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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.
“She was always very calm, professional, and poised in nature,” he said. “She displayed tremendous leadership in race relations...[and] worked very closely with me on creating something that was unique to Harvard at the time.”
Natalie S. Manzo ’87, who was one of Rios’ closest friends, said that it “makes sense” Rios would have helped organize Cultural Rhythms given her “polite and professional” manner and “really genuine” personality.
“People always really like her,” she said.
‘WINNING THE LOTTERY’
Rios juggled her extracurricular commitments with formidable academic and work-related obligations.
“I still had to send money home,” said Rios, who worked for an average of 20 to 25 hours a week.
Rios held a job at the Institute for Educational Management at the Graduate School of Education, and, echoing her high school position as a library aide and bookmender in her hometown library, she also worked at Widener Library in her freshman year and at the Winthrop House Library for the next three years.
“To go from the county library in my hometown of Hayward to Widener Library [at Harvard] was like winning the lottery,” she said.
In addition, Rios was one of the College’s first students to pursue a joint concentration in Sociology and Romance Languages and Literatures.
Rios wrote a senior thesis that traced the evolution of Mexican identity in different literary works.
Though enduring evaluations by both departments was “very difficult,” Rios said that she found the experience “very cathartic” as well.
‘A PURPOSEFUL WALK’
Upon her graduation from Harvard, Rios returned to California, where she split her time roughly equally between positions in the public and private sectors, serving as director for economic development for the City of Fremont and working as a principal at the consulting firm Red River Associates.
Victor MacFarlane, managing principal of MacFarlane Partners, the real estate investment management firm where Rios worked before joining the Treasury, wrote in an email that Rios “took her responsibilities as a key contributor and leader very seriously.”
“She wanted to succeed and to succeed at a high level,” he wrote. “While very competitive, she always had a smile on her face and was willing to help someone whenever she could.”
He distinctly remembered Rios’ gait.
“I can still see her walking down our halls,” he wrote. “Rosie has a very purposeful walk...It is almost military in nature that she has a target in sight and intends to get there as soon as possible.”
Indeed, Rios’ drive and expertise in economic development, real estate, and investment management equipped her to fill the post of Treasurer of the United States in 2009.
“I do feel that I was well-groomed [for the role],” said Rios, who now holds the second oldest post in U.S. government.
“I have been very fortunate to have served with such a strong leader as Secretary Geithner. He has provided a very supportive environment,” she said, adding that she takes her role as the first Latina Treasurer to be nominated by a Democratic president “very seriously.”
Though she walks the halls of government buildings today, Rios said that she tries to return to Harvard “every so often” to relive her “warm memories” of Winthrop House and attend Cultural Rhythms, which has greatly evolved since her founding year. She also keeps in touch with Counter, who said that her swearing-in ceremony marked “one of [his] proudest moments.”
“My Harvard experience was extremely worthwhile,” she said. “It was very life-changing.”
—Staff writer Nikita Kansra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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