An honorable mention in the Federal Reserve’s 2020 College Fed Challenge secured Michael K. Portillo’s decision to pursue a career in economic policy.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Portillo said of the national competition, in which student teams analyze economic conditions and recommend monetary policy. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented students in my department, gain hands-on experience in monetary policy, and compete with other undergraduate students nationally at the Federal Reserve.”
Raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Portillo always had an interest in political work. His major in Economics with a minor in Statistics enabled him to provide quantitative, objective reasons for political decisions. Portillo graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business in May with an impressive number of scholarships and fellowships.
His many university and national honors include the Becht, Garstka, and Nelco School of Business Family Scholarships, which allowed him to focus on his studies rather than worrying about finances. A Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and Boren Award not only enabled him to study abroad, but also gave him a competitive edge for even more opportunities in international affairs.
And the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship allows Portillo to pursue his dream of grad school and serving his country as a U.S. diplomat.
“The State Department will pay for my master’s degree after graduation,” he said of the Pickering scholarship. “Between academic years, I’ll be doing an internship with the department—first in Washington, DC, and then at a foreign embassy. After my master’s degree, I will work as a civil servant in the foreign service. Economic officials are responsible for advancing U.S. economic interests abroad and informing Washington policymakers on international economic issues.”
Portillo already has a wealth of experience, having been interned in Washington last summer in the State Department’s Chinese business unit, handling some of the most pressing bilateral issues between the United States and China in the areas of finance, regulation, trade and technology. His VCU experiences in economics, statistics, language studies, cross-cultural communication and extracurricular leadership – including serving as President of the Omicron Delta Epsilon Economics Honor Society at VCU and on the Board of Directors of the Student Economics Association and the Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Student Jobs – inspired him prepared for this summer when he will serve at the US Embassy in Berlin.
Portillo is no stranger to working abroad. VCU Globe’s study abroad program took him to Greece and Qatar. The service-learning trips brought him experiences in cross-cultural communication and working with migrant communities.
“One of my favorite VCU experiences was in Greece,” he said. “We worked with Syrian refugees, first at a fundraiser, then in the kitchen of the once-abandoned City Plaza Hotel, which was turned from migrants into a collective for migrants. These were great experiences that allowed us to help those in need, but more importantly, to humanize the people who were often demonized in the news as the “migrant crisis.”
He is also participating in a third study abroad program – albeit virtually – with National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program, where he takes Mandarin classes daily.
VCU Globe strongly recommended that he learn a foreign language.
“I learned Latin in high school, but nobody actually speaks it anymore, so I decided to study the language with most native speakers in college,” he said. “I’m not fluent yet, but if I went to Beijing or Taipei and lost my phone, I could survive.”
Learning Mandarin proved to be a significant boon to his career. Proficiency in a foreign language, particularly a designated “critical language” such as Mandarin, was a key part of his selection by the State Department. In addition, learning Mandarin led to an interest in China’s economy and financial sector, which earned him an internship at the Chinese Business Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I am beyond grateful to all the people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and who pushed me to my fullest potential,” said Portillo. “The support systems I had during college were critical to my position today.”
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