Bella Chavez was encouraged to follow her passions during her youth in Salinas, Calif., a small Central Coast agricultural town also known as the salad bowl of the world. Still, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a living until halfway through her senior year at UC Berkeley.
“My parents are strong believers in the American Dream, and they always encouraged me to pursue higher education because they didn’t have those opportunities growing up in Mexico,” said Chavez, who is graduating from USC Annenberg with a Master of Public Diplomacy next week. “They told me I should major in something I love, that I didn’t need to focus on money. That career openness is rare, and I didn’t know where my future would take me.”
Chavez did know what made her happy: She loved learning new languages, as she picked up Portuguese and Italian while studying Latin American languages and cultures with an education minor (adding to the English and Spanish she spoke growing up).
She enjoyed traveling and learning about new cultures, having spent time studying abroad or interning in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Brazil and Colombia as an undergrad.
And, very much in tune with her sunny, optimistic disposition, she valued helping others make connections.
In April 2019 she attended an information session led by Diplomat in Residence Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm and found that she could visualize herself working to help represent America to other nations. The more she learned about public diplomacy — “in short terms, the communication and relationship-building team for the U.S., and an important way to help foreign entities understand what our country is all about” according to Chavez — the more it made sense as the career for her.
“I don’t know whether to call it destiny or luck,” she said. “I get to use my language skills, my international experience and my people skills.”
When Chavez surveyed graduate programs, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism was her top choice.
“I looked up which is the best public diplomacy master’s, and it was USC,” she said. “With all of the flexibility, the curriculum seemed perfect for me. As a proud Californian, I took it as a sign for me to stay in-state.”
In that very first information session, she also discovered the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Graduate Fellowship, a source of tuition support and a bridge to a career with the State Department for underrepresented groups. With pivotal support from that fellowship and USC financial aid, Chavez could earn her master’s, free of debt.
There was just one problem — she was turned down for the fellowship the first time she applied.
“From there, my biggest goal was to get that fellowship the next year,” Chavez said. “I wasn’t going to let failing the first time stop me.”
That sticktoitiveness comes naturally to Chavez, and she has her own strategy for picking herself up after defeat.
“A hack for me is, I never feel shame about telling my family and friends if something isn’t successful,” she said. “Talking about it with other people can desensitize you to the gravity of failure. No one gets everything in life on the first try. It’s just better to be neutral to disappointment.”
Setting out to build her résumé, Chavez got a job teaching English in Spain. At the same time, she interned virtually with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where she worked to implement and measure the success of equal employment policies.
The effort earned her success in 2020, making possible her graduate studies at USC Annenberg. As far as Chavez is concerned, she came to exactly the right place.
“It’s such a dream,” she said. “I’ve been super happy here. The coursework is flexible, class sizes are small, and the faculty is very knowledgeable on public diplomacy.”
Picking out specific highlights is tough for her. She reluctantly nods to Professor of Communication Nick Cull’s valuable lessons about the importance of engagement between different nations, including through music, photography and sports, as well as a course on race and public diplomacy led by Adjunct Instructor Damon Woods.
“Woods is an excellent lecturer who encourages his students to be independent thinkers,” Chavez said. “You have to understand race to understand the U.S., and his course really opened my mind.”
“It’s been really helpful for me to have a community where I’m surrounded by like-minded people with a passion for the same field,” Chavez said.
In between academic years, the Pickering Fellowship sent her to Washington, D.C., for an internship with the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There, she managed the press clips distributed throughout the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs — a position that certainly kept her up-to-date.
After commencement, Chavez is headed to the Philippines for an internship in public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. She will receive her initial overseas post later this fall and begin working as a diplomat for the U.S. Department of State.
Chavez is excited by the prospect of launching her foreign service career in public diplomacy with all of the lessons from USC Annenberg and her Master of Public Diplomacy in hand. Her way forward is paved by one of those things that always made her happy: cultivating connection.
“Public diplomacy events and exchanges foster mutual understanding, but in a way that gives both sides the opportunity to question and judge for themselves,” Chavez said. “Connecting people is the most powerful thing public diplomacy can do.”