Melissa Perez Rhym was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and raised in Miami, Florida. She attended the University of Miami where she got a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and the University of Georgia where she earned a master’s degree in World Language Education and doctorate degree in Language and Literacy Education. She is an Academic Support Specialist and Family & Community Director at Cedar Shoals High School where she serves as the faculty advisor of H.O.P.E. (Hispanic Organization Promoting Education) and will coach volleyball next year. Melissa is also the co-director of U-Lead Athens, a nonprofit organization which works towards equal access to higher education for students of immigrant families who are in or have recently graduated from high school here, in part by helping students prepare for and apply to college. She lives in Oconee County with her husband Darren and they have five children who are all attending college.
What do you love about your career?
What I love about my current position is that it is something different every day. I love that mix of being able to help students, and also being able to help parents in a very individual way. When you are in a classroom, you have thirty babies at a time there you are helping, and you know that this one needs a little more attention or something is going on with this one, but you are also busy teaching and doing all these other things. So, I love that I can really focus on addressing these problems helping with the community, helping the parents, being more involved in the school and having more access and using my language skills to do that. The problem solving, the ‘what needs to be done, and how can I help you like right now.’ I get to have those one-on-one relationships and that feels important.
Also, because I have this very flexible space I am able to incorporate a lot of what I do with U-Lead Athens here. I am meeting with U-Lead families and meeting with students sometimes they don’t realize there is someone at school who is bilingual that they can access. Then, once we establish that connection, I can connect them with other resources. Or, even here at school, I go talk to some of the freshmen that don’t realize that they will have options for college when they get to that point. So, I am able to talk to them and mentor them through that and start introducing that idea when a lot of them would have given up on education or thought what’s the point of going to school if I can’t go to college.
What is your favorite restaurant in Athens, and what do you love there?
Maepole. I love Maepole. Everything is good so you have to keep going back. I love the outdoor seating in the back, they did a really nice job with it. I think what hooked me and got me to keep going back was I had the sweet potatoes because they were whipped just perfectly.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?
Machu Picchu. I want to do that while I can still do it and do the hike.
What is your favorite movie, or what is the first movie you remember seeing in a theatre?
Oh, I am sure there had to have been one earlier than this, but I think it is memorable because I remember I was in New York City and saw Ghostbusters when it opened with my dad. And, my dad was tall, 6’5, and I remember we were pretty up front and he was very uncomfortable. But, I also remember coming out of the theatre as a kid and thinking it was so cool that I was just watching this city in the movie.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Explore more. I was very honed in on trying to make it. I just took that too seriously.
If you could see any band, anywhere, dead or alive, who would it be and where?
I might go back in time to the best concert ever, which was Pearl Jam in ‘94 on the water in Miami at Bayshore Park.
What is something you have on your “bucket list”?
I would like to visit all of the National Parks.
What is your favorite thing to do in Athens when you are not working?
I love going to different coffee shops and just sitting and watching people. I think it is obviously a really good town for that. Also, running really early in the morning when Athens is quiet. I love the way it feels when it is sunrise, running down by the stadium, down College Station, even Five Points, downtown when that stale beer smell is still hanging in the air and you just discover different angles of different places.
What three words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word “home”?
Family, beach, and safe.