When Melissa Rios was a freshman at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in 1999, her sights were set on college admission and fulfilling the dream of her parents, Maria and Fernando Melendez.
But, as the daughter of immigrants who hailed from Milwaukee’s south side, Rios faced different challenges than many of her peers at DSHA. Just one of a handful of Latina students during that era, she didn’t always see her own experiences reflected in those of the other Dashers.
“It was a culture shock,” admitted Rios.
But the solid education provided at DSHA propelled Rios to success at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later at the University of Notre Dame’s Remick Leadership Program, through which she is currently completing an M.A. in educational leadership.
And now life has really come full circle for Rios, who works closely with her alma mater in her capacity as the director of Notre Dame’s Graduate Support Program. In that role, Rios helps students who were once in her position access quality college preparatory education like the kind still offered at DSHA — and she said she is proud and heartened by how the school has been enriched by the contributions of a diverse generation of students that left their mark in the last 20 years.
“I always think of the phrase ‘we’re standing on the shoulders of giants’ when I think of DSHA now,” she said. “Every class that has graduated from Notre Dame School of Milwaukee or Bruce Guadalupe or some other south-side school has left an imprint on DSHA. It’s been tremendous, from where it was when I graduated to where it is now.”
Rios was herself a member of Notre Dame School of Milwaukee’s first graduating class (at the time, it was Notre Dame Middle School). “One of the things that my mom had very clear in her head was that she wanted single-gender education for me and my siblings,” said Rios. Her brother chose St. Lawrence Seminary, while Rios opted for DSHA after a positive shadow day experience.
During her time there, it was theology classes and retreat experiences that Rios enjoyed the most. “I always really enjoyed the retreats that we had — that was the time that I really got to open up to my peers,” she said. The education she received there “was unlike any other” and helped her to develop an eye for self-improvement that endures to this day. “I’m always looking to see how I can better myself for my family, and now, for my children,” said Rios. “A big part of that comes from DSHA.”
After her 2003 graduation from DSHA, Rios attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During her last year of college, she received a call from Notre Dame School of Milwaukee’s Graduate Support Program, checking in on how her studies were going. She met with the president of the school and, two months later, got a job offer. She has been at the school for 11 years now in different capacities.
Two years ago, Rios was accepted to the University of Notre Dame’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, motivated by the desire “to be a better Catholic school leader.” In the program, which will result in a graduate degree when she finishes next year, she said she has experienced tremendous growth on both a professional and spiritual level.
“I’ve learned so much more about myself and my faith through the program, and I’ve really appreciated that their program does what its mission is, which is to build transformational Catholic school leaders,” she said.
Married since 2009 to husband Tony, Rios is the mother of three children: Benjamin, 7; Olivia, 5; and Vivian, 3. The family attends St. Hyacinth Parish in Milwaukee.
In her work guiding soon-to-be high schoolers and their families, Rios emphasizes the importance of the kind of college preparedness she received at DSHA. “I always talk with parents about how high school is a really important goal, but ultimately our goal is to get our kids into college and graduate them,” she said.
For her largely Hispanic student population, Rios is a tireless advocate for Catholic education, believing it to be “more than just the religion we practice — it’s so ingrained in our life.”
“When I think of Catholicism within the Mexican culture, I think of really strong roots,” she said. “It’s just something I value so much. Even just the unique Mexican traditions we have — like Las Presentaciones, when a child is 3 and we have a little celebration just like when Jesus was presented at the temple. I just have really great memories doing things with my family that revolve around our Catholicism. I think that the environment that I work in emphasizes the importance of keeping the traditions alive for them.”