Senior receives Pickering Fellowship for foreign service

Betty Thai’s honors thesis focuses on how study abroad programs, especially those based in China, benefit students through authentic cultural exchange. (Photo courtesy of Betty Thai)

Following her travels studying abroad in Beijing in Spring 2019 that sparked a passion for learning about new people and cultures, Betty Thai’s interest in foreign service flourished. Having enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people and learn about different cultures, Thai was eager for another chance to travel abroad in the future.

After studying abroad, Thai attended a networking event held by Delta Phi Epsilon, USC’s Foreign Service Society, where she learned more about career opportunities in foreign service from professionals currently working in the field. During the event, Thai became increasingly fascinated with international career opportunities, particularly the opportunity to travel and change careers frequently. 

After the event, Thai continued to research future career paths, which led her to discover the Pickering Fellowship. 

Thai, now a  senior majoring in political science and East Asian languages and cultures, received the Pickering Fellowship for foreign service in early-December — a program intended to assist low-income and historically underrepresented communities pursuing careers in foreign service.  Chosen for one of only 45 fellowships out of 1,301 applicants nationwide, Thai said she applied in hopes of securing a career that would allow her to experience the excitement of working internationally.

“I can’t believe [foreign service officers] get paid to travel and do all these incredible things. They can change careers every two to three years so they never get bored. That’s when I started like diving headfirst into all this, eager to learn what opportunities are out there,” Thai said. “So, when I learned about the Pickering Fellowship, I thought to myself, ‘yeah let’s do it.’”

Through the fellowship, Thai secured financing for a two-year master’s degree and a job within the United States Department of State as a diplomat to a foreign country. 

Thai said her passion for helping others, which she fostered through her own experiences growing up, is what motivated her to pursue a career in foreign service. 

“While I was growing up, because I’m the oldest, I had to do a lot of the translating and cultural navigating to figure out what it means to be Chinese American but also what it means to be American and Chinese,” Thai said. “I think that definitely got me started on this whole path of pursuing advocacy, policy and international life.” 

Brian Bernards, an associate professor of both East Asian languages and cultures and comparative literature who wrote Thai’s letters of recommendation, said he believes Thai’s honors thesis is one of the many things that distinguished her from the other applicants. 

In her thesis — created following Thai’s travels to Beijing — she explored the ways study abroad programs, particularly those based in China, benefit students through the opportunities they provide in cultural exchange and how this may impact the future relationship between China and the U.S. 

“Her work and goals are focused on person to person diplomatic exchanges in an international environment, particularly between the U.S. and China, to help supplement the high-level diplomacy between the two countries,” Bernards said. “She wants to help reset the U.S.-China relationship toward a more positive, more civilian-led direction rather than one led by government policy.” 

The fellowship application process included personal statements, interviews and written assessments that she worked on throughout the summer of 2020 to have them ready for the deadline in October, Thai said. Once she received the fellowship in December of 2020, she had to begin applying to graduate schools as well.

According to Bernards, Thai has many attributes that make her suitable for a career in foreign service, including her enthusiasm for academics and volunteer work. 

When she was a student in Bernards’ Global Chinese Cinema and Cultural Studies class in the fall of 2018, Thai used the opportunity to ask him questions about the study abroad experience so that she could make the most out of her own time abroad when she went the following year. 

“I was very impressed with the initiative that she took to seek out working with me. She wanted to know about my study abroad experience and asked for advice to best make use of her time while she was studying in Beijing,” Bernards said. “I’ve never really had any other student kind of come up to me and really ask those kinds of questions.” 

It was this initiative that allowed Thai to realize that foreign service is the right career path for her, Bernards said. 

While working on a reelection campaign for California State Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg together in 2018, Alexa Juarez, one of Thai’s mentors, recalled how quickly Thai rose to the top as an intern. 

Thai worked as a member of the recruitment team, encouraging people to volunteer for the campaign. When a veteran member of the team got sick and could not show up to give a recruitment presentation, Juarez said Thai stepped up, even though she was still shadowing as a new member of the campaign. Because of Thai’s presentation, Juarez said the team saw their highest percentage of people who actually volunteered after signing up. 

“This was her first presentation, and I was just absolutely astonished,” Juarez said. “I truly believe that Betty’s going to go so extremely far,” Juarez said. “The sky’s the limit for her. I think she’s one in a million.”

For Thai, the Pickering fellowship will provide her with an opportunity to continue to help those in need, she said. As a diplomat, Thai will be able to influence foreign policy between the U.S. and other countries.

“I would be analyzing politics in the host country, meeting new people, and going to conferences. Then, I send notes and analysis back to Washington,” Thai said. “It’s very cool to be able to affect high level policy that way.”

Ultimately, Thai sees the fellowship as an opportunity to help people around the world. 

“I want to be in a position where I can advocate for unheard voices,” Thai said. “This [fellowship] is the perfect way to get the conversation started.” 

As Thai continues her career in foreign service, she said she wants to pay homage to her mother, who has sacrificed so much of her time and efforts to raise Thai and her brother.

Thai’s mother immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of continuing her music career as a violinist. However, she gave up this dream to support Thai and her family, learning English and earning an associate’s degree to work long hours at a medical diagnostic company. 

These sacrifices are what allowed Thai the opportunity to get an education and participate in extracurricular activities that put her on the path to where she is today. 

According to Thai, her mother’s support is the key to her success, and she owes all her accomplishments to her.