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Matthew Jernstedt felt nervous before entering the room where he would be interviewed by a three-person panel for the prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, a program that funds graduate school for students preparing to enter the U.S. Foreign Service.
As a finalist for the fellowship, which Howard University administers, he flew from Arizona to Washington, D.C. to interview at the State Department. He was expecting an intense meeting in which he would have outdo his fellow finalists and impress the panel with his knowledge of policy and foreign affairs. What he experienced was somewhat different - and he won the fellowship.
“While I went into the interview with some trepidation, it quickly became apparent that my fears were very misplaced! All the program representatives from Howard University and the State Department reaffirmed that every finalist was there because they deserved to be and couldn’t have been nicer to work with,” said Jernstedt, a senior in Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Global Studies and certificate in International Relations.
Indeed, Jernsted's credentials are impressive. He is a member of the United Nations Association of the United States of America Rocky Mountain Region Council and a board member of the United Nations Association of Phoenix.
He interned for the Greg Stanton for Congress campaign and for the office of Congressman Tom O'Halleran earlier this year. He attended the Student Conference in U.S. Affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in November, and also completed a Holocaust Studies Program at Prague College in Prague, Czech Republic in in 2016.
Within hours after the interview, Jernstedt found out that he was chosen to receive the Pickering Fellowship that will put him on the path to complete a two-year master’s degree program, fulfill Foreign Service entry requirements and work as a Foreign Service Officer in Washington, D.C or at a U.S. embassy, consulate or diplomatic mission.
It was a jubilant moment for Jernstedt, who transferred from Phoenix College into ASU as a first-generation university student in August 2017.
“When I first found out that I was selected as a 2019 Pickering Fellow, my response was elation mixed with disbelief! As a first-generation college student, milestones like this carry a special significance for me, and the Pickering is the most exciting milestone I have reached yet,” he said.
“I also feel overwhelming gratitude. As much as this award reflects my own perseverance through adversity and academic achievement, it is also a testament to the community that has been there for me for the past five years. These are the cheerleaders and mentors who encouraged me when I felt lost, provided advice when I needed it most, and offered models of leadership to aspire to,” he added.
He is applying to Georgetown, Tufts, George Washington, the University of Texas-Austin, the Harvard Kennedy School and American University and hopes to pursue a dual program in Public Policy and International Affairs.
We caught up with Jernstedt to get more of his thoughts on the process of applying for the Pickering Fellowship, his future plans, and advice for other ambitious students.
What was the application and interview process like? How challenging was it?
The Pickering application process was very straightforward. I had to write a personal statement, submit my resume and transcripts, and ask for letters of recommendation – all very standard. Since I took part in the McCain Institute Policy Design Studio in Washington, D.C. last spring, I was able to receive a recommendation from one of my instructors, Ambassador Michael Polt.
The Pickering interview process consists of two parts: a written assessment and traditional oral interview with a three-person panel. In order to do well, applicants need to stay well informed on current events, have the ability to write concisely and convincingly, and be able to weave their experiences into a broader philosophy of service.
I was fortunate to be able to participate in practice interviews arranged by the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at Barrett Honors College. Also, I had the chance to speak with the college’s previous Pickering recipient, Monet, who offered invaluable advice and her personal reflections on the interview day. These opportunities made me much more confident going into the interview.
What do you hope to accomplish as a Pickering Fellow?
I recognize how lucky I am to be a Pickering Fellow, and I intend to use the resources that come with it to the fullest. One of these is the ability to form a one-on-one relationship with a Foreign Service Officer, whose job is to guide fellows through graduate school and into a career with the State Department. Networking is critical to any job, but this is especially true in the career I am pursuing. I want to use my time as a fellow wisely by asking questions, building relationships with those already in the field, and working closely with fellows in my cohort.
Lastly, I want to use my fellowship to advocate for the representation of first-generation and community college students in foreign policy. With great privilege comes the responsibility to reach out and speak out on behalf of those who are underrepresented and may doubt whether competitive fellowships are even within their reach; they are!
What are your future goals and how will having this fellowship help you get there?
Ultimately, I would like to become a Foreign Service Officer on the political track in the U.S. Department of State. The Pickering Fellowship will equip me with funding and support from the State Department to reach this goal. Best of all, part of the fellowship requires two internships – one here in the U.S. doing consular work, and another at a consulate or embassy overseas.
Furthermore, I am committed to a minimum of five years of service in the department after I graduate and complete all the screening requirements for federal employment. The Pickering fellowship provides the most direct path into the State Department for graduate students.
What advice would you give to other students who are thinking about applying for the Pickering and other fellowships?
I would tell other students who are thinking about applying for the Pickering that there is no reason not to apply. We all doubt ourselves and wonder if we really have the qualifications to pursue these opportunities, but all of us are at Barrett because of positive leadership qualities that have been demonstrated in our personal and academic lives. Have confidence in yourself and lean on your networks as you work through fellowship applications such as the Pickering.
How did you decide to come to ASU? What prompted your decision? How did your undergraduate experience help you get to where you are now?
I transferred to ASU from Phoenix College, the flagship campus of the Maricopa County Community College District, in August 2017. As a first-generation college student, I gravitated towards community college because of the low cost, small class sizes, and ability to explore my passions before committing myself to an academic major. Despite the stigmas often associated with community college, I was able to find full-time work, study abroad, and earn scholarships that are the only reason why I can afford to graduate with less debt than my peers. Without the experiences that I had as a community college student, I would not be where I am today; I would not have confidence in myself or access to a wide network of mentors on whom I have relied.
I chose to come to ASU because I wanted to stay close to home and continue my involvement in the community, particularly working with the United Nations Association of Phoenix and Global Ties Arizona. Also, I had several friends enrolled in Barrett and was impressed by the program’s devotion to fostering a culture of service-driven scholarship. Clearly, I made the right choice!