Category: DEI, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Featured News, News, Students

Title: SFS Students and Alumni Achieve Foreign Service Dreams Through Pickering and Payne Fellowships

Author: Paul James
Date Published: March 2, 2022

“My upbringing inspired me to see a world that is made smaller through diplomacy and cultural exchange,” recalls Brenda Coromina (SFS’22) of her experience growing up as a first generation American in Miami, Florida.

“In many ways, the prologue of my story was the epilogue of my mother’s life in Cuba. Our new beginning in Miami was a story of possibility; I was fortunate to inherit two cultures,” she says. “This is why I want to become a public diplomacy foreign service officer and bring the United States closer to other countries.”

As a recipient of the prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Coromina is about to achieve this dream. She is one of seven SFS students and recent alumni to receive the fellowship, a Georgetown record.

The fellowship helps fund two years of graduate study, offers awardees two summer internships, as well as other professional development and mentoring opportunities, and serves as a pathway for entry into the U.S. Foreign Service. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offers an equivalent program — the Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship — for talented candidates looking to join its foreign service corps. This year, SFS alumnus Grant Castle (SFS’21) will join the Payne program’s cohort.

Alongside the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, the Pickering and Payne fellowships aim to diversify and strengthen the U.S. Foreign Service by supporting women, those with financial need and members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the institution to join its ranks.

SFS congratulates Pickering Fellows Brenda Coromina (SFS’22), Desmond Ferrell (SFS’18, MAGES’21), Ibilola Owoyele (SFS’17), Arthur Rodriguez (SFS’20), Laura Romero (SFS’18), Julio Salmeron-Perla (SFS’22) and Diana Sosa (SFS’19) and Payne Fellow Grant Castle (SFS’21).

Collage of photos of this year's Pickering fellows and Payne Fellow
This year’s cohort of SFS U.S. Foreign Service Fellows includes seven Pickering Fellows, the most Georgetown has ever produced!

Building Cross-Cultural Experience

Coromina’s first exposure to diplomacy and the process of engaging thoughtfully with others across borders came early in her life as she navigated her reality as an American-born daughter of immigrant parents.

Brenda Coromina standing with arms crossed
Brenda Coromina’s (SFS’22) upbringing inspired her to pursue a career in diplomacy.

“Since I was a child, I have been advocating for my family in spaces that remain foreign to them,” she explains. “It became evident to me that interpersonal skills and a diplomatic disposition were instrumental when taking up space in an unfamiliar setting.”

While at SFS, Coromina used cross-cultural communication skills to pursue international affairs opportunities through extracurricular activities and internships, including a remote position working with the American Center and the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia.

It was in this position that she “saw diplomacy in action the most.” Coromina describes working with one of the embassy’s public diplomacy officers. “I observed how she navigated delicate conversations with Tunisians surrounding United States’ politics during an election year,” she remembers. “The experience was invaluable.”

From High School to Graduate School

Virtual U.S. diplomacy experiences also informed other SFS Pickering Fellows’ decisions to pursue graduate study. Julio Salmeron-Perla (SFS’22) spent time as a human rights media analyst with the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador and as an information management intern at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Julio Salmeron-Perla stands with his hands in his pockets
Julio Salmeron-Perla (SFS’22) also shares the importance of foreign policy with students on campus as the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Campus Coordinator at Georgetown.

“Having had the opportunity to contribute to my country’s global security objectives and get a glimpse of both working at a post and in Washington reaffirmed my genuine commitment to serve my country around the world as a political officer,” he says.

Winning the Pickering Fellowship is just the latest step on a journey that Salmeron-Perla began when he was a student at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Washington, DC. An internship working at SFS as an administrative assistant inspired him to apply to the undergraduate program, where he has thrown himself into every opportunity he has encountered on the Hilltop.

During his four years at Georgetown, the senior has served as a legislative intern in the United States Senate, as a foreign policy intern at the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a research assistant at SFS’s Center for Security Studies. Salmeron-Perla is also volunteering as the State Department’s foreign affairs campus coordinator for Georgetown, a role he hopes to leverage to encourage underrepresented students, including first-generation Latin American students like himself, to develop an interest in U.S. foreign policy.

Salmeron-Perla is inspired by advice he received from his late grandfather: “Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda,” or “God helps those who wake up early.” He says, “Since migrating to the U.S. from El Salvador, I’ve religiously followed my grandfather’s advice, seizing on challenging and rewarding opportunities that will prepare me to become a public servant.”

Serving Global Communities

Like Salmeron-Perla, Pickering Fellow Ibilola Owoyele (SFS’17) is inspired by family members. A Nigerian-American, Owoyele says her parents’ experiences as immigrants motivated her to enter public service. “My earliest memories include helping my parents study for their citizenship exams,” she recalls. “Watching them beam during their naturalization ceremony revealed to me the significance of American ideals to people across the world.”

Ibilola Owoyele profile shot
For Ibilola Owoyele (SFS’17), seeing the world through the lens of her family’s experiences has shaped her view of foreign service.

While at SFS, she had the chance to intern at the U.S. Embassy in Togo and, upon returning to Washington, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These posts enabled her to gain experience in everything from writing diplomatic cables to developing workshops to prevent people trafficking. After graduating, she returned to West Africa, serving as a Princeton-in-Africa fellow at the African School of Economics in Benin and more recently she has been working as a program manager for USAID-funded projects in Haiti.

These experiences underscored for Owoyele the importance of values-led international engagement, and the alumna is excited about advancing her career in global service. “I look forward to this opportunity to serve my national and global communities, and to learn more extensively about a world that exists far beyond myself,” she says.

“Diplomacy Is a Universal Language”

For Castle, winning the Payne Fellowship is an unlikely turn of events. He always thought he would live a “quiet life” in the “sleepy” 5,000-person village of Fairport, New York, where he grew up. All that changed on a high school exchange trip to Germany, where he met refugees from Syria looking for their missing family members.

“I had never encountered anything like this in Fairport, but was suddenly awoken to real suffering and challenges around the world which I couldn’t ignore,” he says. “It motivated me to leave my quiet village and study at Georgetown.”

Since then, Castle has taken advantage of Georgetown opportunities to broaden his international horizons, including serving as CEO of the Georgetown International Relations Association, through which he organized Model UN conferences for more than 5,000 students. He has also completed internships with the State Department’s Office of Western Europe and the International Trade Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Grant Castle profile
Grant Castle (SFS’21) is also a 2020 Paul F. Pelosi Scholar.

He says, “Whether in Kyrgyzstan, China, Brazil or DC, I witnessed that it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. Diplomacy was a universal language that could bridge divides and forge innovative solutions to even the thorniest problems.”

For more information about the Pickering, Rangel and Payne fellowships, and other fellowship opportunities, please visit the Center for Research and Fellowships.