International scholar, universal inspiration

Fernando Cutz represents the United States as a diplomatic intern in the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. His residence in Caiscais — a five-bedroom, three-bath apartment with a swimming pool, tennis courts and a balcony view of the beach — is a 40-minute drive from his office, where he routinely reports each morning in coat and tie.

Passionate about politics, public speaking and exploring new cultures, Cutz will tell you he’s a better person when he is busy and challenged: “Competition leads to progress,” he says.

What is most striking about this impressive profile is Cutz himself, a WUSTL junior. And his age: 20. Landing a coveted internship in what’s known as Europe’s sunniest capital suits Cutz to a T. Of his posh living arrangements, he said, “I love Wash U. dorms, but this is even better!”

A political science and international studies major with a psychology minor, Cutz is seizing every opportunity to expand his horizons. And he’s doing it coming off the biggest challenge of his life: cancer.

How he faced down a deadly disease then went on to a prestigious international internship is an inspiration to the entire University community.

Despite fighting the disease for the past year, his responsibilities — work in the embassy’s consular services and public relations office — have been nothing less than exhilarating. And he’s getting an inside view of what it takes to run an embassy.

“I’m learning diplomacy, American interests abroad and a lot about the Portuguese and, more broadly, the European cultures,” he said.

Cutz has an undeniable edge in this process.

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Cutz moved with his family to Florida when he was 6. Hyperinflation in his native country had spiraled to 400 percent, prompting his parents, both engineers, to pack up their two sons and seek life in a more stable economy. They settled in Coral Springs, Fla., where Cutz made a name for himself.

An outstanding student and prize-winning debater, Cutz thrived in competitive environments.

In 2006, as a high-school senior, he was recognized with a Silver Knight Award, one of the top student achievement awards given in the United States. It is presented annually to students in South Florida who not only maintain high grades but also contribute their talents to better their schools and communities.

Cutz’s community service included expanding and coaching debate programs at the middle school he attended, Sawgrass Springs, as well as two other schools nearby. That these programs continue to thrive has been a point of pride for Cutz. And their success has motivated him to accomplish even more.

“I do something I enjoy, I see it benefiting others and I get inspired to do more,” he said. “I try to think positively about everything that happens, even things most people would be very bitter and upset about. It’s just the way I’ve always been.”

This optimism was seriously tested in November 2006 when Cutz was diagnosed with cancer. Two surgeries to remove a malignant mass in his abdomen and two rounds of chemotherapy temporarily disrupted his studies. He took a medical leave from his WUSTL studies in spring 2007 and missed four weeks of classes last fall. He took time off again this past spring to complete treatment.

Thankfully, it’s all behind him now. A follow-up visit with his oncologist in early May sent Cutz packing his bags for Lisbon. Doctors gave him the all-clear sign: cancer-free and cured.

“Fortunately, my professors were great during my absences, and all have worked with me to make sure that I had enough time and information to finish my courses,” said Cutz, an avid runner.

“But what I missed most were my extracurriculars. I tried to stay on campus as much as I could to avoid missing out on everything I love to do,” he said.

Those activities have included working with the Student Diversity Initiative, now called Con-nect 4, which Cutz founded in 2007 to raise student awareness of issues regarding social justice, and his performance on WUSTL’s mock trial team.

“My time at the University — my dream school — has been amazing,” said Cutz, an Ervin Scholar. “The friends I’ve made, the knowledge I’ve gained and the skills I’ve learned are priceless. I am incredibly glad to be at Washington U. and proud to tell everyone where I go.”

The feeling has been mutual, said James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. McLeod helped establish the Ervin Scholars Program more than 20 years ago to attract talented students like Cutz.

“Fernando is a terrific human being — smart and caring,” McLeod said. “Since he has been here, he has given of himself in so many ways. He doesn’t just participate, he pitches in and helps to carry the weight of anything he’s involved in. And,” McLeod said, “he’s unflappable.”

Whatever Cutz decides to engage in next, it most assuredly will inspire and benefit others. He learned just last week he secured an internship with the Commission for Presidential Debates and soon will help prepare for the vice presidential debate, which WUSTL will host Oct. 2 on campus.

But for now, he is relishing a place — Lisbon — known as the city of explorers.

How apropos. Cutz, whose first name, Fernando, means “adventurer,” has boldly discovered and embraced far more of life than his age might suggest.

Given who he is, where he has been and what he has done, he is surely on a path to success.