Daniela Mengesha is on her way to the foreign service.
The Houston native, a 2019 University of Virginia graduate, is UVA’s latest recipient of the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship. The Rangel Fellowship, funded by the U.S. Department of State, is administered by Howard University and supports those who want to pursue a career in the foreign service of the U.S. Department of State.
The fellowship supports a two-year master’s degree in an area approved by the State Department. It also provides internships, mentors and skills training, including a foreign affairs-related internship with a member of Congress this summer. In the summer of 2023, the State Department will send fellows overseas to intern in a U.S. embassy or consulate, and after completing the program in 2024, they will become diplomats.
Mengesha, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, has applied to a variety of graduate programs focused on public policy.
Mengesha said she has long had an interest in international affairs.
“As a junior in high school, I was accepted in the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship, which allowed me to travel to Israel and practice diplomacy,” she said. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) reminded us about the history of diplomacy in Congress and about the work that Rep. George “Mickey” Leland (D-Texas) did around the world and in Israel. This internship opened my eyes to a career in public service and diplomacy.”
She was president of the Model United Nations in Carnegie Vanguard High School in Houston.
“I spoke three languages at the time, including Bulgarian, English and Spanish,” Mengesha said. “After my internship in Israel, I was even more curious about policy in the Middle East and brushing up on my Hebrew and Arabic. Even though I tested out of my language requirements at UVA, I knew I wanted to learn Arabic, so I did.”
Mengesha studied abroad in Jordan, where she familiarized herself with the geopolitics of the region while practicing Arabic.
“I would absolutely love to be posted in the Middle East and practice more of my Arabic,” Mengesha said. “Additionally, the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim internship and my conversations with Rep. Lee also led me to pursue a Congressional internship on Capitol Hill my third year of college. Interning in Congress through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation refocused public service and policy tracking for me.”
As an emerging leader for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, she interned in the office of U.S. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas).
As a high school senior, Mengesha received a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, which identifies and trains young people with potential, places scholars in multicultural groups of 10 students at partner colleges and provides them with mentoring and scholarships. This was an important juncture for her, she said.
“The Posse Scholarship changed the trajectory of my life forever and remains one of the highest honors I hold,” she said. “Thanks to the intense Posse training and mentoring, I was ready to take on extra coursework and hold leadership positions in four organizations my first year.”
Kimberley Bassett, former associate dean of African American Affairs, was Mengesha’s Posse Foundation mentor, meeting with her individually and in a small group regularly during her first and second years at UVA. It was in one of those small group sessions where Mengesha was first introduced to the Office of Citizen Scholar Development and the Rangel Scholarship.
“Daniela navigates cultural boundaries with a great deal of sensitivity and poise,” Bassett said. “And she has deep convictions, coupled with a humility that makes her very approachable. Throughout our conversations and observing her with her peers, I have been most impressed with her willingness to have her ideas challenged and the consideration she gives to changing her position once she has new information. This maturity will serve her well in the foreign service and in life.”
“Dean Bassett was absolutely invaluable in guiding me through coursework, work study and college life,” Mengesha said. “She also lifted me up and supported me through all of the fellowships, internships and study abroad opportunities I wanted to take advantage of. I could not have done it without her or without Posse.”
Patrice Preston Grimes, emeritus associate dean of African American Affairs and one of her advisers for three years, said Mengesha is very deserving of the Rangel Fellowship.
“Daniela is an excellent listener, whom other students often relied on for support and perspective,” Grimes said. “She is an optimist who always seeks to find solutions, instead of dwelling on problems. Her interest in international relations runs deep, reflecting her innate curiosity about people and cultures different from her own. Upon graduation, she sought jobs that could help her to gain insight into a career in foreign service, rather than pursue a graduate school path that many expected her to follow. I look forward to following her career and progress.”
Mengesha is currently working as an associate with Dewey Square Group’s Grassroots Practice, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.
At UVA, Mengesha was a leadership development chair member of the Black Student Alliance; the secretary of the First Year Leadership Experience; a choreographer for the Salsa Club; secretary of the Slavic Student Alliance; and a member of the Ethiopian Eritrean Student Association and the Muslim Student Association.
Mengesha applied several times for the Rangel Fellowship and the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, but she did not let earlier rejections deter her.
“Daniela is a great example of a few hard truths about some fellowships processes,” said Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, the fellowships office of UVA. “Sometimes the timing isn’t right: she applied three times. And often you are absolutely worthy and just on the unlucky side of a decision: she was an alternate for the Pickering last year, which is a very similar program.”
“I am really proud of the way that Daniela continued to pursue the Pickering and the Rangel. More importantly, I am proud of the way that she continued to learn and grow, seeking out more knowledge in areas of value to her future career and obtaining more relevant experience. Her humility and work ethic would have resulted in her joining the foreign service regardless, but I am really glad she gets the cherry on top of getting to enter her career via the Rangel Fellowship,” he said.
“I have learned that I am more sure about this career path now than ever before,” Mengesha said. “I take rejection very hard, but I did not let it stop me from trying again and again. Now receiving this fellowship feels sweeter than all of the rejections combined.”