Note from Admissions: We are continuing to introduce our new program assistants at the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid this year. We have introduced Catherine Born MPA ’22, Nick Chun MIA ’22, and Rachel Tang MIA ’22.
Catalina Wedman Alfaro is a second-year MIA student born and raised in Cartago, Costa Rica. She is concentrating in International Security Policy and specializing in Mandarin Chinese. Catalina came to SIPA after graduating from the University of Kansas in May 2020. During her second semester at SIPA, she got to complete a Fulbright ETA (’21) in Madrid, Spain, while attending SIPA courses remotely. As a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow, Catalina will join the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer upon graduation.
What were you doing before you came to SIPA?
Before coming to Columbia SIPA, I was a senior at the University of Kansas (’20) studying Global Studies, Political Science, and Spanish Literature and Cultures. I was also studying Mandarin and Chinese foreign policy through the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship. At the same time, I served as an Intercountry Adoptions Student Trainee at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I was able to do this through the Pathways Internship Program, which provides students the opportunity to work with federal agencies and explore career opportunities with the government through paid internships. Before that, I did a paid internship at the Bureau of Consular Affairs through the United States Foreign Service Internship Program (USFSIP), a two-summer experiential-learning program designed to expose undergraduate students to U.S. diplomacy and the work of the Department of State.
What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?
In addition to the opportunity to live in a truly global city and learn from SIPA’s nationally and internationally renowned faculty, the MIA curriculum is why I ultimately chose SIPA. While providing students with robust interdisciplinary training in international affairs, SIPA also gives students a unique opportunity to delve into our interests through concentration and specialization options. Working on International Adoptions at USCIS and International Parental Child Abductions at the State Department gave me insight into the skill set I needed to make a change. As a result, SIPA courses on “Children’s Rights Advocacy” and “Protection of Children in Disaster & War” caught my attention right away.
Lastly, I appreciate the importance SIPA places on foreign language proficiency. Proficiency in a language other than English is a graduation requirement for MIA students. While I am a native Spanish speaker, intermediate-level language courses will count as MIA electives. I saw this as an opportunity to continue studying Mandarin Chinese, and I was fortunate to receive a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship to fund my studies.
What kind of work do you hope to do when you graduate?
As a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs fellow, I will be joining the foreign service after graduation. I will join as a Public Diplomacy Officer, and my work may involve communicating with and through a variety of media to promote U.S. interests abroad. For example, this could include explaining to foreign audiences how American history, values, and traditions shape U.S. foreign policy. I might also get the opportunity to manage cultural and information programs and coordinate exchange programs to strengthen relationships that improve foreign insight into American society. I hope to serve at U.S. embassies in Latin America, East Asia, and Europe, but I will be happy to serve anywhere the State Department determines is necessary.
What’s your internship experience been like?
My summer internship was in the Political-Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, The Bahamas. I was very fortunate to have an internship that directly relates to the career in diplomacy I will pursue after graduation. Furthermore, interning at an Embassy allowed me to reflect on the skills I still need to develop as a young professional, and interning between my first and second year at SIPA specifically, was a chance to “test” the skills I gained at SIPA while giving me an opportunity to come back and polish the skills that were essential on the ground.
What was the most challenging aspect of the application process?
A challenge too many prospective students face is self-doubt. “Am I actually good enough for SIPA?” I was scared to apply until I met some SIPA students during a graduate school fair. They were friendly and down-to-earth and made me feel like I would fit in just right at Columbia. Community college graduates, first-generation students, low-income students: you can thrive at SIPA too! Don’t let self-doubt prevent you from taking the first step. Get organized, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The support of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Kansas, for example, was instrumental during my application process. Research what resources are available to you.