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Eyeing a career in the foreign service, forged at home and in class

Stephanie Beja. Courtesy photo

Since high school, Stephanie Beja has known that she was interested in studying cultures around the world—and visiting as many as she could. During her undergraduate career at Northeastern, Beja took advantage of opportunities to study abroad, including a stint in Cambodia where she worked on co-op as a teacher. Now, as the latest recipient of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship, she’s forging a path toward international diplomacy. 

The fellowship is administered by Howard University on behalf of the U.S. State Department and is designed to prepare young people—particularly people from social, racial, and economic groups that are underrepresented in diplomatic political fields—for careers in the foreign service. The program covers tuition, room, board, books, and other fees to complete a master’s degree. From there, recipients go on to two summer internships, one working domestically at the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the other at a U.S. Embassy overseas.

Jonna Iacono, director of Northeastern’s scholars program, describes the fellowship as an “entrée into the foreign service.” She says the internships are especially important in helping the fellows support each other as they learn and grow. 

 

The State Department is trying to develop a “foreign service that represents the diversity and vibrance of the United States,” Iacono says. 

The Pickering Fellowship helps introduce scholars from different regions of the country and different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to the foreign service, Iacono says. “We need a government that looks, speaks, and acts like who we are and who we aspire to be.”

Beja, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon, began her foreign studies in high school with a class on Eastern civilization. As a student at Northeastern, she accepted an opportunity to work overseas, teaching in Cambodia in 2017 for a co-op with the Harpswell Foundation. 

“I knew I wanted to do at least one international co-op,” she says. “I had never been to Cambodia and I wanted to experience a new culture on my own to see what it was like. It really made me want to pursue diplomacy and experience different parts of the world more.”

Eventually, she earned a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award in 2019 in Belgium, which allowed her to observe diplomacy and international relations firsthand in Brussels, home of the European Union. Beja also graduated that year, with a degree in international affairs.

At home in Minnesota, Beja speaks two languages. Her mother’s side of the family grew up speaking English in bilingual Cameroon, while her father and his family speak French. Beja switches seamlessly between the two when talking to her parents. “Belgium intrigued me because it is a trilingual country,” she says, where residents speak Dutch, French, and German. 

“I was really interested to learn what the Belgian national identity is and how these distinct linguistic groups interact with each other.”  

Iacono describes Beja as a “kind and generous” person who has succeeded in integrating her studies with her life experiences to carve out a career path. 

Through the fellowship, Beja has applied to Tufts University and the Harvard Kennedy School, along with schools in Washington, D.C., and hopes to make a decision by April. What she appreciates the most is the guidance the fellowship offers to those looking to get into foreign service.

“Just having that support and mentorship is invaluable,” Beja says. “I could have done this myself, but it would have been a bit more of an arduous path to take. It’s nice to know that I’m in a cohort of people who are going through that same experience and to have mentors that I can talk to.”

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