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MPP Student’s Atypical Journey to Foreign Service Career

Aminata Sy.

Aminata Sy, SPA/MPP ’21, grew up in Senegal and immigrated to the United States in 2001. As she and her husband were raising three children in Philadelphia, Sy volunteered at their school and rediscovered her own passion for learning.

“I became a bookworm. I was eager to read one book after the next and got on track with my own education,” said the 39-year-old mother of three, who aspires to become a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service.  

In 2010, Sy went back to school and earned her high school equivalency certificate. She attended Community College of Philadelphia, where she completed an associate degree, and then earned her bachelor’s in international relations and English from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019.

Now, Sy is studying public policy at AU on a scholarship as a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellow concentrating her studies on international development. The fellowship includes an internship in Congress and training to work at an American Embassy to prepare her for a career with the U.S. Department of State.

After researching several universities, Sy saw the appeal of AU’s MPP program––despite the long commute. Until the COVID-19 school closure, Sy was traveling twice a week to campus. She would usually catch an 8:30 AM bus from Philadelphia, arrive at 1:30 in D.C. for class, then return late that evening.

“For the most part, I try to study on the bus,” Sy shared. “I’m doing it, but it doesn’t mean I’d recommend it. It’s crazy.”

School these days is a juggling act for Sy on the home front. Mornings are often spent helping her 8-year-old son with remote learning, before participating in her own Zoom lectures or doing group projects with her AU classmates.

“It’s balancing endless meetings, endless assignments––and also balancing family and other volunteer responsibilities,” said Sy, who also has a 15-year-old and 17-year-old.  

While at Penn, Sy founded the African Community Learning Program, an afterschool tutoring nonprofit that she continues to run. The program provides academic support in a welcoming environment to students from African backgrounds in grades 1-8. The nonprofit was a Social Impact Finalist in the 2018 Wharton Startup Challenge competition.

“Integrating into American society and learning the culture, it’s not easy to navigate,” said Sy, who drew on her own immigration experience in developing the program.

As an undergraduate, Sy worked as a journalist for six years. Her articles, often about African Americans and immigrant issues, have been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, University City Review and The Philadelphia Tribune.

At AU, Sy is learning how to communicate as a diplomat would, using concise memos. She is also developing her understanding of research and policy as they relate to her areas of interest, such as education and international development.

After completing her graduate studies, she looks forward to working abroad and is open to a posting anywhere.

“Life for me has been a series of adaptations,” Sy offered. “I hope to use the skills and knowledge I’m gaining at AU, with the compassion and empathy I have, to make an impact on an institutional level––and with individuals to encourage them to want to do better and dream bigger.”