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

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.”

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