Category: Graduate Profiles

Title: Sophia Meulenberg (MSFS’20) Fulfills Dream of Becoming a Diplomat

Author: Sophia Mauro
Date Published: May 7, 2020

To celebrate the Class of 2020’s COVID-delayed in-person Commencement celebration, student profiles have been updated to reflect their journeys since leaving the Hilltop two years ago.

Following graduation, Sophia Meulenberg (MSFS’20) joined the State Department as a foreign service officer in September 2020. She spent a year in DC working as the Bangladesh Desk Officer and learning Bengali, before moving overseas to serve in the Political Section at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka.

At the State Department, Meulenberg draws on her experience at MSFS everyday, whether meeting with government officials, visiting with human rights activists or navigating cultural differences. She has even had the chance to meet many former Georgetown alumni working at different embassies throughout Dhaka. “As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease in South Asia, I’m looking forward to exploring more of the region,” Meulenberg says.

Original Story

For Sophia Meulenberg (MSFS’20), a career in diplomacy was always the dream. “I’ve wanted to work for the State Department since I started high school—I cannot remember ever wanting to ‘be’ anything else growing up,” she says. In September, Meulenberg will make her dream a reality by joining a new cohort of U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officers after graduating from Georgetown’s Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program.

Meulenberg is a recipient of the Pickering Fellowship, a highly prestigious award that helps to fund two years of graduate study and offers two summer internships to talented students. Pickering Fellows are then placed at the State Department upon graduation.

As she prepares to fulfill a lifelong career ambition, Meulenberg is grateful for her time in the MSFS program, which she says has provided her with the foundational skills she will need to excel, friendships that will last a lifetime and mentors who supported her along the way.

At a Glance

Sophia Meulenberg
In Spring 2019, Meulenberg visited the Tidal Basin to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

Hometown: Sandpoint, ID
Program of Study: Master of Science in Foreign Service program
Study Abroad Experience: I came to Georgetown after having spent two years in Senegal with the Peace Corps, so I wanted to use my two years here to explore DC and experience life in the United States again!
Language: French
On-Campus Activities: Teaching Assistant for Secretary Madeleine Albright, assisting with her graduate class in fall 2019 and her undergraduate class in spring 2020. I worked on a three-person TA team with fellow MSFS graduate students Christian Allen and Alex Peter. I also served as a member of the Service Committee, a MSFS group that organizes service events for MSFS students to participate in throughout the year.
Non-GU Activities: U.S. Department of State Intern in Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, Office of Maghreb Affairs (Summer 2019)

Finding The Perfect Fit

For Meulenberg, the decision to come to Georgetown was an easy one. “The campus is beautiful, the D.C. location is ideal and the school’s reputation for international relations is unparalleled,” she explains.

World Bank visit
Meulenberg and MSFS peers presented a practicum for the World Bank on improving economic opportunities for refugees in Niger.

At MSFS, where she is pursuing a concentration in Global Politics and Security, Meulenberg has taken advantage of opportunities to take classes across Georgetown’s graduate schools, including courses in regional studies, security studies and diplomacy. She also appreciated the program’s core curriculum, as well as the requirement that students take a full course load for all four semesters. “I wanted to get as much time in the classroom as I could during my two years here!” Meulenberg explains.

The MSFS program, she says, has helped her to hone the skills she will need after graduation. She says courses provided her with “technical knowledge, better soft skills, and a fuller picture of the history and current practice of U.S. diplomacy.”

She adds, “More than that, I have had the chance to try my own hand at writing memos, designing policy recommendations and working for high-level principals.”

“All of this will hopefully make me a better, more thoughtful Foreign Service Officer,” she concludes.

A Focus on the Environment

Though Meulenberg’s overall ambition to serve as a U.S. diplomat has not changed since high school, her interests and areas of focus have developed throughout her time at SFS. 

Israel-Palestine trip
Over spring break 2019, Meulenberg and her classmates traveled to Israel and Palestine, where they learned more about the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through meetings with local officials and community organizations.

Meulenberg joined MSFS after two years serving as a health volunteer in the Peace Corps in Senegal, where she learned more about West Africa and gained an appreciation for development. But since coming to Georgetown, she has found a new passion: climate security and policy. 

