December Portrait – Bill Rivera

This final of twelve portraits in 2017, honoring alumni from thirty years of Roth Endowment programs, features a story told by William Alvarado Rivera, one of our very first grantees.

After his return from a Fulbright to Sweden, Bill graduated from Stanford University Law School and continued his work on child support and social welfare at the US Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services. Among other volunteer positions, he joined the Board of the Roth Endowment, where he continues to help represent our alums, and served as the President of the Hispanic Bar association of the District of Columbia. Since 2015, Bill has continued his work for social justice as the Senior Vice President for Litigation of the AARP Foundation.

… Back in 1991, however, Bill had just graduated from Brown University, where he had focused on Public Policy and American Institutions and written an honors thesis on the establishment of paternity and enforcement of child support obligations. He was going to Sweden on a Fulbright grant to compare how deadbeat dads were handled there. Bill told the following story about this experience in introducing Richard T. Arndt—author, cultural diplomat and the founder of the Roth Endowment—on the occasion of Dick’s receiving the Fulbright Association’s  Lifetime Achievement Award in November 2016.

“Good evening.  I am honored to have a few minutes to congratulate tonight’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Dick Arndt. I started my Fulbright 25 years ago, in 1991, in Stockholm, Sweden.
(My wife is, coincidentally, currently in Stockholm on business—Dick, Tara sends her regrets that she cannot join us here tonight!)

My Fulbright experience—like my experience with Dick—was transformational.  I did not speak Swedish; I had never been to a country whose primary language was not one of my native languages, English or Spanish.  I went into that year thinking that my work would be heavily academic, an exercise in comparative public policy, looking at Swedish and other Scandinavian institutions, laws, and policies.
But my greatest lessons were far more valuable than that.  My Fulbright allowed me to understand and 

appreciate the importance of culture in making and shaping public policy.  And, twenty-five years later, this week’s elections reaffirm the importance of understanding culture, even within one’s own borders.

My Fulbright exposed me, literally and figuratively, to a new world, a new perspective.  It taught me to bemore comfortable inside my own skin, especially when surrounded by skins so different in so many ways.

Dick did that for me, too.  When I first met Dick in Washington DC, he took me to the Cosmos Club.  As you may know, it is a beautiful and impressive place.  For me, it was also intimidating.  Having grown up
in the South Bronx and then Brooklyn, with a single mom and a grandmother who did not speak English, I was not familiar with places like the Cosmos Club.  I did not know the rules.  I did not know the culture.  I did not know that jackets and ties were required to eat in the dining room.

Bill’s daughter Alannah with Dick Arndt’s book, The Fulbright Difference, in 2002.

Dick, ever gracious and with a warm smile, gently, tactfully—dare I say, diplomatically—put his arm around my shoulder, led me to the coat check room to borrow a jacket that fit, continuing with small talk, making sure not to call attention to my foible or highlight my discomfort.

Dick made me feel welcome.  He made me feel like I was not a Stranger in a Strange Land.  And isn’t that the point of the Fulbright program?  Of cultural diplomacy?  To promote understanding across geographic, cultural, and other differences?  To help make the unfamiliar—the people, places, and things that can confuse us and scare us—more familiar, less threatening, perhaps even inviting.

Dick did that for me and many others like me in many ways. But perhaps none more personally or more passionately than through his founding and leadership of the Lois Roth Endowment.  The Endowment honors the life and work of Dick’s late wife and fellow cultural diplomat, Lois Wersba Roth.  Lois was a Fulbright Awardee in Uppsala, Sweden, an experience that changed her life, as Fulbright tends to do. In her memory, the Roth Endowment promotes and encourages dialogue across national, linguistic, disciplinary and cultural boundaries, focusing on countries that were especially important to Lois in her
life and career.

I am proud to have served on the Roth Endowment Board—to which Dick recruited me—for over a decade.  Based on Dick’s vision, the Endowment promotes international educational and cultural exchange in a variety of ways: through Awards for Excellence in Cultural Diplomacy, which recognize individuals working in the service of US cultural diplomacy; Translation Awards, which foster respect for literary translations, which open foreign worlds to readers everywhere; Project Support grants—like the one I received—which enhance the ability of young people to accomplish projects in the humanities, arts and social sciences while overseas; and selected Sponsored Programs in these fields. 

My work with Dick and the Roth Endowment has inspired me throughout my career.  Dick gave me the ability to give back—to an organization that saw promise in a 21-year-old kid with some intellectual curiosity about what lessons U.S. policymakers might draw from how a small, homogeneous country treated children and families.  He also gave me the opportunity to pay it forward—to future generations of day-to-day cultural diplomats: the researchers, the artists, writers and musicians, the social scientists, and the curious kids who help make life richer and, ultimately, safer, no matter where we are or where we are from.  

As a Roth Endowment alumnus, I am proud to be one small part of Dick’s legacy. Congratulations, Dick!”

Dick Arndt overlooking the Durance Valley in France.