Becoming the Teacher Who Saved Him

A Commitment to Caring and Empathy Shapes a First-Generation Student and Future Teacher
Dean Kimberly Griffin and Bryant Rivera Cortez '25

Bryant Rivera Cortez ’25, an exceptional gymnast and a member of UMD’s Gymkana troupe, spent this past summer teaching circus arts to students ages 6 to 16 at a camp in Pennsylvania. Camp might be different from a classroom, but the experience reminded him of a key lesson about teaching well. 

“In a traditional classroom, teachers often get caught in the mindset of ‘these are the students that will be okay,’” says Rivera Cortez. Those students, he notes, are the ones who get less attention. It was halfway through the first session before he realized he was spending most of his energy on the little kids, when everyone could use some help in an intro to circus arts class. “I’m glad that I’ve been having those early-on ‘aha’ moments. Even if someone teaches it to you in a traditional classroom, fully seeing it [in practice] is when it solidifies.”

That aha moment has a lot to do with the core of who Rivera Cortez is as a teacher and a human being. If Cortez is already well known for something, it’s for his repeated commitment to bring “care, warmth and empathy” into the education field, the same values he brought to his campers this summer. He plans to take that dedication into the classroom as an eighth grade STEM teacher. And he has a clear sense of who first modeled that possibility for him: his own ninth grade English teacher.

At a time when Rivera Cortez was facing real challenges at home and at school along with all the typical issues that make the early teens difficult, in Mr. Pang’s class, “I truly felt like I could breathe; I was in a space where I could authentically be myself and not have to worry about anything,” he says. Pang invited students to check all the hard things they were dealing with at the door so they could just be present during that hour. 

It was a completely new experience for Rivera Cortez, who says, “It’s something I want to keep replicating for whoever comes into my classroom. Because that feeling is something that definitely saved me in such a dark time.” Teachers like Pang helped Rivera Cortez become a first-generation college student who intentionally chose teaching science rather than focusing on being a scientist in a laboratory setting.

As an openly queer person of color, Rivera Cortez is clear on how he will help his students navigate challenges and biases in society and how he will show up for them under any circumstances. “I’m going to do what I think is morally right, because that's what I wanted as a kid,” he says. “If [the students] ever need anything, I am here.” At the end of the day, he notes, that’s the most important thing a teacher can offer.