USC Dornsife student heads for a posting in the U.S. Foreign Service
Betty Thai is a USC Dornsife senior studying political science, law and East Asian languages and cultures. (Photo: Courtesy of Betty Thai.)

USC Dornsife student heads for a posting in the U.S. Foreign Service

Senior Betty Thai earned a fellowship that could lead to a job as a U.S. diplomat, an ideal fit for the first-generation college student who wants to help solve global challenges. [3 min read]
ByEric Lindberg

Like many children of immigrant parents, Betty Thai grew up in the role of cultural navigator.

When it came time to enroll her in elementary school, her parents turned to her to do research and figure out which school to attend. At parent-teacher conferences, she translated between the authority figures in her life, from Chinese to English and back again. When important government documents arrived in the mail, a young Betty pored over the complicated language to figure out what her parents needed to do.

That responsibility at a young age — as a crucial bridge between two worlds — made Thai deeply passionate about understanding cultural differences. It led her to the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, where she pursues undergraduate degrees in political science and East Asian languages and cultures. She is also working toward a master’s in law studies at the USC Gould School of Law.

The senior envisions a career devoted to exploring other cultures and advocating for vulnerable groups around the world.

“I realized there are a lot of deep-rooted issues, especially facing underserved communities and minorities,” Thai said. “I want to get involved in politics to help solve those issues and address those structural barriers that people like my parents have to face.”

Child of immigrants finds her passion for cross-cultural exchange

Thai’s work ethic started early. Instead of watching cartoons like many kids her age, Thai spent Saturday mornings at Chinese language school, studying Mandarin.

Those weekend studies paid off. While studying in China through her Gilman Scholarship in 2019, Thai became the de facto translator and navigator for her American classmates. In Chinese language class, she was the only student from the United States, and her peers would ask her about life and politics in America. She’d question them back about their own upbringing and culture.

“I realized there is so much more to this world that I want to see and learn about,” Thai said. “And I loved living internationally. What career would help me advocate for others and continue learning about new cultures and lifestyles?”

When Thai realized she wanted to pursue a career in international affairs, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program became her top goal.

In earning the fellowship, her tuition and fees at a two-year master’s program will be covered. She will also receive a stipend to cover living expenses and complete two summer internships — first at the U.S. Department of State, then overseas at a U.S. embassy or consulate. In exchange, Thai agrees to spend at least five years as a foreign service officer after completing her degree.

Aspiring diplomat wants to help vulnerable groups 

After her master’s program, Thai will go abroad for five years. If she still likes the international lifestyle after that, she envisions a career of service in the State Department. And she is especially interested in the relationship between China and the United States.

In a research project she is now turning into a thesis, Thai examined the importance of cultural exchanges through study abroad programs.

“When they pulled the Fulbright [student exchange program] from Hong Kong, that was the opposite of what my research was telling me,” she said. “We need to have these international exchanges to broaden everyone’s horizons and really understand the other side of the story.”

Thai’s current goal is to become a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. It would be an opportunity she’s dreamed about for years.

“I could influence policies that can help underserved communities on an international scale.”

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