Students win State Department Pickering Fellowships

Two undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences and a recent graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have been named Pickering Fellows by the U.S. Department of State. These are Cornell’s first Pickering Fellows since 2011.

The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, managed by Howard University, supports students who are interested in working in the U.S. Foreign Service. The program provides funding for a two-year graduate education, provides two summer internships, offers mentoring from a Foreign Service officer and provides other professional development activities. After completion of their master’s degrees, fellows are placed in Washington, D.C. or at a U.S. embassy, consulate or diplomatic mission around the globe and agree to serve at least five years in the Foreign Service.

That five-year commitment isn’t an issue for Isabella Paternostro ’21 and Renelle Mensah ’21, who dream of long careers in the Foreign Service.

“I’m interested in youth and female empowerment, along with efforts for democratic reform, and there are many ways that the State Department helps with the transfer of knowledge,” Mensah said. “We can help activists build coalitions and help them communicate with their local governments. As a citizen of the world’s longest-running democracy, I want to help in transferring that knowledge to other countries.”

woman inside building
Renelle Mensah '21

Paternostro grew up in D.C. with parents who both work for the federal government and said she’s always been fascinated with the world and other cultures – her favorite toy was an interactive globe and the theme of her 9th birthday party wasn’t Legos or princesses but … geography.

“Helping people will be first and foremost in what I do,” she said of her interest in the State Department. “I would like to be a political officer because I’m interested in intergovernmental relations, especially with authoritarian states. A career in the foreign service is so exciting. I feel like I’d never be bored.”

Both students have extensive experience with languages and global studies. Paternostro is a China and Asia Pacific studies major and Mensah is majoring in government with minors in Arabic, French and Near Eastern studies.

“My family immigrated to the U.S. from West Africa, so I have always been surrounded by different cultures,” Mensah said. Having already studied Spanish and French in high school, she came to Cornell seeking a new language and discovered Arabic.

woman near NYC bridge
Isabella Paternostro ’21

Paternostro stated studying Chinese when she was 11, in part because her best friend was half Chinese. A high school Chinese teacher commended her on her cogent arguments and poise and suggested she would make a great diplomat.

Both Mensah and Paternostro took advantage of summer internships and experiences to help them explore their career options as undergraduates. Paternostro was awarded the Samuel R. Berger National Leadership Summer Experience grant from the College of Arts & Sciences Career Development office for a 2019 internship with the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. She worked with Cornell alumna Gayshiel Grandison ’08, who has become a mentor and helped Paternostro put together her Pickering application.

Mensah also was awarded a Summer Experience Grant in 2019 for a teaching assistant experience at Transformation Through Literacy in Liberia. Last summer, she planned to head to Oman to improve her Arabic skills with help from a Department of State Critical Language Scholarship, but that experience became virtual because of the pandemic. Mensah said Cornell alumna Wendy Schoppert ’88 MBA ’89 has been a mentor to her, supporting both her academic and State Department endeavors.

“I really appreciate how much Cornell helped me with this process,” Paternostro said. “I wouldn’t have been able to take on the unpaid State Department internship without the summer experience grant.”

Mensah also said university faculty and staff have been her “rock” to help complete this process, including Arabic faculty members Makda Weatherspoon and Munther Younes.

Neither Mensah nor Paternostro already have a passport full of stamps, but they say they’re looking forward to receiving their special black diplomat passports one day and filling them up.

“Being stuck inside and seeing everything happening around the world, I want to be there and help,” Paternostro said.

“For all of the travel I haven’t done, I will be able to do it now,” added Mensah. "I am excited to serve abroad and be a global difference maker.”

The Cornell alumna honored with the fellowship is Bukola Anifowoshe ’19, a Nigerian-American immigrant who studied international development sociology and inequality studies. Anifowoshe was active with Cornell’s Public Service Center and the Office of Engagement Initiatives and worked in underserved primary schools in the U.S. and Ghana, refugee resettlement organizations in Egypt, and with human rights advocates in India. After graduation, she worked at Oxfam America on the Aid and Development Finance team.

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