Class of 2022: Michael Portillo is on the fast track to a career in the U.S. foreign serviceApril 18, 2022 - Leila Ugincius
Earning 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 undergraduate teams analyze economic conditions and recommend monetary policy. “I had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented students in my department, get hands-on experience in monetary policy, and compete against other undergraduates at the national level at the Federal Reserve.”
Growing up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Portillo was always interested in policy work. Majoring in economics with a minor in statistics allowed him to show quantitative, objective rationale for policy decisions. Portillo graduates from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business in May with an impressive number of scholarships and fellowships under his belt.
His many university and national awards include the Becht, Garstka and Nelco family scholarships from the School of Business, which allowed him to focus on his studies instead of worrying about finances. A Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and Boren Award not only allowed 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 is allowing Portillo to pursue his dream of graduate school and to serve his country as a U.S. diplomat.
“The Department of State will be paying for my master’s degree after graduation,” per the Pickering Fellowship, he said. “Between academic years, I will intern with the department — first in Washington, D.C., and then at an overseas embassy. After receiving my master’s, I’ll work as a foreign service officer. Economic officers are responsible for promoting U.S. economic interests overseas and informing policymakers in Washington about international economic issues.”
Portillo already has lots of experience, having interned last summer in Washington in the State Department’s Chinese Economic Unit, handling some of the most pressing bilateral issues between the United States and China involving finance, regulation, trade and technology. His VCU experiences in economics, statistics, language study, intercultural communication and extracurricular leadership — he’s served as president of the Omicron Delta Epsilon Economics Honor Society at VCU and on the executive boards of the Student Economics Association and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity among many other student positions — have prepared him for this summer, when he will serve at the U.S. embassy in Berlin.
Portillo is no stranger to working overseas. VCU Globe’s study abroad program sent him to Greece and Qatar. The service-learning trips gave him experience in intercultural communication and working with migrant communities.
“One of my favorite VCU experiences was in Greece,” he said. “We worked alongside Syrian refugees, first in a donation coordination center, then in the kitchen of the once-abandoned City Plaza Hotel, which was turned into a collective for migrants by migrants. These were terrific experiences that allowed us to help those in need, but more importantly humanize the people that were often demonized as a ‘migrant crisis’ in the news.”
He’s also taking part in a third study abroad program — albeit virtually — with National Taiwan University's International Chinese Language Program, in which he takes daily courses in Mandarin.
VCU Globe highly recommended that he study a foreign language.
“I studied Latin in high school, but no one actually speaks that anymore, so I decided to learn the language with the 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'd be able to survive.”
Learning Mandarin proved to be a significant boon to his career. Proficiency in a foreign language, especially a designated “critical language” such as Mandarin, was integral to his being selected by the Department of State. Furthermore, learning Mandarin led to an interest in the Chinese economy and financial sector, which landed him the internship in the State Department’s Chinese Economic Unit.
“I am beyond thankful for all the people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and who pushed me to my fullest potential,” Portillo said. “The support systems I had during undergrad were essential to where I am today.”