It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years this month since I celebrated my own Harvard Commencement. Our speaker was Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany. This year’s commencement speaker was likely not yet in kindergarten then. I remember very clearly the time leading right up to the May festivities as I finished my thesis, originally started on a typewriter and, thankfully, finished on something new and crazy called a “Mac.”
My mom and several of my nine siblings were able to fly in from California and join me for an unforgettable week of celebrations and Boston tourist activities that I never had a chance to tackle until then. I returned to the Bay Area and my interest in real estate and community development took off from there. As I transition from my most recent position as Treasurer of the United States and prepare for my thirty-year Harvard reunion this fall, the words that come to my mind are gratitude and renewed anticipation.
I have been given so many gifts from my Harvard experience. My Winthrop House roommates, Julie and Natalie, remain my best friends to date. I clearly remember being told that it is the people at Harvard who make the biggest difference, and these two are beyond any expectations I have ever had. We have been through thick and thin and have attended just about every reunion together. Today, we continue to live vicariously through each other’s families and career paths. They allowed me to feel safe at Harvard and to take strategic risks. After several years of planning, they, along with my Winthrop friends Lisa and Lynn and the Harvard Foundation, helped and supported the launch of Cultural Rhythms in 1986, a student celebration that continues to this day.
College is definitely the time to take those risks, a time to find yourself, to question your identity and what you value. And coming to the foreign land of Cambridge made it that much more interesting. It wasn’t easy leaving home. It wasn’t easy trying to figure out how I wanted to spend my time socially, academically, and emotionally. I learned very quickly that it is a two-way street. You get what you give. But the biggest lesson that I learned that still motivates me today is that human capital is the best investment that you can make. It is about the people. Harvard invested in me. It means so much to me that Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Senior Admissions Officer David L. Evans, with whom I worked in the Admissions Office, are still there investing in future students.
My classmate and friend Becky E. F. Wassarman is the Executive Director of Academic Ventures at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard where I am now a Visiting Scholar. Dr. S. Allen Counter remains the Director of the Harvard Foundation and he and David are responsible for the commission of my portrait at Winthrop House. And it means everything that I still keep in touch with Lisa Quiroz ’83, the Harvard Admissions Officer who recruited me over 34 years ago.
It motivates me to continue to give back—to think about inspiring the next generation of leadership. Would my life have been the same if I did not attend Harvard? A completely rhetorical question, but my guess is no. I felt empowered to bring up new ideas and find the support systems to execute them. I appreciated that I was the first person to ever graduate with the combination of my two majors. I was able to build the confidence to choose my unique career path and most recently lead the efforts to place a woman on our Federal Reserve notes for the first time in our country’s history. Looking back over these last thirty years, I feel completely blessed.
And now I get to relive it all over again through my son Joey, who just finished his sophomore year in Adams House. He has found his own set of best friends who will likely remain just as close through the next thirty years. He is happy. I remember that when I came here there were few students who looked like me. But that did not deter me—it emboldened me to contribute my unique perspective. Joey is finding that same voice. I’ll never forget the first time I read his Harvard application and the essay entitled, “A Tale of Two Grandmas.”
He wrote about his grandmother from Hokkaido, Japan and his grandmother from Guadalajara, Mexico. He did not focus on their differences, but instead, how they raised him with common values and an emphasis on family, food, and faith. I learned a lot about him that day and perhaps a lot about myself as well. If we start to think about each of us as all the different threads that weave together to become the fabric of our community, we could actually have a constructive conversation about our American culture and the values on which our country was founded. It is about putting people first and respecting each and every aspect of culture, however one wants to define it.
Through my own Harvard experience, I was able to learn the true meaning of culture then and today. For this next generation of Harvard graduates, the ones who will stand out as true leaders are those who can connect with people, empathizing and articulating the human experience. Harvard is now over 380 years old; when Joey, Julie, Natalie, and I return again for Harvard’s 400th, it will be amazing to see how the Harvard community continues to invest in people to impact our nation and beyond. We are all truly blessed, and it is incumbent upon all of us to continue to support and inspire future generations.
Rosie G. Rios ’87 was the 43rd Treasurer of the United States and is a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.