One year after Abi Olvera, ’12, transferred to the University of Richmond from an El Paso community college, the U.S. Department of State selected her for its prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship.

The fellowship is awarded each year to 20 undergraduates whom the state department wants to recruit for Foreign Service careers — an opportunity that Olvera, an international studies major with a minor in law and liberal arts, couldn’t pass up.

In addition to $40,000 in financial support for both her final year at Richmond and her first year of graduate school, the fellowship requires two summer internships — one in Washington, and one at a U.S. embassy abroad — and will provide a Foreign Service Officer to mentor her when she is in graduate school. After graduate school and training, Olvera will join the Foreign Service.

“This is an amazing, incredibly competitive position in the Foreign Service, where most of the starting officers are in their late 20s or early 30s,” she says. “I’ll be working at embassies and consulates all over the world, with the opportunity to experience another country every two years.”

Olvera’s dream of working in international affairs was influenced by her experiences growing up in a border town. “[El Paso] is walking distance to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which is currently the most dangerous city in the Western Hemisphere,” she says.

Even before Juarez was known for violence, Olvera was captivated by the differences in standards of living and life chances between citizens on either side of the border. “As an American citizen, to me the border was fluid — I could come and go as I pleased,” she says.

In El Paso, she volunteered at an immigrant advocacy center and was exposed to the impact of financial illiteracy on many families at a local homeless shelter. “Although many of the single mothers were working, they were having trouble setting up savings plans and not falling into recurring debt with their modest income,” she says, pointing out that these women are unlikely to have any education in financial literacy, though “they need it the most.”

When she transferred to Richmond last year with her two-year community college degree, she joined forces with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, where she is working to start a project on financial literacy in the community.

“I know University of Richmond students — particularly those studying economics or financial literacy — are in a good position to pass on the information they know about savings accounts, interest and mortgages,” she says. “It’s a great way to harness the student capital to really help people in need.”

On campus, Olvera also has become involved with Model UN, the debate team, and the Spanish and Latino Student Alliance among other organizations, and she will study global health and development in Switzerland this fall.

Despite the meaningful activities that pepper her resume, Olvera doubted she would win the fellowship. She had previously interviewed for other prestigious fellowships and international programs, convincing her that “this was another program for which I would only reach the finalist stage,” and the other finalists she met had traveled extensively, spoke several languages, and represented Ivy League schools.

But she worked with her advisor, Stephen Long, to prepare with mock interviews in the weeks leading up to the interview. “Professor Long was incredibly encouraging and supportive, reminding me that I was a competitive candidate because of the great things I had achieved locally,” she says. “He truly showed me what UR professors are willing to do to help their students succeed.”

As one of this year’s 20 recipients nationwide, Olvera becomes the University’s first student to receive this fellowship.