BRANDON — In 2002, at age 9, Hiram Rios Hernandez arrived in Brandon from Puerto Rico knowing no English.
Recently, the 21-year-old Bloomingdale High School alumnus, son of Idanis Hernandez of Brandon and Hiram Rios of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, was named the University of South Florida Alumni Association’s Outstanding Graduate for spring 2015. He majored in economics and international studies and minored in modern Chinese language.
Throughout his college career, he earned many awards and recognitions, including the 2012 USF Student Employee of the Year, 2014 Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award, 2014 Golden Bull for leadership and service and four national scholarships in international affairs/language study.
One of these, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, covered the cost of his senior year at USF and, along with an award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, will pay for his two-year master in public policy degree program at Harvard University starting this fall.
In the meantime, he is interning this summer in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of China and Mongolia Affairs.
“Being in Washington, D.C., this summer is a dream come true and has allowed me to see a lot of groundbreaking policy changes, including the (U.S. Supreme Court) decision on marriage equality and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba,” said Rios Hernandez. “It feels surreal to be at America’s hub for politics, engaging in policy discussions with students and professionals from around the nation.”
For the past four years, Rios Hernandez has studied U.S.-China relations and now is an insider contributing to policy decisions.
“I was on the team that put on the 2015 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue which received international media attention and positively advanced the bilateral relationship.
“I feel blessed and honored to have the opportunity to put my skills to the test and utilize my language training and analytical-thinking skills to solve problems that ensure America’s national security.”
Rios Hernandez’s interest in Chinese culture began in 2008, when, as a violinist in the Bloomingdale High School orchestra under the direction of SuLing Caballero, he performed in an international youth festival during the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Upon his return, out of curiosity, he registered for a Chinese language program at USF.
His interest grew, and he studied in Qingdao, China, in the summer of 2013. This was paid for by a 2013 David L. Boren Scholarship for International Study, funded by the National Security Education Program to send students abroad to learn languages crucial to national security.
“My study-abroad experience further cemented my interest in China and paved my way for a career in public service,” said Rios Hernandez, certified as advanced-mid (only three of 11 ratings are higher) in Mandarin Chinese by the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages.
He was surprised that people in China do not perceive the United States as a melting pot. “I constantly (explained) that Puerto Ricans are also Americans and that the U.S. enjoys a rich diversity of many cultures, ethnicities and people,” he said.
He dreams of working as a Foreign Service officer and said, “Participating in an exchange program in China made me even more passionate to contribute to a State Department that reflects the rich diversity of the United States.”
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