The U.S. Department of State has reversed its decision to suspend two classes of the Thomas R. Pickering and Charles B. Rangel international affairs fellowships, upholding its prior commitment to hire fellows to career positions in the U.S. foreign service, the department announced Thursday.
Citing budget cuts and a freeze on federal hiring in place until April, the State Department initially decided to suspend the July and September A-100 foreign service officer classes. The department walked back the suspension following public opposition from students and university deans including School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman.
“The Department of State has authorized A-100 entry-level Foreign Service Officer classes for July and September,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert wrote in an email to The Hoya. “All eligible Pickering and Rangel Fellows have been offered spots in these classes per the terms of their fellowship.”
Both Pickering and Rangel fellows are required to complete two years of graduate-level education and two internships to be considered for a career diplomatic position. In exchange, the students commit at least five years to serving in the U.S. foreign service.
But students who had already begun State Department training in April were notified June 7 that their A-100 cohorts had been suspended. They were then told they had nine days to make a choice: enter a paid position doing administrative consular work or wait indefinitely until new classes were announced.
In response, Hellman joined other deans of international affairs academies to appeal the decision to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, citing the status of the SFS as the largest feeder into the U.S. foreign service and the vitality of the fellowships to “the future of American diplomacy and security.”
“We write to express our deep concern about the recent decision to suspend indefinitely the July and September A-100 classes and prevent the Pickering and Rangel Fellows from becoming Career Candidates in the Foreign Service,” Hellman wrote. “Such a move would appear to break the bonds of trust that the programs have established among their recipients over many years.”
Students had entered the programs trusting they could make careers out of them, but they were instead offered consular positions on non-career tracks. It appeared that their dreams had been deferred, and the waiting game was no easier.
“If you could financially do it, and you’re a little bit of a gambler, and you think this is going to be resolved within a year, then you have the advantage of coming in in a year as an officer,” Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and former ambassador Barbara Bodine said in an interview with The Hoya. “But that’s a real crapshoot.”
Jennifer Ham (GRD ’17), a Georgetown Pickering fellow who graduated from Columbia University in 2015 and interned in Azerbaijan, opted for that path. She was nervous that if she accepted the consular position, it would be the end of the road.
“They could have potentially said, ‘Thank you for your service — bye.’” Ham said. “They could have basically not let us go into the diplomatic services as an actual foreign service officer.”
The Pickering and Rangel fellowships were launched in 1992 and 2002, respectively, to help foster diversity in the U.S. foreign service, a field in which 82 percent of career diplomats are white and almost 60 percent are male, according to State Department figures. According to the 2016 U.S. census, about 77 percent of the population is white and about 51 percent is female.
Hellman cited the effort to build a diplomatic corps “that looks like America in all its wonderful diversity” as a crucial factor in continuing the programs.
Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, incoming director of the Masters in Foreign Service program and former director of the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, characterized the Pickering and Rangel fellows as “true patriots” who benefit the foreign service with their backgrounds and upbringings, leading to “better processes and better outcomes.”
It is unclear whether future classes will be affected due to ongoing budget cuts at the State Department. Bodine said the initial decision diminished trust in the State Department from students who wanted to serve their country and from taxpayers who invested in bolstering U.S. diplomatic efforts.
“Why would you sign up for a program that promised you to become a foreign service officer and then reneges on it?” Bodine said. “It has implications just for the good faith of the department towards its employees, and it has a question of good faith to the American taxpayer.”
For now, the fellows can look forward to serving the United States in full capacity, honoring the important commitment they made years ago.
“We’ve been told over and over, ‘When you go overseas and you work at an embassy, you represent the United States in essentially everything you do,’” Ham said. “It’s not something where you show up at 9, clock out at 5, and you can kind of turn off.”