Akaisha Cook, an Honors College senior majoring in political science, was selected for a 2020 Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship following a competitive national contest. Funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Howard University, the Pickering Fellowship Program supports and prepares outstanding students for careers in the U.S. Foreign Service.
As one of only 30 students selected from a national pool of 844 applicants, Cook will receive $37,500 annually for a two-year master’s degree in an area related to foreign affairs. The prestigious program also provides extensive professional development opportunities, paid internships with the Department of State in Washington, D.C. and overseas, and, upon graduation, a job in the Foreign Service as a diplomat.
“We are truly thrilled and excited that Akaisha will be joining the Pickering Fellowship Program. She has demonstrated outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and commitment to service during her time at UNLV,” said Lily Lopez-McGee, director of the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship Program. “These experiences bode well for her success through graduate school and in the Foreign Service as well. I look forward to seeing all that she will accomplish in her career.”
A first-generation college student from Las Vegas, Cook’s path to winning this career-making award was anything but easy. At age five, she found herself in an unstable home situation that required intervention. Cook’s grandparents took custody of her despite their limited resources.
“Without the love of my grandparents, guidance from advisors and professors, and the scholarship support I have received, I would have never made it to college, let alone be in a position to have applied for a national award like the Pickering Fellowship,” she said.
What Cook may have lacked with economic means, she made up for with determination. As a student in the Honors College, Cook began applying for every relevant opportunity she could find even if acceptance seemed unlikely.
“I noticed that many of my peers at UNLV would give up on applying for great national awards before they even start simply because they lacked belief in themselves,” Cook said. “With the guidance from Drs. Meana and Hanson in the Honors College, I started applying for opportunities as if I were the top student in the country. They taught me to stay humble, but not overlook my own greatness.”
After spending a scholarship-funded semester abroad in China in 2017, Cook committed herself to the dream of becoming a foreign diplomat in East Asia. Earlier this year, Cook interned with the Nevada Governor’s Office and participated in the nationally competitive Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program as a Rangel Scholar in 2019.
During graduate school, she plans to develop an expertise in U.S.-Chinese relations and fluency in Mandarin before embarking on a career as a diplomat. She hopes to eventually help expand opportunities for American K-12 students to learn East Asian languages and study abroad.
But the fellowship means more for Cook than an opportunity to achieve her own career goals.
“I hope my winning the Pickering Fellowship will help inspire others from low-socioeconomic backgrounds - especially women of color,” she said. “I want to encourage them to be tenacious in seeking out people and opportunities who can help them achieve their goals, no matter how crazy or wild their dreams or interests may seem.”
Since receiving news of the award, Cook has found herself overwhelmed with gratitude (and a full inbox).
“It has been a surreal week. I’m receiving email updates about things like security clearances or personal invitations to apply from the top graduate programs for foreign policy,” she said. “I am incredibly thankful to the Pickering Program for giving me a chance to change my life and make a difference in the world. My dreams are literally coming true!”
About the Pickering Fellowship
The Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship is a U.S. Department of State program administered by Howard University that seeks to attract and prepare outstanding young people, based on financial need, who represent ethnic, gender, social, and geographic diversity and have an interest in pursuing a Foreign Service career in the U.S. Department of State. The Program encourages the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service, women, and those with financial need.