You are here: American University News Siblings Soar into the Foreign Service


Siblings Soar into the Foreign Service

Two fellowships are the product of motherly care, brotherly love, and friendly competition.

By  | 

Khalil Ibrahim (pictured left) poses with his mom and brother, Xavier, on graduation day.

When Xavier Ibrahim, SIS/BA ’23, made his first phone call as a Payne Fellow in January 2023, his mom and brother greeted him, cheering, on the other line. A year later, Khalil Ibrahim, SIS/BA ’21, celebrated becoming a Rangel Fellow in the same way: by dialing up his two biggest champions.

The brothers and Bronx natives draw inspiration from their mom, a single parent from Ghana who raised them in New York then Connecticut. “She always wanted us to . . . achieve our dreams,” Khalil said. Today, they are doing just that—having earned prestigious Foreign Service fellowships with more than $100,000 in benefits each.

Xavier was one of 30 candidates nationwide selected for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program. After completing orientation and interning for Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), he enrolled in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs—an experience the fellowship made financially attainable. At the program’s conclusion, he will secure his five-year appointment as a USAID Foreign Service Officer (FSO).

Landing the Payne Fellowship was a home run that required two swings. Xavier first applied when his uncle—a State Department civil servant—told him about it, but it took until his fall semester senior year for everything to fall into place.

Xavier connected with Lori Felton, assistant director of AU’s Office of Merit Awards (OMA)—which supports scholarship-seeking Eagles. Felton, who Xavier dubbed “the G.O.A.T.,” helped him revise his application essays weekly. “I try to get to know them . . . and help them get to know themselves in a way that speaks to the mission of the fellowships,” Felton said.

As an FSO, Xavier hopes to bolster economies and health infrastructure. “The love and care that [my mom] instilled in me [is] the same love and care . . . I want to give out to the world,” he said.

For Khalil, it wasn’t only “heartwarming to see” his brother manifest his dream; it lit a fire in him to apply for the same fellowships. He had already planned to do so, but his brother’s triumph added immediacy. “If he can do it, I know I can do it,” he told himself. And so he did, becoming a finalist for both the William D. Clarke Sr. Diplomatic Security Fellowship and Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program.

Khalil attended AU on Army Reserve funding, set on pursuing counterintelligence for the FBI. The Community-Based Research Scholar, track-and-field athlete, and ROTC cadet arrived in DC with national security on the mind but emerged from AU with a passion for diplomacy. Attending panels where Pickering and Rangel Fellows spoke, he decided to apply.

While Khalil initially showed Xavier the ropes at AU, he later followed in his younger brother’s footsteps by seeking out OMA—which boasts impressive stats.

AU had two Rangel Fellows and a Payne Fellow in 2023, according to Felton, and one Rangel Fellow and one Pickering Fellow in 2024. (The latter two fellowships draw a cumulative 900 applicants annually.) And each year since 2019, the university has landed two fellows across the four programs.

Consider Amy Lau*, CAS-SIS/BA ’18—the first Rangel Fellow selected during Felton’s tenure. Through the fellowship, she developed “a sense of adaptability and resilience essential [for] navigating this unique career,” she said. She has spent nearly four years as an FSO, most recently serving in Manila, Philippines.

Xavier’s and Khalil’s futures are on track to be equally adventure filled. After completing his first year at Columbia, Xavier will jet abroad for a 10-week internship. Then comes graduation, destination bidding, and getting sworn in. His regions of interest span from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East to Latin America and the Caribbean.

To Khalil, who has yet to start his fellowship duties, his appointment feels distant. Still, he has his eye on Ghana, his family’s homeland, and hopes to better trade relations and security as an FSO.

As for students looking to apply? Don’t skip the trip to OMA. “The support and guidance I received . . . were pivotal in the success of my application,” Lau said.

Khalil encourages applicants to go for all four opportunities. “The worst they can say is no,” he said. Apply again, and avoid assumptions, he added. “I thought I was going to get the Clarke,” he said, given its focus on security—but it didn’t pan out. Anything can happen.

Xavier recommends keeping “a good circle around you” and demonstrating community care through your commitments. And “Stand out,” he said. How have your one-of-a-kind experiences influenced you? Even “how you were raised . . . come[s] into play,” he said.

Resilience, a strong work ethic, an ability to think critically: Xavier credits his mother for many of his traits. “I am where I am today . . . because of [her],” he said. Watching her sons soar, “She feels like the work that she [has] done really paid off,” Khalil said.

To learn more about Foreign Service fellowships, attend the Office of Merit Awards’s information session on Tuesday, February 27, at 12:30 p.m. via Zoom. Email for more information.

*These are Amy Laus personal opinions, and they do not represent the views of the State Department.