Michelle Lee ’23, Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship Winner

Michelle Lee

Tell us a little bit about the Fellowship and where it will be taking you!
The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship Program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, prepares 45 fellows for careers in the Foreign Service based on the fundamental principle that diversity is a strength in diplomatic efforts. The fellowship helps finance two-year graduate programs, provides two summer internships, offers mentoring from Foreign Service Officers, and holds other professional development activities. After I attend graduate school at Columbia SIPA and obtain a Master's in Public Administration, I will start my career in diplomacy and spend a minimum of 5 years as a Foreign Service Officer. I look forward to serving in Washington, DC, and at a U.S. embassy, consulate, or diplomatic mission around the globe!
*The Rangel Fellowship is a similar program. Most applicants apply to both. Also, consider the Payne Fellowship.

What (or who) are the major influences in your life that have inspired you to pursue this path?
I've always wanted to learn about new languages and cultures. When I was younger, I would hear my grandfather tell me stories about having to leave his parents and siblings in North Korea during the Korean War. I was initially resentful of the foreign policies that divided my family, so I wanted to learn more by taking classes like AP Government in high school, which solidified my interest in pursuing a related field. Because of my family's history with foreign policy, I decided to study international relations and economics at Wellesley.

How did your time at Wellesley shape your interests, or encourage you along this path? Your professors? Career Education?
​Going to a place where two great secretaries of state attended is such a boost of inspiration. I actually first heard about the Pickering Fellowship while talking with a couple of International Relations seniors during my first year. The seniors actually went on to become Rangel and Pickering Fellows themselves! When I was a freshman, I can still vividly recall being in amazement as I read their stories on Wellesley websites. They were pivotal throughout my years at Wellesley since they guided me through the fellowship application process and assisted me in looking for government internships. Aside from them, I had a great relationship with Career Ed. I felt so lost during my first year and under pressure about needing to have everything figured out (which I assure you, you don’t), so I scheduled a meeting one day to go over potential future options. I cannot thank Marisa enough for all the cover letters, personal statements, and resume edits she has helped me to land internships at USAID, the State Department, and Congress. Besides that, I've enjoyed my classes immensely. I am now a better writer and problem solver thanks to Wellesley. I really appreciated learning from AAPI academics like professors Yu Jin Ko and Kyung Park because they gave me the foundations I needed to develop my Asian American identity. 

What did you learn or gain from going through the application process?
To be honest, this was a grueling process. Applying for both the Rangel and Pickering Fellowships while keeping up with classes, organizations, friends, and other job applications was not the most fun. I started my personal statement over the summer and continued to refine it with mentors. Then it was the waiting game. After I was selected as a finalist, I had a limited amount of time to prepare for the writing assessment and interview. The fact that I had to write a timed essay on any foreign or domestic policy topic was daunting. Luckily, having to write often for class assessments provided an advantage. Next was tackling the interview. I appreciated going through mock interviews with Career Education and utilizing one of their private rooms for the actual thing. What a thrilling experience it was to have former ambassadors interview you! Phew. I ended the process questioning whether I had proved enough. I didn’t think my essay or interview answers were as sharp as I wanted them to be, but by grace, I was ecstatic to find out my selection. The next step was a winter break grind of trying to study for the GRE in three days and apply to graduate programs that were due in a week…but that’s another story. 

What inspired you to take the leap and apply? Or, what would you say to encourage your peers to apply?
Talking with current fellows at the time, ​I was inspired by the mission to increase diversity at State and also just because of how unique this opportunity is. It’s a wonderful chance to have financial support for graduate school and a couple of key leg-ups, such as a straight path into becoming a US diplomat! Not having to pass the foreign service exam was just the cherry on top. I’d say if you are at all interested in foreign affairs, then go for it! I know so many who have applied and ultimately got into the next cycle and were happy to have had some work experience before. Regardless of the outcome, you’re going to learn so much about how to handle stress and think on your feet. Having to answer questions about self motivation really made me think about my goals in life and personal story, all things that most interviews ask for. Please reach out! I’m here to help you along the way.

What most excites you about this opportunity?
Creating a diverse space is something that has always sounded great, but I never understood why it was so needed until I experienced it for myself. I'm grateful for the hands-on experience at State, but I felt discouraged seeing a wall of exclusively white men and similarly while scrolling through State’s Twitter feed just to see more male ambassadors. Likewise, I was eager to work as an intern for one of the first Korean-American congresswomen but was frustrated by the racial slurs that devalued her contributions. These racist and frustrating interactions have shown me the necessity for dialogues about women's voices and the need for inclusive, tolerant spaces. I love that there are fellowships like Pickering and Rangel that put conversations about diversity at the forefront. Answering this question so close to graduation is bittersweet. I’m truly going to miss all the friends and professors at Wellesley. At the same time, I’m anticipating jumping into the hustle and bustle of New York. Ironically, it seems as though Wellesley is following me because my future professor at SIPA will be former Secretary Clinton. Beyond graduate school, I'm excited by the unknown. I'm not sure where I'll be or who I'll meet at these embassies, but I'm looking forward to the new experiences!