From El Salvador to the White House, via Mason

by Buzz McClain

Wilberg Rivera,master of public policy student at Schar School of Policy and Government, is briskly moving through Washington’s federal establishment. Photo by Ron Aira.The note appeared on Wilberg Rivera’s phone while he was eating at Ike’s on the Fairfax Campus. It was the White House, informing the George Mason University freshman that he’d been accepted into a paid internship position and that he needed to schedule a background check.

“It happened so fast,” Rivera said of the whirlwind that swept him into President Barack Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in April 2009. “I never thought that it would be possible for me, the child of immigrants, to have that opportunity right out of the gate as a freshman in college—or even ever.”

Rivera started at George Mason in 2008, declared as an international relations and security studies major with a minor in intelligence analysis. While a year in the White House was thrilling—access to the West Wing, tours and lunches for family and friends, meeting Vice President Joe Biden and OMB director Peter Orszag—Rivera always considered it a foot in the door to a future in government service.

In fact, Rivera is moving briskly through some of official Washington’s highest-level agencies. Since the White House, he has worked paid positions at the Department of Homeland Security’s strategic planning, analysis and reporting division, as well as at the State Department, helping to manage the complex and sensitive vetting process of 2,300 Foreign Service Officers.

Mason, he said, has provided invaluable support for his impressive journey. But his experience is informed and inspired by the difficult and sometimes perilous journey his parents took as immigrants from El Salvador to citizenship in the United States.

His undocumented parents lived on Long Island at the time of Wilberg’s birth, not knowing English and without many friends. Life was so difficult for the young family that Wilberg was sent as an infant to El Salvador to live with his grandmother, returning to the United States to start first grade at his new home.

“It was all up to me from the beginning to figure out [my future],” he said. A serious student who graduated from the rigorous international baccalaureate program at Gar-Field High School—“advanced placement on steroids,” he said—he arrived at Mason with 12 college credits. While his parents did not go to college—Rivera is first-generation college—their determination to succeed in the United States was key to his own success.

“My mother is a U.S. citizen, my father has permanent resident status and is working on becoming a citizen,” he said. “They own a home and have good jobs despite the economic downturn [in the mid-2000s]. Their success story helped inspire me to follow my own passions and dreams.”

Mason is where Rivera always imagined going to college while he was growing up in Woodbridge, Va.

“I met a lot of people with similar backgrounds to mine going through the same first-generation struggles,” he said.

One of his professors, Justin Gest, who teaches immigration policy at Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, remembers Rivera’s reaction to a discussion about the concept of immigrant “anchor babies,” a derogatory term used to describe those born in the United States to undocumented parents.

“He raised his hand and said, ‘Hey, I think I’m an anchor baby,’” Gest recalled.

Gest has come to know Rivera as a solid student with achievable ambitions.

“Wilberg embodies the American spirit and the promise of an open society,” said Gest. “He has unlimited potential. He’s also a great ambassador for our university as he symbolizes Mason’s entrepreneurialism and its resilience.”

Now Rivera is in his final year in the Master of Public Policy program, concentrating on terrorism and transnational crime and corruption. His ultimate ambition is be a Foreign Service Officer—he’s already passed the test—so he can serve his country in strategic outposts around the world.