Claflin University undergraduate Ashley Simmons has become the second Claflin University student to be awarded the prestigious Pickering Fellowship.
Simmons, a 21-year-old Claflin senior politics and justice studies major and history minor from Jacksonville, Fla., is among 40 men and women – 20 undergraduate and 20 graduate fellows – who will begin their journey towards representing America as Foreign Service Officers through the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. The 2013 Pickering Fellows were identified through an intense selection process as having some of the skills crucial for members of the United States diplomatic corps, including dedication, leadership, planning, cultural adaptability and strong communication skills.
Selected in their junior year, the 20 Pickering Undergraduate Fellows receive financial support towards tuition and other expenses during the senior year of college and the first year of graduate study. They are the 20th class of Pickering Undergraduate Foreign Affairs Fellows.
Alumna Tiffany Miller was the first Claflin student to be selected for the Pickering Fellowship in 2010.
Simmons, daughter of Edwin and Beulah Simmons, said she has always been interested in international affairs.
“In high school, I participated in a program through the World Affairs Council in Jacksonville, Fla., and the Foreign Policy Association called Great Decisions, and through that program, I was able to discuss controversial issues and participate in a simulation at the University of North Florida, where I acted as the White House press secretary,” she said. “That experience kind of intrigued me.”
Simmons also took advanced placement government and politics courses while in high school, exploring such topics as the Cold War and its effect on foreign policy. While at Claflin, in addition to diving into her politics and justice studies and history classes, Simmons has also taken courses in French and Japanese.
Simmons said she found her calling early in 2012. At neighboring South Carolina State University’s CHEC Career Expo, she ran across a civil service officer manning a table with information about State Department internships. Simmons took the information and applied – and was accepted by both of her internship choices, one at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome and the other in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.
Simmons chose Rome, a place she had wanted to travel to since high school.
“I was fortunate to be selected,” she said. “State Department internships are very, very competitive.”
In Rome, Simmons gained valuable experience. Though the internship was unpaid, Claflin helped her by providing living expenses – including an apartment just blocks away from the Vatican – and college credit.
Other than that, Simmons was on her own on foreign soil. But she made the most of her 10-week tour in Italy by becoming active in a local church and volunteering at a refugee center, in addition to performing her daily duties as a public diplomacy intern at the U.S. Mission. Those duties included assisting with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization’s 10th annual George McGovern Lecture, organizing and coordinating the Mission’s seventh annual Hunger Run, attending weekly staff meetings, compiling daily public diplomacy notes for staff members, and serving as a greeter at a brunch following the 2012 presidential election last November.
“And then I was able to attend the U.N. World Food Program executive board meeting in November,” Simmons said, where she was able to hear “all of the different representatives for different countries talking about food security and agriculture issues – that’s what the USUN advocates for, that’s what I was basically in charge of researching every day.
“I was able to sit in on that and meet the U.S. delegation, and just kind of basically attend high-level meetings and see what diplomats do, what ambassadors do, how an international government organization as big as the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization or World Food Program functions and what their top priority issues concerning food security are.”
It was that experience in Rome that Simmons said piqued her interest in applying for the Pickering Fellowship.
“I like learning languages, I like culture and I’m a people person,” she said. “Next summer, after I graduate, I will be working at the State Department in D.C. I hope to intern with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration … I like researching refugee issues, migration issues and population issues. It’s actually a broad topic that I am researching right now for my senior seminar.”
Her second choice is the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
“I hope to be a consular officer after I successfully pass the Foreign Service oral assessment and the Foreign Service officer test. That is the specialty I want to go into in the Foreign Service,” Simmons said. Among other duties, consular officers issue travel documents to Americans and lawful immigrants and visitors, as well as provide “cycle of life” services to American citizens overseas, according to the Bureau’s site, http://travel.state.gov.
“I’m very excited about the road ahead,” Simmons said. “I went through a rigorous process to be selected as one of 20 fellows this year, and it’s just truly a blessing. After I do my domestic internship next summer, I automatically will be enrolled in a graduate degree program. My first choice is Princeton University, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.”
In addition to next summer’s domestic internship, Simmons will also be required to participate in an overseas internship during the summer of 2015. Also, upon the completion of her master’s degree, she is committed to three years of service as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State.
The Foreign Service, a corps of working professionals who support the President of the United States and the Secretary of State in advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad, are “front-line” personnel who can be sent anywhere in the world, at any time, in service of the diplomatic needs of the United States.
“I’m ready, and very excited about the road ahead,” Simmons said. “If anyone is interested in foreign policy or international affairs, take advantage of the opportunities and do your research.”
The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program is named in honor of Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who holds the rank of career ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service. He served as ambassador to Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India and the Russian Federation, finishing his career in the Foreign Service as undersecretary of state for political affairs.