“I think that climate change is going to be the most important issue my generation has to deal with and I imagine that it will soon pervade every post at the State Department,” she says. 

Her studies have not only focused on climate change’s implications for security policy, but also investigated how socioeconomic status and the effects of climate change intersect. “I’ve become increasingly interested in what environmental challenges mean for disadvantaged populations around the world and how we can move forward with global governance on this issue,” she says. 

One of Meulenberg’s favorite classes at MSFS was Environmental Security and Conflict, taught by Professor Marwa Daoudy. The class explored the future of security studies in the context of a changing environment, examining issues like resource wars and energy security, food security, climate change and migration. 

“I had so much fun exploring security theory in class and then applying it to cases all around the world, from Asia and Africa to the Middle East and even here in the United States,” she says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted the types of issues Meulenberg is keen to explore as a diplomat.  She believes that traditional security studies will need to increase its engagement with issues like climate change, disease and public health going forward. 

“I think it will be impossible to deny the reality of globalization and our interconnectedness as a world. It is hard to predict how this pandemic will shape future study, but I can only imagine that it will be difficult to continue to silo off one issue area from others,” she says. 

An MSFS Community

Meulenberg joined fellow TAs Christian Allen and Alex Peter at a gala at the National Democratic Institute.

The students and faculty at MSFS made it a one-of-a-kind experience for Meulenberg. One highlight of her graduate school experience was TAing for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Meulenberg assisted Albright with her graduate and undergraduate classes, and she says that the SFS professor has greatly impacted her graduate school experience, “I feel like I’ve learned so much just listening to all the amazing stories she tells of her time as USUN Ambassador and Secretary of State.” 

Meulenberg adds that her MSFS concentration chair Professor Nicole Bibbins Sedaca has also been one of her most supportive mentors. “She has always been incredibly helpful and she takes a genuine interest in all her advisees,” Meulenberg says. 

Above all, Meulenberg says that after graduation she will miss her MSFS peers the most. Not only are they a source of professional inspiration for her, but also of friendship and fun. “I am routinely challenged by my peers to think more deeply about complicated issues and to hone my own skills in discussion and debate,” Meulenberg explains. 

volleyball team
While not in class, you might find Meulenberg and her friends on the volleyball court in Southwest Quad.

She emphasizes that, while MSFS might have a reputation for preparing graduates for the U.S. Foreign Service, her cohort is extremely varied in their career backgrounds and aspirations.

“I think most people assume that everyone in MSFS wants to work as a diplomat at the State Department,” she says. “But we are so much more diverse than that as a cohort. I have friends working for think tanks, for corporations, for other U.S. government agencies, for NGOs, for financial institutions, the list goes on.”

“It’s refreshing to study amongst people who are interested in the same general issues as oneself, but who want to tackle the challenges of the world from so many different angles,” she adds. 

She goes ons, “We also just have a ton of fun together—playing sand volleyball, board games, hosting BBQs in the backyard and house parties.”

Graduating In an Unprecedented Moment

Though Meulenberg can not physically be with her friends right now, she says they continue to stay connected via Zoom with virtual birthday parties and happy hours.

The SFS Class of 2020 will be the first to celebrate a virtual graduation, as formal in person commencement exercises are postponed in light of COVID-19.

As she looks to her future, Meulenberg is reflecting on how the public health crisis might impact her work as a Foreign Service Officer. “I’ll be very interested to see how long it takes for embassies across the globe to get back to full staffing, if they ever do,” she says.

“We may find that more and more things can be done from a distance,” she adds. “There will always remain a crucial part of diplomacy that has to take place face-to-face, but I am certain that the long-term ramifications of coronavirus have yet to be fully imagined. I’m both excited and daunted to begin working in this type of situation!”

Although the pandemic  has separated Meulenberg and her loved ones physically as they celebrate graduation, she says the virtual connections she has been able to maintain with friends and family are encouraging.

“Even when some days are really bad or uncertainty about the future starts to cause me anxiety, I’m hopeful because I see how my Georgetown, D.C. and hometown community has come together to weather the crisis.”