How Fellowships Can Launch Your International Affairs Career

May 03, 2022

By Nicholas Shafer

Global careers in international affairs can seem unattainable. You may be wondering, how can I go from my local town to the global stage? How can I build the confidence to represent my country overseas, either as a citizen diplomat or in a formal role as a diplomat or development professional? One way to gain the connections, experience, and opportunities to build a career in international affairs is through international affairs fellowships. 

The foreign affairs industry has a notoriously high barrier to entry, and it can be difficult to figure out how to get your foot in the door to build a successful foreign affairs career. Early career fellowships can empower you not just in the short term with enriching, hands-on experience, but in the long term with connections and communities that will continue to enrich and support you throughout your career journey. 

As a four-time fellowship winner, I’d like to share how Fellowships launched my career in international affairs and how you, too, can take advantage of competitive funding opportunities to gain experience abroad.  

My Journey to a Career in International Affairs Through Fellowships

In my personal career, I’ve enjoyed being a part of multiple fellowship communities, each one giving me unique skills and experiences that helped me solidify the next step in my career path. Through a Boren Scholarship, which provides funding for international research and language study, I studied intensive Arabic overseas as a fifth-year senior at UC Berkeley after transferring from community college. The following year, I was awarded the John Gardner Fellowship for Public Service, which gave me an intensive early-career experience that opened up many more networks in international affairs, Middle Eastern politics, and public service. 

That experience led me to receive both a Fulbright Research Award to complete a research project in Morocco, as well as a Marshall Scholarship, an award that provides full funding for U.S. graduates to complete a Master’s degree in the United Kingdom

As you can see from my personal journey, each of these incredible international affairs fellowships gave me the skills and networks to continue advancing in my career. Below, I will discuss four types of international affairs fellowships critical language scholarships, early-career professional experiences, graduate school funding, and Fulbright Awards — and how each one can lead to pipelines into the foreign affairs industry. 

The Benefits of International Affairs Fellowships

By design, fellowships are a unique place to learn and grow in ways that are unlike any other experience. The opportunity to move to a new country for a set period of time to complete a project, conduct research, or intensively study a new language rarely emerges in normal professional life once you’re settled into a specific career path. Here are a few tips for navigating the world of international affairs fellowships:

  • Organizational skills and diligence are key. To both get accepted to and make the most of these international affairs fellowships, you’ll need to structure your time on a tight timescale (6-12 months normally) to ensure that you’re meeting your goals. 
  • International affairs fellowships are important opportunities to break out of your standard career pathway and really try something new. Use these opportunities to both advance your current or prior research while also considering how international affairs fellowships can help you branch into something different than what you’ve done before.  
  • Use international affairs fellowships as a true learning opportunity. As a Fellow, you can often ask questions that a full-time employee may not be able to ask, and you may have the opportunity to speak to people at a broader range than might normally be possible within a given organization. As you showcase your curiosity, you’ll be given the grace to  “stumble” as you learn the ins and outs of your fellowship placement. 

Now let’s turn to the different categories of international affairs fellowships that are available to you. Remember – you can bookmark any fellowships that interest you to your free ProFellow account by clicking the link. 

1. Critical Language Fellowships

Critical Language Scholarships are opportunities funded by the U.S. Government to promote strategic engagement with and study of languages critical to U.S. national interest. Critical languages include 

  • Arabic 
  • Mandarin 
  • Farsi
  • Russian 
  • Hindi
  • Bengali 
  • Punjabi
  • Urdu 
  • Indonesian
  • Japanese 
  • Korean
  • and more 

You can view the complete list of languages offered on the Critical Language Scholarship website. 

There are multiple critical language fellowships you can apply for, and while the goal of each program is similar, each opportunity is slightly different in terms of the length of the program and who is eligible to apply. The critical language fellowships include

  • Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) – provides fully-funded, group-based intensive language instruction abroad for 7-10 weeks. This is a summer program intended for U.S. students at the undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. levels. 
  • Boren Scholarship – provides up to $30,000 to U.S. undergraduate and graduate  students for language study and research for up to 12 months. Boren recipients are required to commit to working for the federal government for at least one year after graduation. ProFellow Tip: Learn everything you need to know about the Boren Scholarship here. 
  • Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Award – exclusively available to Fulbright Award recipients, allowing them additional funding to receive 3-6 months of intensive language study as an enhancement to their Fulbright grants. ProFellow tip: Learn everything you need to know about this unique funding opportunity here. 

