GED graduate overcomes prison, adversity to transform his life

Finally feeling like he belongs

Mark Feldmann,

June 20, 2022

MILWAUKEE – For a long time, Francisco Rivera felt like he didn’t fit in.

Not at home, where his mother raised him and three men provided fleeting male influences. Nor at school, where he never got help and dropped out. 

“When you think you don’t belong, it can be difficult,” Rivera said.

And he certainly didn’t fit in prison, where he ended up for three years. The minute the cell door clanged shut, he vowed to transform his life.

Upon his release, Rivera, who did not have a high school diploma, enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College to earn his General Educational Development (GED) certificate. He also started taking college classes through MATC’s Integrated Education and Training (IET) career pathway program, which enables students to earn college credit while getting their GED or High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED). 

By May 2022, Rivera was fitting in just fine. He had received three raises at his job, attained his GED, earned an IET Administrative Professional certificate, and was one of two student speakers at MATC’s GED/HSED graduation ceremony. 

“My hands are numb, my feet are sore and my brain is about to explode, but my heart is filled with so much joy,” he told the crowd of about 200 fellow GED/HSED graduates. “I fought for my life and for my future. I’m not the very best me yet, but I’m getting there.”

Rivera, now 35, grew up in Milwaukee with five sisters and two brothers. The family moved constantly and his mother was married three times, he said. Rivera attended Milwaukee South Division High School. Classes never came easy for him. He fell behind, eventually quit going and took whatever jobs he could find.

Later he got married. He was working two jobs and hardly slept. The couple constantly argued about money, then split up and divorced. Alone and depressed, Rivera hit rock bottom. “I started drinking, doing drugs, partying, living a very unhealthy lifestyle,” he said. “I got in with the wrong people and eventually committed a crime.”

During his prison sentence, he didn’t feel anything but cold and isolated. “I emotionally shut down,” he said. “There’s no human compassion in prison. You’re just another number. Their job is to make sure you don’t escape.”

He quickly realized he never wanted to be back in prison and formulated a plan for his future: Get out, get a job, go to school. While in prison, he completed the math portion of the GED, reading three books in four months. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

When he was released, he wasted no time. He moved away from his old neighborhood. He ditched old party friends and bad influences. He found a job, then started GED courses at MATC. 

“Francisco had a clear vision of the path he wanted to be on,” recalled Samantha Burgos, MATC’s case manager for GED students at the Downtown Milwaukee Campus. “Despite working full time, and regularly overtime, Francisco still made time for class. I remember after going over the details of the IET program and the kind of commitment it would require, Francisco didn’t bat an eye. He said he wanted to take college classes and earn an Administrative Professional certificate, and that is exactly what he did.”

This Fall semester, Rivera will return to MATC to take mortuary science courses. At work, he has been promoted to a supervisory position and regularly brings in home-cooked meals for his team members. He has his own place and is saving money. For the first time in a long time, everything seems to be fitting together. 

“I’m still pushing, I still want more,” Rivera said. “But it does feel good to have a plan that works.”

“Once he puts his mind to something, nothing can stop him,” Burgos said. “He is an inspiring person to talk to. From managing priorities to meal prep and budgeting, he has every moment of his life accounted for, so that not a second is wasted.”

For photos of GED commencement event, go to

Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs; and transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.