Below is my story of how I landed in the International Affairs Career Field. My story will not look like yours and that is okay. Each path is different. If you want practical tips to pursue a career in international affairs, please check out How to Work in the International Career Field.
First off, I want to say thank you to God. I know it sounds like a cliche you hear at award shows, but He literally directed my path. He opened doors for me. Some opportunities like working in China literally dropped right in my lap (it’s a crazy story. I didn’t apply to work at the international education startup in Chengdu. I prayed one night for a job somewhere overseas. The next morning I got a text from my friend asking if I wanted to work in China).
I am the first in my immediate family with a passport. I’m the first to graduate from college and get a master’s degree. In my community, people don’t just get up and travel overseas. When I took vacations, I went to my mom’s hometown in Pennsylvania to visit family. I always dreamed of going to places like France, but my family couldn’t afford it.
When I went to college I had no idea what my career would be. I entered college as a biology major. However, I knew that wasn’t my calling because I got a C in Bio 101 and dropped O-Chem (organic chemistry) before the drop-add period was over. To set the record straight, I was a great student. I graduated from college with honors.
I was unsure about what I wanted to study. I toyed with pursuing almost every major. I ended up declaring sociology as my major. I declared it because I was interested in people. Specifically, how people interacted through a societal lens. Studying how societies interacted and developed was fascinating. Studying sociology just felt right. However, at the time, I thought I was going to focus solely on U.S. society. I didn’t have intentions about learning about international affairs. I think this was due to the lack of exposure to life outside the United States.
My first internship was during the summer after my sophomore year. I knew I needed experience. At the time, I was looking at internships related to culture because I was taking sociology classes. I also looked at internships related to social work because I was considering social work as a major. I also was interested in communications since I was interested in the classes the communication department offered. I was still exploring.
I wound up interning at the World Trade Center in Baltimore, Maryland. I was an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) intern. I built cultural programming for foreign delegations visiting my hometown. Sometimes, I escorted delegations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia, and Mexico around town. It was a really cool opportunity.
When I took this internship I still was not thinking about an international career. I thought I was going to be a social worker or an academic researcher. I applied for it because it dealt with people and there was a cultural component to it. This was my first exposure to international exchanges. The work I was doing as a college student helped me understand the world I’m in today. I learned about public diplomacy (PD) even before I knew what it was.
During spring 2012, I spent my spring semester of junior year in India. I studied at Madras Christian College in the social work master’s program. I also interned at a women’s rights organization while I was in India.
My experience in India was the game-changer. I’m such a huge advocate for study abroad because my experience blew my mind. Y’all, India was everything. It was nothing that I experienced before in terms of culture, food, people, language, temperature, and music. It was the complete opposite of the United States. And. I. Was. Hooked.
For the first time in my life, I became aware of the rest of the world. There was a whole world outside of the East Coast of the United States. I wanted to learn more. I did not want to leave India because I had such a wonderful time. My memories from India are forever etched in my heart.
When I left India, I knew I wanted more. At this point, I was about to be a senior in college. I think that summer was the first time I started looking up international affairs careers.
I began looking at grad schools. Instead of looking for master’s degree programs for sociology or social work, I was looking up programs for international communications.
When I found my mater’s program, I noticed that one of their requirements was that I needed to know another language. Since I took Spanish in middle school and one year in high school, I began to re-teach myself Spanish.
And y’all, when I tell you I taught myself…I went hard. I became obsessed with learning Spanish. I was in love with the language. I spent hours each day, including at my part-time job at the movie theatre learning Spanish. I used and practiced it every chance I got. I practiced so much that when I returned to school for the fall semester of my senior year, I was placed in Spanish III.
I still had no idea what kind of career I wanted to have. All I knew was I wanted to get back overseas. Check out this video I made during the first semester of my senior year:
I applied to an English teaching program in Madrid, Spain. I got in. I was over the moon because I was about to live in another country and gain fluency in Spanish. I also graduated from college during this time.
I worked in Spain for a year at a bilingual elementary school. While I was working in Spain, I got a chance to travel to the Sahara Desert, Morocco (twice), Italy, Portugal, and other parts of Spain.
I worked crazy hours at a start-up company for international education in Chengdu, China. Basically I did translations, a lot of writing, and helped design a website. We helped students in China study in other countries like South Korea, Argentina, and Egypt.
China was not on my radar at all. However, as I said earlier, God opened up the door for me to go to China.
Despite working a lot of hours, I enjoyed my experience in China. It is a fascinating country. I absolutely loved the food. It was during that time I began learning Mandarin. Even though I stayed in China for a short period, I would definitely go back if the opportunity presented itself. I feel like I’m not done with China…there’s more I need to explore.
I worked at Goucher College’s Office of International Studies. This was my favorite job to date! My team was amazing. I loved it because I got to help hundreds of students study abroad. These students reminded me of myself because, for many of them, they thought studying overseas was unattainable. I got to witness the impact that studying abroad had on these students.
I knew I wanted to go to grad school, so I applied for an administrative position at American University (AU). I was hired. Even though the job had nothing to do with international affairs, I knew that if I worked at AU I could go to grad school for free through the tuition remission program. However, God had other plans.
I had known about the Foreign service fellowships for a few years by this point. However, I never applied because I didn’t think I was ready nor did I feel qualified for them. But I knew I wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer and go to graduate school. I bit the bullet and began applying for the Charles B. Rangel Graduate International Affairs Fellowship. The application and interview process was super stressful and rigorous. I put tons of energy into it and got it!
India changed my life the first time. Becoming a Rangel Fellow changed my life again. To read my experience of what it’s like to be a fellow, be sure to read: My experience as a Rangel Fellow.
I have been in the international affairs career field for eight years. When I was just starting out at the World Trade Center Institute, I had no idea I would wind up in this career field.
I didn’t talk about every volunteer experience, internship, or job I had because we would be here all day. But above are my highlights and milestones.
I applied for opportunities that sounded interesting and kept an open mind. What I thought would work, didn’t. And what I didn’t anticipate exceeded my wildest dreams.
When I was in college and even after I graduated from school I was always stressed. I would always wonder if it would be okay… if I would wind up with a career that I would be happy in.
I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back, my experiences fit together. If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to relax…everything is going to work out. You just have to be patient and take it one day at a time.
My Experience As A Rangel Fellow
Information About The Foreign Service
How To Apply For An International Affairs Fellowship
How To Work In The International Affairs Career Field
Why Teaching English Could Be The Beginning To A Career In International Affairs
Thank you for sharing your story !! Great read ! So happy for you and you are wrong in your calling now! I hope the best for you and pray you are continuously blessed !
Thank you so much for reading and commenting!
Wow Chelsea so proud of you. You really are a go getter! Congrats on your career and good years to come!