News & Recipients
USF Student Journey to the Foreign Service
Mabel Proenza attended the University of South Florida (USF) for her bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and World Languages and Cultures with a concentration in French and Mandarin. Soon after arriving in her first year, she developed a goal to become a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State after speaking with an advisor and attending a lecture on campus with a retired consulate officer. Mabel’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when she was a child, and her parents’ commitment to education growing up, despite their own difficulties with English, sparked an interest in languages. She studied French throughout high school and became intrigued by Chinese language and culture when she took an online music history and theory class with a section on Chinese opera. Her background shaped her interests and the State Department’s commitment to cultural adaptability resonated with her, but the experiences she sought out during her time at USF and beyond have strengthened her commitment to becoming a diplomat.
Mabel was recently selected for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship Program, which provides graduate funding and an opportunity for direct entrance into the Foreign Service upon completion. Pickering is administered by the U.S. Department of State and Howard University. It welcomes applications from members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the State Department based on the fundamental principle that diversity is a strength in diplomatic efforts. This was Mabel’s second time applying for Pickering, and she emphasizes not giving up when pursuing prestigious programs. She will be starting her master’s degree in International Relations this fall at Penn State University and currently stands as the most awarded national scholar in USF’s history.
Mabel’s journey with the USF Office of National Scholars (ONS) began her first year, when she was planning to study abroad. She worked with ONS on her applications for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and the Freeman-ASIA Award. She received both and traveled to Peking University in Beijing, China for a semester to study intensive Chinese language. Upon her return, she continued working with campus organizations and ONS to pursue opportunities that would help her reach her goal of Chinese language proficiency. She was awarded a Boren Scholarship to study Chinese for another semester in Shanghai, China. She was also selected for the U.S. Foreign Service Internship Program, which consisted of two different summer internship opportunities with the Department of State. One of these internships took place during summer of 2020, when Mabel had to adapt and work virtually for the U.S. Embassy in Manila, with a 12-hour time difference. She says that the kindness shown by the staff at the embassy amid a global crisis confirmed how she felt about entering the Foreign Service.
Shortly before graduating from USF as a student in the Judy Genshaft Honors College in 2021, Mabel was selected for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the largest exchange program in the world, for an English Teaching Assistant Grant in Canarias, Spain. Despite focusing on Chinese language in her studies, Mabel wanted to utilize her Spanish language skills and experience a new culture, in preparation for her career with the State Department. As she hopes to one day facilitate exchange programs herself, she felt this was vital to experience. In Spain, she was placed in an elementary school, helping young students learn English. She saw how students were impacted by their access to education and worked with teachers in the school to create an immersive language learning environment. Returning from Spain, Mabel moved back to Tampa to work while applying for the Pickering Fellowship. She is currently tutoring remotely in Spanish, French, and Chinese and working as an Adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Instructor at Brewster Technical College to give back to the community that helped her family when they first arrived in Florida.
In preparation for her Pickering interview, Mabel reflected on her reasons for becoming a Foreign Service Officer. She emphasized education, including her experience coming to the United States when she was young, but primarily the multitude of opportunities afforded to her by the U.S. government to study abroad and pursue her interests. She expressed how much value she sees in helping people of other nations experience international engagement and education as well. She said, “Education is the backbone of opportunity for many people. Studying abroad and immersing oneself in a new culture can help a student develop rich interpersonal skills and perspective.” She is thankful for her many mentors, especially her parents and ONS advisors, Lauren Bartshe and Lauren Chambers.
Upon completion of the Pickering Fellowship Program, Mabel plans to enter the Foreign
Service. She hopes to focus on public diplomacy and consular work, helping other receive
opportunities, as she has.
Students interested in any of these opportunities should contact the Office of National Scholars for an appointment.