Critical language fellowships represent the bedrock of pipeline programs into careers in foreign affairs. In fact, alumni of these programs automatically have a leg-up on the competition. Recipients of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) and Boren Fellowship are eligible for 12 months of Non-Competitive Eligibility, which allows program alumni to apply for jobs that are only open to federal employees. Additionally, almost all major scholarship communities have internal job boards that share job opportunities with program alumni. These are an excellent resource to learn about early career opportunities.

2. Early-Career Professional Fellowships 

Early career professional international affairs fellowships provide an incredible opportunity to get hands-on professional experience working in a full-time role, which allows you to get your foot in the door of an institution. For example, through the John Gardner Fellowship, I had the opportunity to work for USAID for my 10-month fellowship placement; once I completed the program, USAID hired me as a contractor for the summer before I continued on to my Marshall Scholarship. 

Some notable early-career professional international affairs fellowships include 

  • Luce Scholars Program – provides a stipend, language training, and individualized professional placement in Asia for college seniors, graduate students, and young professionals in a variety of fields who have had limited exposure to Asia. Hear directly from a Luce Scholars alumni about the experience here
  • Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship – a national fellowship program that provides college graduates with the opportunity to gain a Washington perspective on key issues of peace and security by serving as full-time junior staff members at a participating organization of their choice.
  • Princeton in Africa – a year-long fellowship for recent college graduates that places Fellows in a variety of professional roles at organizations across the African continent. Princeton in Asia and Princeton in Latin America are also available.  

Aside from doing a keyword search on the free ProFellow database, you can find more early-career international affairs fellowships by learning from leaders in your industry or specialization to see what opportunities they’ve completed before. You can either reach out to ask them directly, or use LinkedIn to check out their professional history. 

3. Graduate School Fellowships

One final category of international affairs fellowships is graduate school fellowships. These fellowships offer university funding to study international affairs or other related subjects. Some notable graduate school fellowships for careers in international affairs include

As you can see, these fellowships are incredible opportunities to fund your international affairs education while connecting with mentors and host organizations you can potentially work with in the future. 

ProFellow Tip: Hear directly from an alumna of the Pickering Fellowship to learn more about a day in the life of a Pickering Fellow. 

4. Fulbright Awards

The Fulbright Program funds a wide variety of experiences that allow students and professionals the opportunity to teach and conduct research abroad. Funded by the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau (ECA) at the State Department, a Fulbright grant early in your career can be a deeply formative and profoundly empowering experience that can provide a substantive door into a tangible career path both as a domain expert in the foreign affairs industry. 

The two main types of Fulbright Awards for young graduates and professionals are

  • Fulbright Research Award – provides funding for recent graduates and young professionals to complete a self-designed research project abroad for 9 – 12 months in collaboration with a host institution. 
  • Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Award – a year-long opportunity for impressive recent graduates to provide English Language teaching assistance at schools and Universities across the world. 

Completing a Fulbright gives you valuable international experience as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Additionally, as discussed above, Fulbright grants offer the optional but very significant language training component that will be important when competing for job opportunities in the international affairs industry later in your career. 

You can brainstorm which Fulbright Grant might be the best fit for you and your career goals, and check out the newest Fulbright Awards that have been added for the 2023-2024 application cycle.

How to Make the Most of Your International Affairs Fellowship

It’s important to be very clear about what you want to get out of your international affairs fellowship. Do you want to walk away from your experience with just a fancy name on your resume, or do you want to gain a durable network of professionals in your area of expertise? Is your goal to learn more about your subject area, or to prove your competency in it? Being clear, intentional, and honest with yourself at the beginning of a fellowship is one of the best things you can do to make it a truly transformational experience. 

Remember: fellowships are communities. It is important to build bridges with your international affairs fellowship mentors and cohort, and to be proactive by seeking out opportunities that will allow you to grow professionally beyond your time as a fellow. 

International affairs fellowships are important early and mid-career opportunities that can provide important gateways to help you break into the foreign affairs industry. Joining fellowship communities and pipeline opportunities as early as possible— in undergrad, but then also before and during/after graduate school —are a great way to build community, gain experience in the sector, and translate that into a permanent career long-term. 

Make sure to learn about opportunities as early as possible so that you can gain the necessary skills, such as critical languages, that you need to build on over the course of your early career to gain access to the careers that you’re shooting for.

Nicholas Shafer is a current Marshall Scholar studying development and Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom. A past recipient of the Boren in Jordan and Fulbright in Morocco, Nicholas previously worked at the USAID Middle Eastern Bureau as a Yemen & Gulf desk officer. He is a proud graduate of UC Berkeley and Foothill College and invites any potential mentees to get in contact directly. 

Find more opportunities to launch your career in international affairs in our list of 20 Foreign Policy Fellowships.