Alumni receive prestigious national fellowship

Ernesto Alfonso ’11 and Ayesha Quirke ’05 were two of only 20 candidates nationwide named 2012 Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellows.

Alfonso and Quirke, who studied international relations at FIU, are aspiring to enter the United States’ diplomatic corps. The fellowship, administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for the U.S. Department of State, offers each recipient two paid internships (one in Washington, D.C., at the Department of State and one at an embassy abroad) and funding up to $80,000 toward a two-year master’s program.

In the fall of 2012, Alfonso will begin his master’s in international affairs at Columbia University. Quirke will begin her master’s in international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies after spending the summer at Middlebury College’s Arabic Language School.

After earning their graduate degrees, Quirke and Alfonso will commit to three years of service as Foreign Service Officers for the Department of State, contingent on their passing the Foreign Service requirements. The Foreign Service, a corps of working professionals who support the president of the United States and the secretary of the United States Department of State in pursuit of the goals and objectives of American foreign policy, are “front-line” personnel who can be sent anywhere in the world, at any time, in service to the diplomatic needs of the United States.

“My dream for quite a few years has been joining the Foreign Service. In a few years, hopefully, my dream will come true,” says Alfonso. The native of Venezuela first became interested in international affairs when he participated in Model United Nations and says he wants to serve as a Latin America expert. “My goal in life is really to participate in foreign policymaking at the highest levels of government.”

Quirke, whose home base was the Netherlands, traveled all over the world as a child. Her family exposed her to many countries and cultures, and as a result, she says she considers herself a global citizen.

FIU faculty, she says, gave her the confidence to pursue an international career. “One professor told me, ‘You can go the Harvard if you want to.’ I never thought in that direction before. When I heard those words that kind of shifted everything for me. If someone says that about me maybe it’s true. Maybe I can accomplish that dream. I started to believe in myself at that point.”

She adds, “One step at a time will eventually lead you to where you want to be if you follow your heart.”

To navigate the months-long, arduous process of applying for the prestigous Pickering Fellowship, Quirke and Alfonso worked with FIU’s Center for Excellence in Writing to perfect their essay writing skills as well as with FIU’s Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Lari Martinez, a recently retired U.S. diplomat with more than 26 years of global service. Martinez now dedicates himself to helping FIU students succeed globally.

Martinez says directors of national programs have told him FIU students are highly desirable because of their demographics, but either fail to apply, or cannot produce winning applications, essays and polished oral interviews. This year, mock interviews by FIU professors and attention to essay writing at the center gave Quirke and Alfonso a competitive edge among the 700 who applied.

The former diplomat says, “Award-winning students like these enhance their own professional possibilities and are as important to FIU and its reputation as winning a national bowl game. I call these our national academic athletes.”

FIU has done well nationally in 2012. As a top Hispanic-serving institution, the university has two Pickerings and one Rangel Fellowship, a national foreign affairs award valued at $90,000.