Fellowships are incredible opportunities to gain professional experience in your chosen field and open doors for personal growth that are priceless. Imagine immersing yourself in intensive language study, diving headfirst into new cultures, jet-setting across international borders, and even studying abroad. We had a chance to catch up with Jonathan Blackmon, a four-time fellowship winner (Gilman Scholarship, Thurgood Marshall College Fund Leadership Scholarship, Boren Fellowship, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorate Fellowship). In this interview, Jonathan explains how these fellowships helped him find his dream career, trot the globe, and unearth a hidden passion. With each fellowship experience, Jonathan built an impressive collection of experiences that seamlessly intertwined, shaping his career path and granting him unforgettable, one-of-a-kind adventures.
Tell us about your background and professional journey.
I am Jonathan Blackmon, a Gilman Scholar, Thurgood Marshall College Fund Leadership Scholar, two-time Boren Fellow, and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorate Fellow, who just finished a Master’s degree in International Affairs at American University. I am originally from Miami, FL, and for undergrad, I went to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, the only public HBCU in Florida. My professional journey began at the age of twelve, I watched a 60-minute special pertaining to gang warfare, poverty, and its influence on the music and dance style of Baile funk in Brazil which sparked my interest in the world stage and guided my life from that point forward. As a black male, I was captivated by the similarities and differences between Afro-descendant groups within the Americas.
As a rising college senior, I received an opportunity to engage my interest in transnational Afro-descendant groups in Uruguay. The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship allowed me to accept an internship position serving as an American Cultural Ambassador under Uruguay’s first black legislator, Edgardo Ortuño. I worked with a youth group called “Afro Jovenes” in order to provide new solutions for tackling issues such as marginalization, sentiments of invisibility, and combating cultural appropriation of their heritage in a safe space. I used these opportunities as a springboard into internships where I got to use my Spanish skills by working with migrant communities and to make myself more attractive when I was applying for graduate school. Although I am not sure what is next for me I am optimistic about my future.
You’ve won multiple fellowships. How did you find these opportunities? How have you used them to advance your career and build your professional network?
The first time I learned of the Gilman Scholarship it was due to a conversation I had with the Diplomat in Residence at my university campus. I learned about the others by showing up to different events on campus, such as study abroad fairs, doing internet searches on how to fund a study abroad program, and even the ProFellow website a few years later when trying to map out this process. The first time I left the country was on a study abroad program. I want to be clear, the goal at the time was never to craft a professional or career-oriented network. I was just an 18-year-old fresh out of high school trying to see the world and Afro-descendant communities. Everything worked out and fell into place after my first study abroad program, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go abroad again on a Gilman Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship has an alumni network full of programs that are only available to alumni of certain government programs so my professional network has grown just by staying active and attending alumni events.
Beyond the Gilman Scholarship, I got a separate fellowship funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the Directorate Fellowship. This fellowship is work focused and designed to funnel young talent into the agency through a special hiring authority that we receive at the end of our internship. My specific Fellowship was at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery in Leavenworth, WA. My job revolved around connecting the local Latino community with public lands, natural resources, and recreational opportunities. I made great connections at the agency due to the community-focused nature of this role. I am happy to say that I still regularly keep up with contacts at the agency and have met up with them for lunch in the DC area.
Lastly, my most recent Fellowship was a Boren intensive language program in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I spent 7 months learning Portuguese at an art school in the most populous metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. I recently returned from Brazil and I have been back in the States for just under 2 months now. All of these programs I named and have participated in have been useful in keeping a diverse network and allowing me to be privy to different roles that I may be interested in that are coming down the pipeline. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it all works out!
Because you’ve participated in multiple fellowships, do you think these opportunities have supplemented or built on each other? Have you used fellowships in a specific way to plan your career trajectory?
When you get one merit award it opens the door for another and creates a positive feedback loop of success. It gives you the confidence to speak with conviction because you have been in the situation before, been successful, and it will show in how you tackle other prestigious awards. I hope that this last fellowship will help me in striving to build a career at the intersection of public land management, racial equity, and political ecology, but one step at a time. I think that winning these awards certainly helps me market myself to those who are familiar with the fellowships, but a big takeaway that I got from my Boren Fellowship was a newfound passion. While serving out my Boren Fellowship, I started taking coursework in jewelry making and now I am a silversmith. This is a hobby that I hope to turn into a side hustle someday but for the time being I really just enjoy creating pieces with my hands. This experience and others like it can open up avenues for a new career trajectory, and I hope it does, but for the moment I am just happy I was able to bring this passion back with me from my time overseas.
What advice do you have for others applying for fellowships?
Apply and if you don’t succeed the first time, just keep trying. I applied to the Boren Fellowship twice in undergrad before I received the award in graduate school. The mission stays the mission, but another thing to take into consideration is resources. Try to find a mentor for the application you are applying for or go to your school’s Office of Merit Awards, if they have one. I can tell you, the feedback I got from them and professors who themselves were Boren fellows was key to helping me write, and then rewrite, award-winning essays.
Jonathan Blackmon is an international affairs professional who works primarily in government at the intersection of public land use and political ecology and just returned from a 7-month Boren Fellowship in São Paulo, Brazil. He attended Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University as an undergrad. As of this May, he graduated with a Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a thematic concentration in political ecology and a regional focus on Latin America, Asia, and the interrelationship of these two regions. He has 5 years of professional experience working for the federal government and plans on pursuing both his professional career working in an area of public interest and his artistic passions as a silversmith.
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