The Collegian
Monday, June 01, 2020

Prestigious Rangel Fellowship awarded to Richmond student

Before coming to the University of Richmond, Heather Thornton had never been abroad, but once at the university, she pursued four trips abroad and was awarded the opportunity to participate in the Rangel Fellowship, a program that grooms undergraduate students into foreign officers, Thornton said.

Thornton was one of 20 college students nationwide awarded the fellowship, among 300 applicants, she said. The fellowship subsidizes the cost of graduate school, provides students with a congressional internship, an abroad internship at an American embassy, and it requires the recipient to serve three years in the Foreign Service upon graduating.

In the fall, Thornton will attend American University for graduate school to build upon her undergraduate courses in International Studies, World Politics and Diplomacy. She will begin the Rangel Fellowship program with her congressional internship this summer in Washington D.C., Thornton said.

"My dream is to represent U.S. interests abroad," Thornton said.

Despite having no prior abroad experience before attending college, Thornton decided to pursue International Studies because she had always enjoyed watching foreign films and eating foods from different cultures when she was young, she said.

During her sophomore year, Thornton decided to go on a spring break service trip to Guatemala.

"This trip made me really fall in love with the idea of Foreign service," she said.

Between the summer of her sophomore and junior year, Thornton studied in Spain for six weeks, she said.

"It was a really exciting time to be in Spain because they had just won the world cup," Thornton said.

Thornton found that her two abroad experiences taught her how to see the world in a different way, she said. Thornton continued to pursue study abroad opportunities by spending the fall of her junior year in India and the fall of her senior year in Brazil.

"I kept getting presented with great opportunities from the Office of International Education," she said.

While in India, Thornton worked with the Minnesota Studies in International Development. She worked at a non-governmental organization that focused on empowering women, she said.

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This past fall, when Thornton was in Brazil, she began applying for graduate school programs, and she learned about the Rangel Fellowship from an email that was sent to study abroad students by study abroad adviser Amy Bergmann.

Thornton did not know any Rangel Fellows before applying, but she pursued the program because it complimented her interests, she said.

When she returned to the U.S.for the second semester of her senior year, Thornton and 40 other students across the country were invited to a final round interview in Washington D.C.

Thornton said the interview had included a two hour writing portion on matters concerning U.S. policy and personal interview questions that she had to answer in front of a panel of ambassadors and professors.

Thornton said that it was very intimidating.

Michele Cox, director of study abroad for the University of Richmond, wrote a letter of recommendation for Thornton.

"The entire time I was writing the letter I kept thinking, 'there is no way Heather cannot be accepted to this program,'" Cox said.

Cox said that Thornton is an ideal candidate for the program because she has studied abroad in many non-traditional locations, achieved academic excellence, exercised leadership skills, and has refined her career goals because of the diverse programs she has completed.

"Heather would be a wonderful diplomat, we need more people like her," Cox said.

Thornton is the first student Cox has known to receive the fellowship, Cox said. She was not aware of any other university students who had applied for the fellowship in the past, she said.

Jan French, assistant professor of anthropology, said Thornton was the only student she had known who had received the fellowship during her years of teaching. French wrote one of Thornton's recommendation letters for application to American University, she said.

"I can definitely see Heather joining the diplomatic corps, becoming an ambassador," French said. Thornton is not sure what region she will want to work in for Foreign Service, however, she is very adaptable, she said.

Contact reporter Madeline Small at

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