Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at an event honoring the anniversaries of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship, and Foreign Affairs IT Fellowship in Washington, Aug. 17. Photo by Freddie Everett
By Kenya James
Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined USAID Administrator Samantha Power, retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, and former U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel to celebrate the anniversaries of the Thomas R. Pickering (30th), Charles B. Rangel (20th), USAID Donald M. Payne (10th), and Foreign Affairs IT or “FAIT” (5th) Fellowships, Aug 17. These fellowships are the Department’s flagship programs to attract diverse, top talent into the Foreign Service, making it more inclusive and representative of our nation’s unparalleled diversity. Due to the success of these fellowships, the Department continues to develop new programs patterned after them. At the anniversary event, the Secretary announced two new programs: the William D. Clarke, Sr. Diplomatic Security Fellowship Program, and the Colin Powell Leadership Program.
The Pickering and Rangel Fellowships have increased the number of Foreign Service generalists from underrepresented groups by 33% and the number of women by 6%. These programs have ushered in high-achieving Americans from across the country—from the swamps of Louisiana and public housing in New York City to Appalachia hill country and everywhere in between. Most Fellows were first-generation college students and often the first in their families to establish professional careers. These alumni have contributed their skills and experiences to ensure that the Department fulfills the Biden Administration’s priority to genuinely enhance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the federal workforce.
In 1992, with the support of the late Ambassador Edward Perkins and many other Foreign Service legends, the Department established a fellowship that would later bear the name of Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, to foster a Foreign Service more representative of all Americans. Ten years later, the Rangel Fellowship brought in more talent ready to serve their country.
On May 17, 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized the importance of the fellowships when he said “the success of American diplomacy in the 21st century will depend on bringing the best young people we can find into the Department. Our country is blessed in so many ways, and our diversity is one of them.”
Thirty years later, the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships have created a career pipeline of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who range from those just embarking on their career to those now approaching retirement. One in nine active FSOs is an alumnus of the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships.
Embassy Brazzaville’s Deputy Chief of Mission Bisola Ojikutu, who received the Pickering Fellowship in 1999, notes that Pickering and Rangel Fellows are now ambassadors, consul generals, deputy chiefs of mission, and section chiefs. “Fellows exemplify a commitment to service, drafters of foreign policy, and represent an accurate portrayal of America,” says Bisola Ojikutu.
“In celebrating the fellowships reaching these pivotal milestone anniversaries, it remains vital they continue to foster a cadre of people dedicated to promoting diversity within U.S. foreign policy and adept at addressing the challenges the Department faces,” said Dr. Richard Hope, the former vice-president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former administrator of the Pickering Fellowship program.
Howard University now administers the Pickering and Rangel Fellowships via cooperative agreements with the Bureau of Global Talent Management. Pickering and Rangel Fellows receive financial assistance towards the completion of a relevant and competitive two-year master’s degree, engage in professional development and mentorship opportunities, and participate in domestic and overseas internships. Upon completion of their academic programs, Fellows must meet all Foreign Service entry requirements and comply with the contractually obligated service commitment.
Recalling the sense of family experienced during the fellowship and passionate about creating a community in the Department, a group of FSOs created an employee association called The Pickering and Rangel Fellow Association (PRFA) in 2010.
Ojikutu, who helped to create PRFA, describes the mission of the association as a “mechanism for Fellows to focus on key issues, offer advocacy, and engage on DEIA initiatives”.
Over the years, PRFA has successfully pressed the Department for numerous changes to retain and promote a diverse workforce—including the creation of a chief diversity and inclusion officer; institutionalizing DEIA within the annual employee reviews; collecting disaggregated data on who is and is not securing top leadership positions; and creating an exit survey.
Cameron Thomas-Shah received the Pickering Fellowship in 2009 and entered the Foreign Service in 2013. Cameron serves as Mission Vietnam’s spokesperson; he credits the fellowship and PRFA with creating a safe space that allowed him to hone his career vision. He says the fellowship and its network allowed him to “develop his niche, find mentors that help find the best opportunities and bolster his strengths. The fellowships help to build the confidence needed to navigate the Foreign Service career path.”
“Fellowship programs attract thousands of applicants from all parts of America and from diverse backgrounds,” said Patricia Scroggs, a former FSO and the current Director of Diplomatic Fellowships at Howard University. As of 2021, the number of Pickering and Rangel Fellows increased by 50%, growing from 30 to 45 Fellows per program. The fellowships continue to “provide access to rewarding careers of international service to individuals who may never have considered this type of career and who make significant contributions to the Foreign Service,” said Scroggs.
Christina Presmy, awarded the Rangel Fellowship in 2021, said she believes “the fellowship programs create a pathway for minorities and marginalized people in America to represent their country.” Though Presmy studied abroad and wanted to pursue a career in international affairs, it was not until she found out about the fellowship that she knew her dreams were in reach. As she completes her graduate studies, Presmy credits the fellowship with “offering support and professional guidance.”
As Blinken stated at the anniversary celebration,“If you go anywhere in the corridors of this Department, USAID, around town, the halls of Congress, and you hear the names Pickering, Rangel, Payne, and now FAIT, you know what people are talking about. This has resonated throughout this town … because of the extraordinary people that have been able to participate in them and that have enriched our institution, enriched our foreign policy, enriched our development work”.
Kenya James is a political officer at the diplomatic support unit at Embassy Bangkok. The Pickering and Rangel Fellow Association board—composed of Annika Betancourt, Hermes Grullon, Kenya James, Lauren O’Doherty, Sama Habib, Amanda Zeidan, Allecia Jones, and Jakob Lengacher—also contributed to this article.