U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Information Technology Fellow heads to Tandon
Toni Benn grew up hearing tales of her family’s dedication to public service; her grandfather, William Croom III, was an Army vet who had fought during the Vietnam War, and other male family members had undertaken stints in the Marines.
Now, Benn has become the first woman in her family to embark on a career of service to the nation: she was recently awarded a Foreign Affairs Information Technology (FAIT) Fellowship by the U.S. Department of State — an honor that includes academic funding for a two-year IT— related master’s degree program, two summer internships (one domestic and one overseas), professional development, and mentorship. The Fellowship is a joint initiative of the State Department and the Washington Center, an organization that aims to help young people translate their degrees into fulfilling career paths. Upon successful completion of the fellowship, she will receive an appointment in the Foreign Service as an Information Management Specialist.
Her path to STEM and IT was exciting but, as she admits, far from linear.
Benn was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but moved to Los Angeles when she was five to perform on stage and screen; during her youth, she worked with stars like Debbie Allen and Tom Hanks but remained unsure about contending with the vagaries of the entertainment industry as she aged out of childhood roles. Covering all her bases, when it was time to apply for college, she looked for programs that would allow her to combine theater with business and communications.
After graduating with her B.A. in 2018, she pondered her next move. “Whatever I did had to mean more than just money,” she recalls. “I also wanted it to be of some benefit to society.” She hit upon the idea of teaching overseas and signed up for a stint in Madrid, Spain, where, despite having no STEM background, she was charged with helping other teachers upgrade the digital tools they were using in their classrooms. By the time she made a move to South Korea to accept a similar position, she had developed a solid proficiency — along with a desire to dig deeper into tech topics.
While still in South Korea, she earned a certificate from NYU Tandon’s online Asana Project Management program. “With the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew that it might not be viable to travel to various countries to teach, so it was becoming important to investigate other career options,” she says. “A certificate course seemed like an efficient, affordable way to do that.” She also subsequently attended Level Up in Tech, a boot camp created to help people from all backgrounds — even those with little STEM experience — advance in the cloud industry.
With those programs under her belt, Benn found employment as a DevOps Engineer — a job that straddles the worlds of software development and IT operations — at a financial technology company. The work is rewarding and satisfies her desire to be in the tech world, but, still, all during her journey into tech, she had not forgotten her commitment to public service.
She recalled a fellow teacher in South Korea mentioning the possibility of working with the U.S. State Department. “She claimed they needed people like me, adept at moving between countries and appreciative of other cultures,” Benn says of that conversation. Intrigued, she applied for the highly competitive FAIT Fellowship and became one of only 15 individuals nationwide selected.
In September, Benn will arrive at Tandon to earn a master’s degree in Management of Technology. During her studies, she’ll complete an internship at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., and one abroad, at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Although she does not yet know where she’ll be sent, she is nonetheless eager. “As an African American woman determined to forge a professional career as an Information Management Specialist, this opportunity will allow me to represent America while building a reputation as a professional and a global citizen,” she says.
Benn notes that while the FAIT Fellowship is offering the opportunity of a lifetime, she’d be remiss not to show gratitude for also being selected for a GEM Fellowship, which is aimed at increasing the participation of underrepresented groups at the master's and doctoral levels in engineering and science. “I applied at the suggestion of Assistant Dean of Admissions Elizabeth Ensweiler, and Wahidah Aziz, who was previously a graduate recruitment specialist, and if everyone at Tandon is as supportive and motivating as they are, I know I’ll have a great experience,” she says.
At the end of her time at Tandon, new challenges will await. Once a Fellow has earned a degree and met all Foreign Service requirements (including passing rigorous security and health checks), they receive an appointment as a Foreign Service Information Management Specialist. “I’ll be proud to be using my tech skills to support U.S. diplomacy around the world,” Benn says. “I’d like my work to reflect well on the State Department, as well as on Tandon.”