From Science to International Affairs: Alumnus Olalekhan Afolabi on Becoming a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State

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What brought you to City College and then, the Colin Powell School?

I am a product of the City University of New York. I settled in Staten Island, so I naturally attended the College of Staten Island (CSI). My exposure to the CUNY system convinced me that CUNY and all its colleges across the city are the best way to get an affordable, quality education. 

After graduation from CSI and a stint at the CUNY Graduate Center, I decided to go back to acquire another bachelor’s degree from the CSI and this is where my life and CCNY intersected. After the completion of the second BA from CSI, I was shopping for a school that would offer me the quality education, the necessary pedigree, and affordability. 

CCNY was the obvious choice. It did help that the school is affectionately called “poor man’s Harvard.”  My educational interests were in international organizations, politics, law, and social development, and the Colin Powell School housed all my educational interests. It also helped that I was fortunate enough to have taken a class with the then chairperson of the department, Professor Bruce Cronin, during my stint at the CUNY Graduate Center.

What was your concentration at the Colin Powell School and what was your passion or purpose behind going for that concentration?

My concentration was in International Affairs. Even when I was growing up and going to school in Nigeria, I had always been fascinated with the international order. I was intrigued by the idea that different countries, different people with different ideals could allow themselves to form organizations that would work to the betterment of all its members and the world at large. To me, at that age, it was the manifestation of the Kantian Ideal. The idea that we can holistically look at the world and try to solve its many issues by creating organizations that would operate outside the auspices of world governments and not necessarily usurp or encroach on the sovereignty of any of the member countries. 

The UN, EU, the defunct OAU, the new AU, ECOWAS, ILO, WTO and a host of other international organizations fascinated and intrigued me, which was why I had switched from sciences to social sciences. I loved being a science student, the exact nature of sciences made it very predictable; we are always working our way backward because with pure sciences we already have an idea of what the answers will be and it is a matter of trying to see if our experiments would yield the same outcomes and along those lines discoveries are made. 

Social sciences, on the other hand, are a complete mystery primarily because the social sciences are the study of human interactions, and human interactions can’t be studied in a laboratory. This was my driving passion. Things like trying to understand why the EU worked in Europe and the same methodology would not work in North America or Africa. The development of each country, their embrace of one political system over the other. The resilience of capitalism over socialism or communism; the catalyst behind feminism or constructivism. Understanding these various phenomena on the macro/micro levels and how these phenomena impact a society, a country, and the world was my purpose for choosing International Affairs as my area of concentration at the Colin Powell School.

What was special about your experience at the Colin Powell School?

 The familial atmosphere fostered by the faculty and staff. The diversity of the student body, the passion of the student body, the encouragement of the staff and faculty and the support structure provided by the student body to each other because, despite the diversity, the stories were similar and familiar. In addition, the faculty and staff were always ready to go out of their way to help students.

What would you say to prospective students?

 I would encourage students to come to the Colin Powell School because it is the best value for money in terms of quality education. It is also a community where students can thrive irrespective of their background. The Colin Powell School provides an environment where any student can thrive and reach their maximum potential. It is very easy to put in your best when you see other people with similar circumstances to your thriving and excelling. I would also encourage alumni to continue being a part of the Colin Powell School community simply because the Colin Powell School played such an important role in shaping the success stories of alumni. Alumni need to help to keep the institution alive and be a beacon and shining example for the next generation of students.

Tell us about your professional trajectory.

I am now a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department. I got where I am today through consistent hard work, resilience and unfailing hope. The Colin Powell School played a huge part in getting me to where I am today because not only did I receive an outstanding education from this place, I was also fortunate enough to teach at the Colin Powell School. As a result, I was exposed to a variety of very sage people--faculty, staff, and students--some of whom I will be forever indebted to for their support and advice over the years. Often times, people only see the finished product, they never see the back-breaking journey that led to that finished product. My Colin Powell School family was with me through it all, unwavering, always cheering me on, and providing support when I appeared to be faltering.

What advice would you give students and alumni who are looking to obtain a career in foreign affairs?

There is an adage that says “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The importance of education can’t be overstated, especially in the fast-paced world of today. My advice to students who are looking to get a career in Foreign Affairs is to take a chance at CCNY and the Colin Powell School. It will be the best investment of their lives.