For Salamata Bah ’20, a lifetime of experiences has prepared her for a career in foreign service: growing up in the Bronx and western Africa, majoring in international relations and Asian studies at Pomona College, living in South Korea and, recently, being awarded a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship. Upon completion of the two-year program, Bah will become an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Bah’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Guinea. While Bah was born in the Bronx, from ages 6 to 10 she lived in Guinea. Her parents were determined for her to grow up in Guinean culture and to experience life outside of the United States. These years in Guinea gave Bah her first experience of bridging two cultures.
In high school, Bah discovered Korean dramas. She connected to Korean culture because of the similarities she saw to Guinean culture: the respect paid to older people, the value of the family and community over the individual, the social hierarchy.
When she arrived at Pomona, Bah knew she was passionate about policy, public service and learning Korean. Growing up in the Bronx, “where everyone is from an immigrant background,” she was interested in issues that transcended domestic ones. She thought she would major in public policy analysis, but when she took an Introduction to International Relations class, “it all clicked.”
Bah credits Associate Professor of Politics Tom Le, who taught that class as well as another one she took, Conflict and Cooperation. Le also served as her international relations thesis reader.
Professor of Politics Mietek Boduszynski, who teaches U.S. foreign policy, was also instrumental in her journey. Boduzynski was previously a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, and through him, Bah realized she could pursue a career in foreign service.
After taking Korean every semester in college, as a sophomore Bah applied for the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship. This scholarship allowed Bah to spend the summer in South Korea, studying Korean in Gwangju. The program was a fully immersive one in which she lived with a host family and signed a pledge to speak Korean at all times.
Her junior year Bah returned to South Korea, studying abroad during the spring semester. This time she was in Seoul, which provided a starkly different experience than the more rural city of Gwangju. After graduation, she wanted to return to South Korea not as a student but as an employee. She spent a year in Yeosu teaching third to sixth graders, coming home to the Bronx earlier this month.
The next step in Bah’s plan is to earn a master’s in Asian studies at a graduate school in Washington D.C. The Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship, in addition to funding her graduate studies, will provide her with an internship after her first year with a member of Congress on issues related to foreign affairs. The following summer the U.S. Department of State will send her overseas to intern at an embassy or consulate.
Reflecting on the myriad cross-cultural experiences she’s had, Bah says, “All these things had to happen to be where I am today. A huge part of being a diplomat is having the ability to adapt and communicate in a way to foster mutual understanding between different cultures.”
As she eagerly anticipates beginning her fellowship, she looks back at her time at Pomona: “The people at Pomona—whether the faculty or my peers—have been so supportive and helpful and encouraging. Even now as I’m out of school I can still reach out to people, and they are ready to drop everything and help me.”