From an immigrant family of humble means, Katherine Torres will soon be working for the U.S. State Department as the first University of North Georgia alumna to win the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship.
Funded by the State Department, the fellowship prepares students for foreign service careers. Torres will receive up to $42,000 annually for two years to complete a master’s degree program and participate in two summer internships. In return, she has agreed to work with the Department of State’s Foreign Service for at least five years. She does not yet know where she will pursue her master’s or where she will be stationed and in what role.
The opportunity did not come without significant hurdles and a lot of hard work. Torres was born in Hoschton after her family immigrated from Venezuela, and she moved around a lot during her childhood.
“I grew up very low income, so I had to figure out a way to fund my career goals and my dreams both at home and abroad,” she said. “I never thought I would be able to afford college, much less study abroad.”
For much of her college career, she worked 36 hours a week as a waitress on top of being a full-time student.
“It was very stressful,” she said. “It took a lot of energy that I could have put toward other things, and sometimes I would beat myself up about it, like, ‘Oh, man, if I didn't have to work so much, I would have more energy to do XYZ. … But it makes all of the victories seem even more significant, because you feel like everything is paying off.”
She had long been a high-achieving student, but prior to attending UNG, she couldn’t quite see the wide-open path that laid in front of her. She recalled walking into the office of Anastasia Lin, assistant vice president of research and engagement at UNG.
“I remember when I first walked in I was wearing a hoodie,” Torres said. “I just had a lot of self doubt, and I was lacking a lot in confidence.”
But Lin and other mentors helped Torres see her potential, and since then, she has earned four nationally competitive scholarships and studied abroad in Ireland and Australia. She graduated with a bachelor’s in political science and government, and is currently teaching English in Taiwan through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
"We are so proud of all the work she put in as an applicant, including the three mock interviews she managed to squeeze in after her Fulbright teaching hours and despite the 13-hour time difference," Lin said.
Torres has been bitten by the “travel bug,” as she put it, and she has also traveled to France and the United Kingdom. Her passion for foreign service was ignited while participating in the Cox-State Diplomacy Seminar, where she shadowed foreign service officers in the State Department, learned about their jobs and partook in simulations.
She is most interested in working as a consular — issuing visas, renewing passports and checking on the status of U.S. prisoners abroad — and she believes her immigrant background makes her a good candidate.
She hopes to inspire others with her story.
“A really big part of me wants to demonstrate to other students who are minorities — whether that be racial, gender, identity, sexuality, economic status — that they can do it too, despite the financial-emotional barriers that they face,” she said.