peers at the College.  

Liz Rivas,left, participates in the first Society of Women Engineers meeting, a newly formed club on campus.

“I hope I can inspire other females to join the field,” she said. 

Rivas became a Student Ambassador, which allows her to meet with prospective students during Open Houses and learn why they are considering Dunwoody. 

“It’s something that I never thought I would be doing,” she said. “I’m not a talkative person, but I just went for it. Just to make a change.”

The change was a good one. And one that led to other opportunities as well. During the past two years, Rivas has spoke with donors and the Board of Trustees to share her experiences at the College, and she has gone on camera to demonstrate and explain some of the projects she has been working on. 

“I’ve just been saying yes to those kind of things,” Rivas said. 

Rivas was also proud to display her heritage during the College’s annual Festival of Cultures.

“You don’t really see Hispanic people at Dunwoody very often, and I just want to make my parents proud,” Rivas said.  

Liz Rivas,right, shares food she made with other students during the Festival of Cultures.
Liz Rivas shares food she made with other students during the Festival of Cultures.

Finding community

For Rivas, the small, close-knit community at Dunwoody is one of the College’s biggest strengths. 

“Everyone [at Dunwoody] is one big family,” Rivas said. “As a student worker, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and they know me. I know who I can talk to if I’m struggling with something or if I have a question. I just like the tight-knit community.”

Rivas has found community in her Mechanical Engineering program as well. 

“It’s different at Dunwoody because everyone there is doing Mechanical Engineering,” she said. “They’re interested in the subject and they want to learn. It’s helpful just being in that environment versus a larger group where you’re not really noticed by an instructor. The instructors here at Dunwoody are always keeping us involved, asking us questions, and pausing during a lecture. And a couple of times at the end of a semester we would do a roundtable discussion, with all of the Mechanical Engineering instructors and the Dean, to get our input. What should change, what we liked about the course – and they made those changes. They listened.”

Liz Rivas, right, with her instructor and classmates learn about CNC machines during lab.
Liz Rivas, right, with her instructor and classmates learn about CNC machines during lab.

The Mechanical Engineering course load can be intense, and sometimes overwhelming. It’s during those times that Rivas turned to her boyfriend for inspiration. 

“One thing he tells me over and over again is that if you have something in your mind that you want to do, you need to go for it,” she said. “There’s no time to overthink and worry about failure. You just need to go for it and see how it goes. Or you’ll spend most of your time wishing and dreaming of what could have happened.” 

Working on hands-on projects during the year has also allowed Rivas to explore the things that interest her the most. This past year, she spent time designing and building a mechanical arm that is used to move turtles from an aquarium without having to handle them by hand.  

I designed it completely from scratch,” she said. “I was able to go through that whole process of modeling it on the computer, and picking what materials to use. It narrowed my interests of what I want to do after I graduate.”

Rivas still has one more year to complete before she graduates, but she’s already looking ahead to her future.  

“I just hope that I’m a good teammate,” she said. “I think that when there is a project where you work with different people, I just want to make a good contribution to that team, to that project. I want to be able to work well with others and be that person that other people can come up to and ask questions.”

And at Dunwoody, she is learning to be that person. 

“Dunwoody is a place where you can find your hidden talents, things you didn’t think you could do,” Rivas said.