Georgia State University senior Kalif Robinson learned he was chosen to receive the prestigious 2017 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship in November. An Honors College student majoring in economics with a minor in Arabic, Robinson is the university’s first Rangel Fellow.
The Rangel Fellowship facilitates entry into the U.S. Foreign Service. It provides a scholarship of up to $47,500 annually towards a master’s degree in international affairs or another area of relevance. Rangel Fellows also participate in two internships on international issues, one for a member of Congress and the other in a U.S. Embassy.
“I am so honored. This is a surreal feeling to be named a Rangel Fellow,” said Robinson. “This experience has made me reflect on all of the pieces of my story that have added up to this moment.”
Robinson’s Virginia Beach high school’s global studies and language academy sparked his interest in international affairs. When he and his family moved to Atlanta, he completed his studies at Chamblee High School. “They have more than 140 countries represented by the student body there. It was a cultural immersion.”
Diversity, downtown Atlanta and the HOPE Scholarship brought Robinson to Georgia State University.
“I had heard GSU was full of opportunities and that you just needed to seize them,” he said.
Robinson pursued economics on the advice of Georgia State advisor Cary Claiborne, who had earned a B.S. in Economics at the Andrew Young School. He found a couple of jobs to support his studies, then threw himself into campus life, moving to the Global Living floor in University Commons and becoming a campus Cultural Competency Ambassador.
His interest in Arabic stemmed from reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
“Although it was set in Afghanistan, I felt it gave me a glimpse of Arab culture in the Middle East. I felt there were so many misconceptions and I wanted to learn more to demystify the region for myself.”
Robinson received the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad the summer of 2015. To get there, he created a crowdfunding site that paid for his flight to Amman, Jordan. He studied with the AMIDEAST program and took two intensive Arabic language courses.
“That experience taught me a lot about people’s struggles around the world,” he said. “For example, we had a water tower on top of our apartment complex and were given a set amount of water for the week. I had to adapt to that. I was there during Ramadan and had the ‘outside looking in’ perspective.”
He also had a candid conversation with a Jordanian cab driver. “While he denounced ISIS as not representative of Islam, he also said that people struggle every day for food, and ISIS comes and offers hope and food. He gave a raw and authentic perception of the Middle East and the issues within the region. That got me thinking about how these issues affect people on a very personal level. That hour-and-a-half conversation was the most profound experience I had in the Middle East.”
The Gilman Scholarship opened many doors for Robinson. “They have a web portal that links you to different government opportunities and a network of Gilman Scholarship alumni you can reach out to.” It also gave him a newfound confidence in his Arabic speaking skills.
Robinson learned about the scholarship to attend the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Summer Enrichment Program from Crystal Mitchell, then the senior coordinator of the Scholarship Resource Center. The center helps students build their profile and get the skills that lead them to obtaining scholarships, fellowships and other external career-building opportunities.
“Crystal is like a mentor,” he said. “I went to visit her one day, just to catch up, and she had the scholarship page up on her computer. ‘I think this fits you,’ she told me. I studied the information she sent, along with other study abroad programs that summer.”
“Kalif wanted some diversity in his profile, so we talked about his purpose and goals for a second study abroad,” said Mitchell, who is now interim associate director of the University Advisement Center. “I felt he would benefit from a program that brings all his strengths together, specifically economics, foreign language and service. I felt Rangel would give him all in one, from the academic to the experiential.”
Mitchell suggested that before Robinson move forward with a second study abroad, he learn more about Rangel and apply. “I wanted him to make an informed decision.”
Robinson applied and was awarded the Rangel scholarship from a pool of 600 applicants. He and another Georgia State student, Mickey Heywood, were among 15 Rangel Scholars who spent six weeks learning about the Foreign Service from ambassadors and diplomats in D.C. last summer.
“I learned that as a foreign diplomat, I could do more, and no day would be the same. The idea spoke to all my career aspirations and funneled everything I hoped to do into one job. It solidified my interest in joining the Foreign Service,” said Robinson.
While there, he also made more than 30 contacts in the field. “After we’d meet, I’d send texts and emails every night to my new contacts. There are people you can connect to and gain a lot from in experiences and knowledge. I’m very big on genuine connections with people.”
When Robinson returned to Georgia State, he researched the Rangel Graduate Fellowship Program and completed the extensive application. To prepare him for his interview in D.C., he sat before a mock panel of four interviewers that included Andrew Young School Dean Mary Beth Walker and former Ambassador Charles Shapiro, president of the Atlanta World Affairs Council.
“Dean Walker and the others asked questions that might be asked in D.C. They gave me great feedback,” he said.
Robinson learned he had been accepted for the program on Friday, November 18, just a day after his D.C. interview and two days before his 22nd birthday. “What an amazing birthday gift!” he said.
Next May, shortly after Robinson graduates, he will fly to D.C. to begin his 10-week paid internship in Congress. He will begin graduate studies that fall and do his embassy internship the following summer.
“I want to be a successful career diplomat,” he said. “Then, at some point, I’d like to do domestic outreach. No one told me when I was growing up that I could be a diplomat. I want to reach out to communities, empower people and share my experience and knowledge to encourage youth. I’m a big believer in paying it forward.”
Robinson’s advice to students applying for national scholarships and fellowships is to plan ahead and start early making meaningful connections. “Talk to your professors and connect beyond classroom discussions, go to the advisement center, get a job on campus if you can and, if you need to, find a writing coach. More than anything, take advantage of all of the resources at Georgia State.”
In telling his story, Robinson stressed that his success is available to any student who is open to experiences and willing to tap into all of the various supports available, whether family, faculty, advisors or career professionals.
“As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have a set path or formula when I came to college. I was open, made it a point to be involved, worked on campus and took advantage of the opportunities put before me, including summer abroad and summer classes.
“Everything counts, but you may not see that until you’re at the end of the road. There’s no reason to stress if you’re not on a specific path.”
“Kalif is very intentional,” said Mitchell. “Every step of his academic career, he has looked at the pros and cons and made very intentional decisions. He takes it a step further and speaks to advisors and professors and his parents. Kalif approaches every piece of his life like it’s a puzzle that he must put together before he makes a decision going forward.”