Imagine applying for your dream job and being told flat out no. Most people would quit there and start reassessing their career choices, it may feel like a sign: it’s just not meant to be.
Jeffrey Simmons refused to heed that sign. After applying twice in a row over the course of his undergraduate tenure at Florida A&M University, Simmons was selected to be a member of the prestigious Charles B. Rangel International Fellowship 2019 cohort.
Only 30 students are chosen nationwide.
The fellowship is funded by the U.S. Department of State as part of an initiative to increase minority representation in foreign service and diplomacy. The program, administered by Howard University, was founded in 2002 with the help of New York Congressman Charles B. Rangel, who has advocated for diversity in global affairs throughout his political career.
According to a statement from Howard University’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center, “The Rangel Fellowship will support Jeffrey through a two-year master’s degree in an area of relevance to the Foreign Service. It will also provide extensive professional development opportunities, including internships, mentors, and skills training. As part of the Rangel Program, Jeffrey will work for a Member of congress on issues related to foreign affairs in summer 2019.”
In the summer of 2020 Simmons will be placed in a U.S. embassy overseas. After successful completion of the program he will become an official U.S. diplomat, with a commitment to five years of foreign service.
Simmons’ journey to politics and FAMU started long before he was even born. He is the child of two FAMU alumni, and his grandfather Eugene Herring is a former Student Government Association president. In 2015 Simmons was offered the Presidential Life Gets Better Scholarship and shortly thereafter began making his mark on The Hill.
“Jeffrey came up to orientation summer of 2015 with his dad, I remember him being a very pleasant young man. When he went back home he started bombarding me with all these emails wanting to join this and join that. He was a very memorable person, very bubbly, energetic,” Emma Dawson, one of Simmons’ mentors, said.
As director of the Honors Program she has worked closely with Simmons over the course of his college tenure. Dawson shared that in her 10 years in the honors program, Simmons is the only student to have held the position of the Honors Student Association president three years in a row.
“I have been very happy to see him evolve since he’s been here. Every opportunity he could have applied for he applied for whether it was an internship, research, and graduate school. In all the fellowships he’s applied for I think I’ve been a part of it as far as listening to him, writing letters of support and recommendations. He certainly is an outstanding representative of Florida A&M University,” Dawson added.
Simmons is also involved in FAMU’s Big Brother Little Brother mentorship organization and was appointed to the 48th SGA Student Senate last fall. But for Simmons it was his experience with the Junior United Nations Assembly at his middle school that sparked his interest in diplomacy.
“It was an opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and cultures, to talk about global issues, and to do something to make a change. I remember going to the conference and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool,’ and that’s when it really bit me,” he explained.
“After that I toggled with the idea about being diplomat and not being a diplomat. I didn’t really get real until graduation of high school when you’re supposed to say what you want to be in life. I had a lot of questions to answer and so I came to FAMU with them and I got a lot of them answered at the Diplomat in Residence office,” he added. “ And so I came up with a plan, and it was a long shot plan because it’s hard to get the fellowship. It’s hard to get into these programs, but I wanted to do anything I could to make it possible. “
FAMU U.S. Diplomat in Residence Michael Thurston helped connect Simmons to the Rangel Fellowship and mentored him along his journey. His freshman year, Simmons applied for the Rangel Scholars program, a six-week summer enrichment program for undergraduate students to gain a deeper knowledge of international affairs.
He didn’t get in initially, but was later accepted when he reapplied for the scholars program his sophomore year.
“It was a great way to learn about the fellowship. You’re getting an inside perspective on what is going on in D.C. Having that opportunity made me really realize that I’d love to go the next step in this relationship with wanting to be a diplomat. And that’s what pushed me to apply for the Rangel fellowship,” Simmons said.
Simmons applied for the fellowship his junior year at FAMU and was denied. Coming up on the spring semester of his junior year, he faced a choice.
“I could have graduated last year,” Simmons said. “But I was looking at the process and I was looking at what’s best for me and I had a lot of hard decisions to make. Because I wanted to graduate college early, and so it was hard for me to say ‘I think I want to stay a little longer, I think FAMU has a little more to offer me.’”
Simmons decided to finish out his senior year at FAMU and used his time to grow his experiences and sharpen his resume. He worked in communications at the Palestinian-American Civic Engagement Fellowship, which ultimately led him to an internship with the Congressional Black Caucus.
“That really led me back to Rangel realizing that this was a very serious opportunity for me that could change the trajectory of my life. And so I worked to prepare for it. I was working hard to make sure I had a good chance by doing mock interviews, reviewing my personal statement going to the writing center. I was grinding for a good three-month period,” Simmons said.
“When I got the email that I was selected as a fellow I told everyone that I knew. I had wanted this so badly for so long that this was just a dream come true.”
Dawson is thrilled for her protégé.
“I was not surprised, not at all,” she said. “This is typical Jeffrey, if there’s such thing as a typical 4.0 student.”
Award recipients were notified of their placement in November 2018. Since then Simmons has been going through the security clearance process and preparing for his congressional internship this summer. He will begin his master’s program in Intercultural and International Communication at American University in the fall of 2019.
Simmons reminisced about the prophetic ending of his journey to becoming a fellow: “When the Rangel scholars program came to an end I remember telling everyone that that I would be a Rangel fellow in the future and they should expect to see my name posted somewhere.”