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SIT alumna will study climate change-democracy links through Foreign Service fellowship
June 2nd, 2022 | Jordan, SIT Study Abroad
In 2018, when Lauren Newman attended SIT Jordan: Geopolitics, International Relations and the Future of the Middle East, she had already spent time in the Middle East and Morocco studying Arabic. Those experiences sparked an interest in working for the Foreign Service. In 2022, Lauren was named a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow, putting her one step closer to making that idea a reality.
The prestigious Rangel Fellowship program is funded by the U.S. Department of State with the aim of enhancing the excellence and diversity of the Foreign Service. Lauren is one of two SIT alumni in the new Rangel Fellowship cohort of 45.
Lauren is from St. Martin, Mississippi, and is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi. Through the fellowship she will attend Georgetown University to pursue a master of science in foreign service. She hopes to explore the relationship between climate change and democratization.
How did your background influence your desire to go into the Foreign Service?
I grew up low-income in rural Mississippi, and I experienced the feeling of having people make decisions on my behalf that felt unfair. In particular, the Medicaid coverage gap affected my family and I lived uninsured from October of my senior year of high school until my first time being employed full-time. Anger over that situation and feeling unheard led me to be more interested in politics, and from there I became involved in voting rights, co-founding a nonprofit called MS Votes.
From there, my interest and experience in promoting voting rights led to an increased interest in democratization abroad. People everywhere feel under-represented by their governments. I ended up working with the Democracy Program at Carter Center and going on an election observation mission in Zimbabwe. I loved feeling like I was serving a higher goal while I was on that mission, and I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career of international service.
I loved forming relationships across barriers when I went abroad, and I wanted to keep pursuing opportunities that let me continue to do so.
Additionally, I should note that I've always enjoyed learning about the world around me, but my high school world religions class really sparked my interest in cultures and belief systems throughout the world. I had a great teacher who taught us that across different belief systems, you can usually find trends that unite everyone. That experience made me choose to study international studies and Arabic in college to learn more about a different culture and belief system in hopes of finding out more about what bonds us all together. I loved forming relationships across barriers when I went abroad, and I wanted to keep pursuing opportunities that let me continue to do so.
How did you decide to pursue the Rangel fellowship and a career in international affairs?
For one thing, I knew I loved travel and SIT was a big part of that. I wanted to pursue foreign service in part because it’s very well-supported and does genuinely meaningful work. A lot of Foreign Service officers go to graduate school but I couldn't really afford it and I was trying to figure out how to do it.
Beyond Rangel, I knew I wanted to pursue international affairs in large part because of my experiences abroad. No matter where I went or what program I went with, I always served as a type of citizen-diplomat, where I explained my culture while simultaneously learning about the culture of others. I found this immensely rewarding, and I feel like it’s fundamental for creating cooperation between citizens and governments.
What interests you in terms of your career path?
I’m really interested – and my interest developed further when I was in Jordan – in the role of conflict and political demonstrations related to climate change. I want to focus my career on how these things are all connected. Jordan, for instance, is water-poor and it’s only going to get more so as climate change gets worse. People demand services and if governments aren’t responsive people are going to want more transparent government.
What I’m also interested in, particularly in the Middle East, is, as oil reserves get lower and lives get harder how that will affect more authoritarian countries. I’m interested in being a political officer in the Foreign Service. Political officers track what legislative bodies in a country are doing.
I got to take a trip to Dubai through the SIT program. That was the first time we were told we had to be really careful with questions and conduct ourselves a certain way. I could feel that difference and feel some of what having an authoritarian government feels like.
What did you find compelling about SIT?
SIT really emphasized site visits – there were lots of trips. I was also able to undertake independent research. This let me go way deeper into learning about Jordan and the Middle East than I was able to before, in classes that just focused on language. I really appreciated doing a research project.
Independent research ... let me go way deeper into learning about Jordan and the Middle East than I was able to before.
It was also great that with the SIT program, if you have a Pell grant they match it. That made study abroad much more accessible for me as someone who grew up low-income.
What did you focus on with your research?
A lot of my research was focusing on what the religious institutions were doing with refugees. I met people who worked with Red Crescent and with Christian and other Palestinian organizations as well. It was very eye-opening. A lot of times those organizations are considered preferable to government organizations by refugees.
Registering as a refugee is a very touchy subject. You can claim that you're a refugee and qualify for government assistance. But a lot of Palestinians didn't want to claim they were refugees because they didn't want permanent residence status somewhere outside of Palestine, hoping to one day return.
In my research, I was looking at how the perceived legitimacy of institutions affects aid work.
With Syrian refugees, it was a little different. If someone registered with the United Nations as a Syrian refugee they had to go to the refugee camps, and people didn’t want that because it was so hard to leave the camps once you were in them.
For a lot of people, religious organizations have a sense of legitimacy that goverments may not. As a result, they’ll let those organizations know more details about where they're from. In my research, I was looking at how the perceived legitimacy of institutions affects aid work.
What was it like for you to live and study in the Middle East?
I loved living and studying in the Middle East. Right away, I learned how much Middle Eastern culture emphasizes hospitality, which is actually very similar to the culture of the southern U.S. Both people love drinking sweet tea and having guests over!
SIT did a great job combining language courses and subject matter courses in a way that made me feel like I was getting a very well-rounded experience.
Jordanians are also very politically aware, which led to lots of very interesting conversations everywhere, from a taxi to a hookah lounge. I learned a lot about other perspectives as well as about the things that bind people together, and I enjoyed my role as a citizen-diplomat.
Would you recommend SIT's programs to other students?
Absolutely! SIT did a great job combining language courses and subject matter courses in a way that made me feel like I was getting a very well-rounded experience. The trip we took in the middle of the semester to pursue different perspectives was also extremely rewarding, and SIT works really hard to make sure diverse viewpoints are always included. I felt very supported and learned so much, and I'm confident other students would have the same experience.