From busy students on campus to working professionals at the Department of State, we are delighted to profile several HBCU alums on their decision to study at a Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) and how that decision led to a career in foreign policy. Inspired by professors, study abroad programs, and their innovative and relevant programs of study, the following officials discovered a foundational, positive and lifelong appreciation for their respective HBCU; empowering them to achieve excellence as a student and beyond.
During my time at Spelman College, I had the opportunity to participate in our annual “Spelman on the Hill” program during my First Year. The program provides students the opportunity to lobby Congress and then build their Washington Spelman alumnae network. Many students conclude the program with summer internships and post-graduate fellowships. (Tip: Pursue an internship, fellowship, or study abroad experience every summer to expand your network and build transferable skills.) During one of the networking events, I had the privilege to meet the legendary, Amb. Ruth Davis. As she shared exciting stories from her time in the Department, it was her response to “Why Did You Choose the State Department?” that convinced me, I may have found my calling. “If you are committed to a life of public service, if you’d like to travel on someone else’s dime, and if you get bored easily and prefer to be challenged daily in your career, then the U.S. Foreign Service is for you.” I looked at her in awe, previously unaware of the role and impact of a U.S. Diplomat. I returned to Spelman, immediately declared my major as International Studies with a Spanish minor, and I jumped at every opportunity to go abroad. (Tip: Study abroad in a location where you can reach a level of proficiency in your second/third language. It improves your marketability when job hunting!) By graduation, I traveled globally five times, many of the experiences financially subsidized with scholarships and/or fellowships. (Tip: Studying abroad during college can be FREE! Pursue opportunities to subsidize your experience!) Spelman’s deep and long-term investment in the global movement and exploration of our students led me and many other Spelman students to the Charles Rangel Fellowship and joining the Department – further actualizing our “choice to change the world”. Today, I’m most proud of Mission Brazil’s work advocating for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in our local dialogues with political and civil society leaders. My mere presence as a Black woman diplomat is the first step to changing how and with whom our nation engages globally. Our presence matters.
The Diplomat-in-Residence program at Florida A&M University (FAMU) is the reason that I am in the Foreign Service. Freshman year, I saw the now-retired FSO Roberto Powers reading a book in Arabic in his office. I loved learning languages but knew little about the Middle East. By the end of sophomore year, I was enrolled in my first language class. Two years later, I was the first student from FAMU to receive a minor in Arabic. Currently, I work in Amman, Jordan, where I use the language skills cultivated in my college years to facilitate travel to the United States as a Consular Officer.
I chose FAMU, because I wanted the opportunity to interact with Black professionals and professors, an experience entirely distinct from my K-12 years. As a student, I helped to recruit fellow International Baccalaureate program graduates through the university’s Presidential Ambassadors program and later as Miss FAMU. I am a firm believer that high school and college students should seek opportunities to study abroad and learn a foreign language, especially through the fellowship programs provided by the U.S. government. You must have the courage to leave your comfort zone. You may be pleasantly surprised by how warmly you will be received abroad.
I chose Dillard University when a recruiter flew from New Orleans to my hometown in Memphis and gave students at my high school an in-person overview of the benefits of the school. Out of all the schools I was considering, Dillard was the only one that sent someone to us and asked us to apply to their school. I started at Dillard fall 2002, majoring in Japanese studies and economics. Thanks to my decision to choose Dillard, I learned about State Department overseas internships and the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship and eventually became one. Knowledge of these programs enabled me to do an overseas internship at the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, and study abroad in Tokyo, Japan. These opportunities were life-changing moments for me and prepared me for an eventual career with the State Department.
Since I joined the Foreign Service in 2008, I have served in Bangladesh, The Netherlands, Afghanistan, and Japan. I am currently the Pol/Econ chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, India. My advice for Dillard and HBCU students nation-wide is to dream big, study abroad, and consider a career with the State Department.
Andrei M. Cotton
I was born on the campus of Tuskegee University and am a third-generation alum; the fourth generation is there now. My family’s yearly pilgrimage to homecoming reinforced my appreciation of scholarship and the awesome creative power of black culture. Although I received an undergraduate degree from a large state university, I earned a master’s degree and was truly educated at Tuskegee. As an undergrad, I often felt like I was fighting against the current of a strong river just trying to keep my footing. However, at Tuskegee University, I was propelled forward by a supportive student body, professors who were truly invested in my success, and the university’s rich legacy of excellence. My HBCU experience prepared me for a career in diplomacy by nurturing a rigorous work ethic, an expansive world view, and the confidence to sit at any table to engage at the highest levels. My advice to students at HBCUs is that they immerse themselves in the culture, cultivate a healthy and supportive network, and challenge themselves to be amazing.
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