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College Alum, a 2012 Social Science Scholar, Wins Prestigious Fellowship

May 11, 2017

Caitlin Strawder, a 2013 graduate of the college with majors in political science and interdisciplinary social science, has won a prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship supported by the U.S. Department of State. The program provides funding, mentoring and professional development for a job in the U.S. Foreign Service — an accomplishment that Strawder had once considered a “far-fetched” dream.

“I’m still in shock,” Strawder said from her current job as a conflict resolution mediator at the New York Peace Institute. “I’m so grateful and excited about what comes next. It’s really a chance to make this big dream come true.”

Strawder’s big dream of becoming a foreign service officer developed at Florida State. But she arrived at the university as a freshman in 2009 with a very different dream: becoming a city manager. Her life veered in another direction when she earned admission to FSU’s Service Scholar Program in the Center for Leadership and Social Change, which offers students leadership and service opportunities. Strawder’s experience in that program prompted her to focus more on service and what actions she could take to generate positive change.

In her junior year, Strawder was selected to be a member of the first cohort of the college’s Social Science Scholars program, which provides leadership training and a $5,000 stipend toward an international or domestic service project. The program made it possible for her to teach English in El Salvador one summer. This first trip abroad for her proved to be a transformative experience, and she learned as much as the students she taught. They described in vivid detail what it was like to grow up in a country still struggling a generation after the civil war there officially ended in 1992.

“That was really the first time I was able to look at conflict and its effects, even decades after the war,” Strawder said. “There is still a lot of fallout from their civil war. It’s almost like a stain that conflict leaves behind and if left untreated, it darkens everything and really makes itself part of people’s everyday awareness. I saw those issues needed to be addressed and noted, and it was really impactful.”

Strawder returned to FSU and dove into service-related projects and courses. People noticed her leadership.

She won a multitude of awards for her commitment to service and academic performance, including FSU’s Profiles of Service Award, the Charles Billings Public Service Award in the department of political science and the Ben Rosenbloom Memorial Service Scholarship from the Center for Leadership and Social Change. Strawder also earned honors as a Garnet and Gold Scholar and Golden Key Honor Society member.

Thanks to a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, she was able to spend two years after graduation as a teacher in Colombia, South America. During that time, she took a master’s level course there studying conflict resolution.

“That experience was absolutely extraordinary,” Strawder said. “It was an opportunity to work with their education program in a time of change and be in that space at a unique socio-political intersection.”

The Pickering Fellowship program will help Strawder pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City. She plans to study international relations focusing on security policy and will also complete internships with the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. and overseas. The fellowship requires a commitment to work with the U.S. Foreign Service for five years.

Strawder credits her time as a Social Science Scholar as a very important step in her journey.

"If it hadn't been for the chance to teach in El Salvador, I wouldn't have gone on to my Fulbright and then to my second Fulbright and then to the Pickering," she said. "And if it hadn’t been for the Social Science Scholars program, I may never have had a chance to go to El Salvador.”

Strawder is excited to embark on the next segment of her winding career journey.

“The State Department decides where they can best use you,” Strawder said. “Given my past experience, that could be someplace in South America or studying security policy in places where there is a less stable relationship or where conflict resolution skills are needed. I’m ready. Wherever the wind and the State Department takes me.”

Dave Heller/University Communications contributed to this article.