Becoming a diplomat has been the ultimate career goal for William & Mary international relations major Poojitha Tanjore ’23 since she was 12.
She accomplished that much earlier than expected by recently receiving acceptance into the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program.
“Being a diplomat was the dream,” said Tanjore, a student in William & Mary’s St Andrews Joint Degree Programme. “And now I’ve done that at 21, so I guess I have to make some new dreams. I just never thought it was going to happen for me this early, or at all.”
The prestigious Payne Fellowship provides up to $104,000 in benefits for two years of graduate school, two internships – one in Washington and one at a foreign embassy – and professional development. After two years of study, Payne Fellows are expected to obtain a degree in international development or other area of relevance to USAID Foreign Service at a U.S. graduate or professional school approved by the Payne Program.
“Being a diplomat is one of the most prestigious and difficult things to accomplish in the world, and especially in America,” said Tanjore, who grew up in Northern Virginia. “Now I’ve done it at 21, and that is the craziest thing ever.
“I don’t know what the next dream is. I used to talk about running for office when I was younger. Maybe I’ll still run for office one day. Right now, I’m just hoping to go do some good and travel and learn more languages.”
Tanjore, who will soon decide on a graduate school for international relations or international affairs, has been accepted to be a crisis, stabilization and governance officer for USAID. In this role, she will deal with electoral politics and domestic politics abroad with U.S. interests in mind. She said she will work on areas of focus that include natural disasters, the refugee crisis and human trafficking.
Tanjore has a tattoo of three women on the inside of her right forearm. In the middle is her great-grandmother, her biggest influence on her passion for public service, and her grandmothers are on each side.
Tanjore is a first-generation American and child of Indian immigrants, and from a young age she spent summers in Tirupati, India, learning the language and culture and listening intently to her family’s stories.
One story, in particular, moved her deeply.
“I found out that my great-grandmother had been in child marriage, and that immediately funneled me into wanting to work in women’s rights, but also not just within the U.S., but also working in women’s rights around the world,” Tanjore said. “That was my initial sort of thrust into politics and international relations.”
That set her on her current path centering on female representation in politics and youth literacy.
She started the Virginia chapter of the national nonprofit called Rise to Run, a grassroots movement with the slogan of “mobilizing young progressive women to run for office.” The organization trains high school and college-aged women on how to enter into politics.
Tanjore wrote a fantasy book for children called “Rules of the Red Book” and is currently working on the sequel, and she runs her own editing and writing business called PT Writing that helps with college applications and writing resumes and cover letters.
“I really love literacy, because I think education is that first step for a lot of women to escaping their situations,” Tanjore said.
‘A job I care about’
As a teenager, Tanjore worked on the campaigns for presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton ’95 and Delegate David Reid.
For Clinton, she helped at Get Out the Vote locations, trained canvassers and did a lot of data entry. She also helped organize the vice presidential debate at Longwood University.
“I ended up making all these amazing connections in the Virginia grassroots. I was invited to speak at a Loudoun County Democrats meeting in 2017, and I told the story of my great-grandmother. It was the first time I ever told the story, and I teared up on stage,” said Tanjore, who also gave a TED Talk about her great-grandmother last spring in Scotland. “Now it’s something I talk about a lot because I’ve grown comfortable with that.”
Her work with Clinton drew the attention of media outlets and scored her the cover of Scholastic Magazine.
“It was just very overwhelming for a little 15 or 16 year old. I didn’t know what was going on,” Tanjore said. “But I guess I’m doing something right. I’ve been very blessed.”
Tanjore is in Williamsburg now working on her honors thesis. She spent three of the previous four years living abroad, first in Ostfriesland, Germany, on a State Department scholarship, then in Scotland at the University of St. Andrews. Her travels will only increase on her current career trajectory.
“I have worked for the consulate in Germany. I’ve worked for the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and I’ve done a lot of work with environmental activists in the Philippines and sustainable development in the Philippines through the State Department,” she said. “I’ve been able to work with a lot of regions I really care about.”
Overall, Tanjore said her desire to make such a big impact in so many different areas came from the influence of her family, especially her great-grandmother, grandmothers and parents. She saw her family work so hard that it became her life’s mission as well.
“I saw my family in India and kind of just thought that was the way the world worked. I turned 9 and realized these amazing family members I have are doing good in a way that is quiet, and it’s a thankless job,” she said.
“They’re never going to get any recognition from it, but they do it because they actually care, and I think that’s how I ended up deciding what I want to do with my life. I want to be a diplomat, even though it’s usually a pretty thankless job, and I want to work in international development because it’s not as fun and flashy as what most people think diplomats are, but it’s a job that I care about.”
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist