Cortez honored with Powell Commencement Award for Leadership

For as long as he can remember, Daniel Cortez has been interested in public service. This weekend, he was honored with the 2015 Gen. Colin Powell Commencement Award for Leadership.

Each year, Rice University honors a graduating senior who exemplifies the values and ideals of the commencement speaker. This year’s speaker was retired Gen. Colin Powell, former secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Daniel Cortez was honored with the 2015 Gen. Colin Powell Commencement Award for Leadership.

Daniel Cortez was honored with the 2015 Gen. Colin Powell Commencement Award for Leadership. He met with President David Leebron (left) and retired Gen. Colin Powell. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

Cortez, who received a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies and policy studies, was selected for the award because of his passion for supporting minority engagement in public service.

Cortez admitted that the award was a bit of a surprise, albeit a welcome one.

“To be honest, I never imagined myself as capable of receiving a universitywide award,” he said. “For me, the award is a validation that I belong here and that I have a space among the university’s many distinguished students and alumni. The commencement speaker award is not so much a celebration of my achievements as a Rice student, but a challenge to continue to seek out opportunities to make a positive impact in the community.”

Cortez received several recommendations for the award. In one of the support letters, a nominator touted his compassion and leadership.

“In the classroom and in the community, Daniel Cortez has developed the knowledge and skills to address critical issues facing Latino communities in the U.S. and abroad,” his nominator wrote. “Moreover, his kindness and humility enable him to bring together diverse stakeholders with ease.”

Cortez called Powell “one of the most distinguished leaders of our time” and “a role model who has deeply influenced young people interested in public service.”

“As a young Latino, I am especially interested in knowing more about diversity in government,” Cortez said. “Just this past year, I worked on a research paper for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress which explored the role of minorities in the presidential cabinet. The paper looked at African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and women in the cabinet and charted their growing influence. Therefore, it is a great privilege for me to meet the nation’s first African-American secretary of state. He has played an important role in paving the way for the inclusion of further minority members at the highest levels of power. I hope to continue his legacy of increasing the presence of minorities in public life.”

During his time at Rice, Cortez had the opportunity to intern with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and work as an undergraduate research fellow at Baker Institute’s Mexico Center and the Religion and Public Life Program.

“Each of these opportunities has given me a greater appreciation for the policy process and the role of civic institutions,” he said.

Over the past year, with the support of Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership, Cortez also helped with the development and implementation of the Emerging Latino Leaders Fellowship Program, designed to give Houston-area Latino youths an opportunity to interact with public officials and learn about the value of civic engagement.

“This is one of many ways I hope to help promote diversity at all levels of public life,” he said.

Following graduation, Cortez will remain in Houston to work as a human-capital analyst at Deloitte. After a few years in the workforce, he plans to pursue an advanced degree and work “at the intersection between government, business and public life.”

“Over the past four years at Rice, I have grown to love Houston and I want to be a part of the city’s future,” he said. “Houston is young and evolving rapidly. It faces many challenges and opportunities, but I am confident that it will succeed as a global city. I hope to be a part of this change.”

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.