A Proud Pickering

One of the first pieces of advice I received from a mentor in the department was to withhold my identity as a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow with my Foreign Service Officer (FSO) colleagues in the workplace.

With incredible honesty and vulnerability, my mentor recounted the many microaggressions, assumptions, and rejections she braved during her first overseas posting – incidents which she felt were exacerbated by other colleagues’ assumptions about her status as a fellow. As one of the few womxn of color at post, situated in a historically “pale, male, and yale” institution, she already experienced racism on the basis of her color, gender, and at the intersection of both identities:

Her white colleagues would routinely exclude her from their cliques. They mistook her for another womxn of color in the office or for being a Foreign Service National. Senior leadership ignored her presence during roundtable introductions. Colleagues advised her to smile more lest her appearance threaten foreign dignitaries who weren’t used to associating a womxn of color as “American”. So when her status as a Pickering fellow came up in conversation with one of her colleagues, she did not think it would make things worse. She was wrong.

In subsequent weeks, she noticed how senior leadership passed her over for new training opportunities and “special” projects to, “give others a chance who did not have the advantages of prior internships with the fellowship”. She overheard the all-too-familiar insult of being an “affirmative action” hire whose presence would make bidding more competitive for her white colleagues down the line. Colleagues openly asked her how she managed to secure the fellowship – negating both her worthiness of it and the sacrifices and labor it took to get there.

Her story is not unique. Her story could be my reality.

Soon, I will be joining the minority of officers in the Foreign Service who are fellows, womxn of color, or both. When I introduce myself to my colleagues in A100 and at Post, I will have to wrestle with the same question: Should I disclose or withhold my status as a fellow?

I choose to disclose, and here’s why:

1. Disclosure is allyship with the cause of inclusion
Disclosing our status as fellows will remind senior leadership that fellows form the bulk of minority hires. Speaking up about our experience with discrimination in the workplace will help rewrite a problematic (and yet popular) narrative that the fellowship programs are somehow guaranteed markers of success and sufficient to resolve the department's gaps in diversity and inclusion.

Our status as fellows does not preclude us from discrimination. For fellows of color, it only exacerbates it. Opening up to the parallel existence of being a fellow and experiencing discrimination strengthens our push for change. After all, if the department cannot create an inclusive workplace for fellows (especially as we continue to serve as poster children for the cause of diversity and inclusion), how can it expect to do the same for minority hires who don’t come through the fellowships?

2. Disclosure is an act of courage and vulnerability that may open others up to the same

Choosing to disclose (and disclose with pride) in a workplace culture where other fellows may have been advised to be hush-hush about their status can encourage others to do the same. There is strength in our numbers just as there is strength in our fellowship cohorts. As more of us disclose in solidarity with one another, the more normalized disclosure will be.

3. Disclosure is an opportunity to dispel misconceptions
The more the fellowship is spoken about in the workplace, the more misconceptions it will dispel. Here are two common ones out there:
  • Fellows do not need to complete the FSOT and FSOA (Foreign Service written and oral examinations). TRUTH: All fellows have to complete and pass the written and oral assessments. Unlike traditional hires, fellows have to doubly face the interview process and written assessments (once during the selection process as fellows and another during the Foreign Service Oral Exam)
  • Fellows are guaranteed entry into the Foreign Service upon receipt of the fellowship: TRUTH: Fellows are not guaranteed entry into the FS upon receipt of the fellowship. All fellows have to obtain a top-secret clearance, successfully complete two 10-week internships, and meet rigorous academic requirements in graduate school. 
Educating our colleagues can be exhausting. Ideally, it shouldn't be our responsibility. That said, as fellows who have received many blessings from this fellowship, speaking up about these misconceptions is one way of giving back to future cohorts who will inherit the culture we leave behind.

4.[A consideration for white fellows] Disclosure is an example of allyship
Too often, minorities of color in the department are assumed to have entered the FS through a fellowship program, exclusively because of their color. When White fellows choose to disclose their status, they will help dispel this misconception and open up conversations on diversity in all its forms.

5. Disclosure is an opportunity to tell your unique story
There are shared experiences among all fellows, but no fellows’ experience is entirely the same. Each of us has a unique path into the fellowship and a unique set of goals and interests. The fellowship means more to each of us than checking the boxes on our formal requirements. For me, this fellowship has been synonymous for possibility. It was the doorway into a department and career path I did not know existed. It introduced me to a cohort of peers who champion collaboration over competition. It continues to connect me to mentors, advisors, and role models who are invested in my success, who remind me that I belong, and who inspire me to speak up for what is right. This fellowship is not only about me. It is also a blessing for my ancestors and my family who look to me as a symbol of a new dawn for all of us. This fellowship is a sign from God that I am exactly where I am meant to be.

I fully realize that choosing to disclose my status as a fellow is risky. 
I fully empathize with my fellow fellows hesitant to disclose and know that the culture of the department must reform in ways that de-stigmatizes the fellowship programs. If I am discriminated for disclosure, it may be difficult for me to get the justice I deserve.  But I also fully realize that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the opportunities made possible by this fellowship. If I want to own my story and present my most authentic self in the workplace, withholding is not an option for me.


I would like to thank my mentor for allowing me to share parts of her personal story here. Thank you for your vulnerability and for encouraging me to find my own voice. To my colleagues in the department, fellow fellows, and external readers, thank you for being here. I welcome your comments and opinions.

To learn more about the Pickering (and Rangel) fellowships and how to apply, see here and here