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days a week while in the military,

Rivera kept his new life in perspective.

“Living in my car was like living at the

Taj Mahal compared to what I had

been through in the Marine Corps,” he


Rivera’s living arrangements beame a

lot easier when the GI check arrived,

along with all the back pay associated

with it. He was a part-time employee

of UPS, a U.S. Army Reservist and a

full-time student at IU Southeast.

“IU Southeast was so good for me,”

Rivera said. “Looking back at it, I was

so lucky – so lucky – that I had the

right professors that said, ‘If you help

yourself, we will help you.’”

He graduated in 1993 with a general

studies degree, taught himself

programming from a book he bought

at Barnes and Noble, and went

on to obtain a master’s degree in

computer resources and information

management at Webster University.

But Rivera still had hills to climb and

mountains to conquer. So he set his

sights on one of the most demanding

software engineering doctoral

programs in the world at the U.S.

Naval Postgraduate School.


Rivera was six hours into a grueling

second-year written exam at the Naval

Postgraduate School.

The software engineering program

takes just 13 postgraduate candidates

each year from all civilian agencies

and active and reserve military

branches, and there he was, the only

Army reservist to ever be accepted

into the program, sweating over six

questions he was sure he didn’t know.

A woman from NASA stood up in the

cube next to him and began to gather

her materials.

“Are you done?” a bewildered Rivera

asked her, glancing at his own

paper where just two answers were


“Joey, I’m a lost ball in high weeds,”

she told him. “I’m out of here. Good


Rivera would become the only person

in his class to graduate.

“I call myself a hill climber,” he said. “I

like to pick impossible tasks and just

go after them.”

After seven years of work, including

an ADD diagnosis that – once treated

– Rivera called a “game changer”

in his academic undertakings, and

countless nights of waking up at 4

a.m. to study his materials, Rivera

successfully defended his dissertation

in front of a committee in 2010.

“I’m not sure I could have gone

through that program had I not lived

in my car,” he said. “I was so grateful

for the opportunity that I refused to

allow effort to be reason why I lost the