Woman dedicates life to public service with help from government aid

Stephanie Wegmann Stephanie Wegmann is a young woman dedicated to public service. Since age 14 she has been working to fund travels abroad and to continue the fight for human rights. Now 22, she is preparing for a career in the United States Department of State Foreign Service.

Wegmann grew up in Cannon Falls, Minn., which is a small, predominantly white town of about 3,500 people. She felt her town was, “much more concerned about local fish fries, hunting seasons, and the price of corn, than with modern day genocides, human trafficking or child soldiers.”

Although she felt suffocated by her hometown’s unawareness, Wegmann accomplished extraordinary things throughout her high school years. She implemented campaigns to recognize the genocide in Darfur, gave speeches on issues such as bride burning, female genital mutilation and cultural acceptance, and was recognized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for her editorials in her local paper.

Wegmann was finally able to focus her education on a global area of study when she left home to complete her undergraduate degree in peace studies and communication at the College of St. Benedict.

“In college I found the globally-focused education that I craved,” she said.

In college, Wegmann was the co-chair of Amnesty International.  She also tutored Latino youth in an after school program, packaged meals for Kids Against Hunger, served as a Court Monitor at a local battered-women’s shelter, and independently constructed the "Books for Kibera" campaign.

Wegmann’s "Books for Kibera" campaign was sparked from her trip to Kenya in 2007. It was a peace building and human rights observation trip to Kibera.

“My feet sunk into the sewage of Kibera, which is Africa’s largest slum,” she said. “It was that moment which solidified public service, no longer as an option for my life, but as a fundamental necessity to my existence.”

Wegmann visited Kenya with eight other students and three mentors. One of the mentors, Ronald Pagnucco, is a peace studies professor at the College of St. Benedict and was also Wegmann’s academic advisor.

Pagnucco said in a phone interview that the "Books for Kibera" project was something that Amnesty adopted because of Stephanie and is still continuing. We continue to raise money from our fair trade craft sale for the library in Kibera.”

Wegmann left a lasting impression at her college even after she graduated.  Experiences like Kibera continue to nurture Wegmann’s desire for public service.

However, funding a life of public service is not cheap. In high school Wegmann worked at a daycare center every day after school to afford her trips as a foreign exchange student in Vienna, Austria and Italy. Travel expenses coupled with a college education had Wegmann relying solely on student loans.

In Wegmann’s junior year of college she applied for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. This fellowship gave her funding in exchange for a contract with the United States Department of State Foreign Service.

Wegmann received this highly prestigious fellowship due to her academic success and human rights views.

“The fellowship paid for two years of my undergrad in exchange for a 4.5 year contract to work as a Foreign Service officer,” she said.

To solidify the fellowship Wegmann had to complete a summer institute at the University of Maryland during the summer of 2009, an internship at the Operations Center at the State Department in DC during the summer of 2010, and then this summer, in June of 2011, she will head to Hong Kong to complete her international internship at the Consulate General.

Erica King, also a recipient of the fellowship, has been working closely with Wegmann for the past two years.

“The financial backing the fellowship provides helps the students focus on their schoolwork,” King said.

The fellowship works to bring all kinds of people to work for public service.

“I think bringing a lot of the minority folks, and women, and other folk who are not represented in the State is a great thing,” King said.

Wegmann is currently in the first year of her graduate program at the University of Denver in Colorado. After her graduation, which is pending for May of 2013, she will start her contract.

“Having nearly a five year contract to work abroad is intimidating, but also a really great opportunity,” Wegmann said.

Not only is working abroad intimidating, but she also does not know where she will be spending all that time or what she will be doing.

“When I find myself getting nervous about what’s in store for me living abroad, I just remind myself of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to begin with,” she said. “Also, having graduated from college recently, I know how quickly four years can fly by and imagine that my time living abroad will go very quickly.”

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