As soon as Philip Wilder, a social studies teacher at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, Calif., discovered that his former student Rosa “Rosie” Gumataotao Rios ’87 had become the Treasurer of the United States, he went to his computer.
“I sent an email, the basic ‘you-probably-don’t-remember-me’ email,” he said. To his surprise, Rios, who graduated from the school in 1983, replied within an hour.
“It was just wonderful...very humbling,” said Wilder, who then arranged a school-wide Skype conference with Rios.
“There she was in the library on the screen,” he said. “The kids were excited.... You could just see that [they] realized that there’s no ceiling. The sky’s the limit.”
Through a combination of directed action, staunch commitment to her family and culture, and professional charm, Rios had risen through the ranks of academic and professional success, moving from shelving books at a local library during her high school years to signing her name on U.S. currency today.
‘WHIRLING AND STAMPING’
Hailing from the East Bay area of California, Rios grew up in a close-knit family comprised of a single mother and nine children.
“My mom always emphasized education,” said Rios, who was the first child in her family to go out of state for college. “It was ingrained in every single one of us.”
Given the family’s large size, the Rios children formed “a little community,” said Peter Peabody, who served as the Student Activities Director while Rios attended Moreau Catholic High School.
As a result, Peabody said, “Rosa is very inclusive and very family-oriented.”
Though she missed home “every day,” Rios said that she found a community at Harvard within Winthrop House, which was “very much a family,” and through student organizations such as Ballet Folklórico de Aztlán, which provided an outlet for artistic expression and offered her a chance to “go back to [her] roots.”
“One of my favorite memories was Rosie teaching me and [our roommate] Marie some of her Mexican dances,” said Diane L. Dorsey ’87, who lived with Rios in Matthews in their freshman year. “We had a great time, whirling and stamping, although I am not sure that the proctor who lived below us enjoyed the experience as much.”
According to Rios, her commitment to the dance group fueled her involvement in the Harvard Foundation, a University-wide organization designed to promote interracial relations. Rios served on the Foundation’s student advisory committee to help coordinate Harvard’s inaugural Cultural Rhythms, an annual festival that features a variety of ethnic performing groups.
“She really [fit] in the Harvard Foundation’s model,” said Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter, calling Rios “an active student leader” and “one of [his] favorite people.”
Counter often requested Rios’ presence at official meetings regarding race relations at Harvard and the execution of Cultural Rhythms, and he invited her to speak at a University-wide panel about cultural diversity in 1986.