Securing a free ride to grad school, in large part, through a highly competitive Payne Fellowship was the easy step for Nehemia Abel ’20.
The hard step is deciding among the six prestigious schools to which he has been accepted for his pursuit of a master’s degree in international development: Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, George Washington, Howard and American.
Abel is a believer in paying it forward – and giving back.
Born in Tanzania, he escaped the east African nation of Burundi with help from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “During my time in a refugee camp, USAID – along with UNICEF – helped my family tremendously by providing us daily necessities and other vital support. I would like to give back by assisting others living in crisis situations globally,” Abel said.
The Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program is described as a “unique pathway” towards gaining employment with USAID. According to the Payne Fellowship website, “If you want to work on the front lines of some of the most pressing global challenges of our times — poverty, hunger, injustice, disease, environmental degradation, climate change, conflict and violent extremism – the Foreign Service of the U.S. Agency for International Development provides such an opportunity.”
While at Mary Washington, Abel received the Citizenship Award for Diversity Leadership, presented by UMW President Troy Paino. In this capacity, Abel worked closely with multicultural organizations to promote diversity and inclusion through campus-wide programs. Additionally, he collaborated with Habitat for Humanity and Micah Ecumenical Ministries to serve the homeless population in the greater Fredericksburg area.
He also received the 2020 Grace Mann Launch Award, thanks to an endowment established by the parents of Mann, a Mary Washington student leader and social justice activist who died six years ago during her junior year. The annual financial award goes to a graduating senior who exemplifies Mann’s commitment to social justice, equality and advocacy.
Immediately after graduating from UMW last spring with a degree in marketing, Abel participated for six weeks in the Charles B. Rangel Scholars program, designed to provide students with a deeper appreciation of current issues and trends in international affairs.
Then, last August, Abel began working virtually as a Fellow for the U.S.-Africa Business Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He learned earlier this year that not only is he one of 15 Payne Fellows selected from among hundreds of applicants nationwide, he is also a semi-finalist for a Fulbright scholarship.
“Nehemia has shown that he is determined not to let the struggles of his early years define nor limit his possibilities or journey in life,” said Marion Sanford, director of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center. “I have been impressed with how he continually seeks to take from every experience he has in life the opportunity to learn and grow.”
Sanford also talked about the ways in which Abel has focused on giving back. To better serve the community of refugees in the Fredericksburg region, he co-founded with his older brother an organization called Ubumwe, which means “unity” in his native language of Kirundi. The group serves Burundian refugees as they pursue higher education and prepares them for the workplace.
“In his many different roles in service to his fellow students and the larger community, I’ve observed him to be an exceptional and generous leader,” said Sabrina Johnson, UMW’s vice president for equity and access. “Nehemia’s commitment to something larger than himself is deeply inspiring.”
To learn more about the Payne Fellowship and how it can lead to a career as a Foreign Service Officer with USAID, attend a Payne Fellowship Information Session on Zoom, Thursday, April 8, at noon. Interested students should register with the Center for Career and Professional Development via Handshake.