Another year means another prestigious award for Lola Oke.
Oke, a political science major and Brock Scholar in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Honors College, is the first UTC student to be awarded a Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship.
She was one of 45 fellows selected nationwide for the 2023 cohort.
Rangel Graduate Fellowships, according to the program, support individuals who want to help formulate, represent and implement U.S. foreign policy through a career in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. Oke will receive up to $84,000 for a two-year master’s degree, two paid internships in the U.S. Congress and a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad, and mentoring and professional development opportunities.
Oke, who said, “I want to be a change-maker; I want to be a servant,” will begin an orientation at Howard University in Washington, D.C., following graduation in May.
“It means so much to me to be able to have even participated in the application process in the first place,” Oke said, “and I’ll be participating in a program that first and foremost was meant to diversify the space of diplomacy, the U.S. Department of State and foreign relations in general, and the voices that are able to be contributed to that.
“It’s just an honor and a privilege. I’m so grateful to be able to contribute my own experiences and perspectives but also grow as a political thinker and as a global citizen of this world—and what it means to truly be a servant to those around me.”
Oke, a 2019 graduate of Campbell High School in Smyrna, Georgia, has had a highly decorated academic career at UTC. She is:
- The first University student to be accepted into the Fulbright Canada Mitacs Globalink program in 2021, an international education experience under the Fulbright umbrella intended for U.S. students to work with a Canadian institution.
- One of 20 collegiate undergraduates selected from more than 1,200 applicants as a 2021 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Summer Enrichment Program Scholar.
- A recipient of a Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute Fellowship, spending the summer of 2022 at Princeton University in a rigorous academic graduate-level preparation program for undergraduate juniors committed to public service careers.
While Oke’s parents are of Nigerian descent, she was born in Chicago, and her family moved to the Atlanta suburbs when she was 5 years old.
“I don’t come from a family of politicians or bureaucrats or diplomats in any way that I know of,” she said. “I am somebody who has always been passionate about servant leadership and public service in every sense of the word—and how different parts of our world can be more empathetic to each other.”
The Rangel Graduate Fellowship includes a 10-week internship on Capitol Hill this summer and a 10-week overseas internship at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate during the summer of 2024 between the first and second years of graduate school.
Oke said the fellowship program, established in 2003, is essentially a seven-year obligation; after completing master’s degree programs, Rangel Fellows have a five-year commitment to be a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State.
“This fellowship’s mission is not only to develop these exceptional Foreign Service leaders but also to diversify Foreign Service,” said Leslie Pusey, director of the UTC Office of National Scholarships. “This fellowship is about preparing the whole person for the next steps, and this will launch Lola into all the areas she wants to be in the Foreign Service.
“Thanks to the Rangel, not only does she get to go to a university of her choice— whichever one has the program that she wants—she’s going to have the resources. She will get the best education possible and incredible internship and mentorship support opportunities.”
Dr. Michelle Deardorff, the Adolph S. Ochs professor of government and department head of Political Science and Public Service, called Oke “a very thoughtful and creative thinker.”
“She has both the confidence of her ideas to take the intellectual leaps often necessary to be successful in these kinds of programs,” Deardorff said. “She doesn’t play it safe in that she doesn’t just reiterate what she thinks people want to hear but instead relies on her own life experience, the observations she’s made and the things she’s learned in her classes.
“What I appreciate about Lola is that she doesn’t wait for things to happen to her; you have to create and grow your own opportunities. She is ambitious in such thoughtful and healthy ways. She’s working toward the career goals she has set for herself.”
Fellows who complete the program and Foreign Service entry requirements will receive appointments as Foreign Service Officers per applicable law and State Department policy.
Oke, who has a few master’s programs “that I’m interested in right now,” said she hopes being the University’s first Rangel recipient would set a precedent for anybody to “believe in their capacity to be a change-maker at the college level.”
Pusey said she didn’t doubt that Oke would land the fellowship.
“Lola and I have enjoyed many late nights and last-minute applications. She is a joy to work with and she’s so smart,” Pusey said. “Sometimes I wonder what advice I can give her because she’s beyond me. She’s beyond my skill set. She has more skills and understanding than I do, and so I’m always in awe.
“There will be a point where she might ask me for advice and I’ll be like, ‘I think we’ve surpassed what kind of advice I could give.’ I just love seeing how she thinks things through.”
Said Oke, “I am beyond grateful for Leslie. She has been such an exemplary example of believing that I am capable of literally receiving anything I apply for. She’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to get it.’ Whenever I’m applying for something, it’s almost like she’s on call; she’s always made herself available. And I think it’s just those small moments of, ‘You don’t have to ask me to be there because I’m already there for you.’
“I am extremely grateful to have been able to work with Leslie and to have her in my corner as part of my village here.”