Dreams of foreign service
Once he graduated from Phoenix High School in 2015, Irving Cortes-Martinez leaped at the opportunity to see places beyond his native Rogue Valley.
He went to upstate New York to attend Union College, where he double-majored in political science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Upon receiving his degree in 2019, Cortes-Martinez flew to Malaysia, where he taught English.
The young man who is the son of an immigrant pear orchard worker thought he wanted to study law, but his worldly travels convinced him otherwise.
“When I was an undergraduate, I had dreams of being a foreign service officer,” said Cortes-Martinez, who works for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “I didn’t know I would be applying to be a foreign service officer, but now that I got the fellowship, I really feel like I have the opportunity to make a difference.”
The fellowship is named after former Democratic New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel and focuses on international affairs. The program is based in Washington, D.C., and encourages minority groups, who are typically underrepresented in the U.S. foreign service arena, the chance to help shape foreign policy.
Cortes-Martinez will arrive in May to the nation’s capital, where he’ll participate in a program orientation. He’ll complete a congressional internship during the summer before beginning graduate school studies in the fall. Even as he works on his schooling into the following year, Cortes-Martinez applied to a U.S. embassy abroad to complete an internship.
“I can let them know of areas I am interested in, but ultimately it’s the Department of State who decides where I will be placed,” said Cortes-Martinez, who said he’d like to be placed in Latin America if given the choice.
The completion of the Rangel Fellowship in 2024 requires the Phoenix High School graduate to be a U.S. diplomat for five years.
“(I hope) to create change that positively benefits both the U.S. and the migrant community,” Cortes-Martinez said.
In his current post in Chicago, Cortes-Martinez works with many unaccompanied children. That includes little ones not only from Latin America, but Afghanistan. The latter group dramatically fled the Middle Eastern country in August after 20 years of U.S. combat.
“Through my current job, I see the current impacts that U.S. foreign policy has on these children and populations throughout the world,” Cortes-Martinez said. “As a foreign service officer, I hope that I’m able to help when it comes to migration policy and be able to create possible change to prevent the migration crises that we’re going through right now.”
He was interested in government as a Phoenix High School student, but it wasn’t until he was in college that he decided to become politically active. Cortes-Martinez wanted to “speak out” against the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who made it a hallmark of his campaign to brand Mexican immigrants who crossed the border illegally as criminals.
“Part of my decision to … pursue a career in the foreign service was to show people are wrong who have those beliefs. The majority of immigrants who come to the United States are not coming here to commit crimes,“ Cortes-Martinez said. “They’re here to make the U.S. a better place.”
John Cornet, a social studies instructor at Phoenix High School, taught Cortes-Martinez in two courses: Honors International Studies and AP American Government.
Although sometimes quiet, “you could tell the wheels were turning” in Cortes-Martinez’s mind during class lectures, Cornet recalled.
“He was always reflecting and processing the material,” Cornet said. “He was able to project everything out pretty well and take ownership of how everything worked together.”
So it doesn’t surprise him that Cortes-Martinez was accepted to the Rangel Fellowship.
“I am absolutely delighted. This is such an exciting thing for anyone, but for him in particular,” Cornet said. “He’s going to be taking on a career, making the country a better place (and) the world a better place in the corridors of government over the next number of years. There’s no limit on how high he can go up in the State Department (and) in the world of diplomacy.”
Some students Cornet has seen “move away from lofty goals,” but not Cortes-Martinez.
“He kept this goal front and center all the way through,” Cornet said.
The social studies instructor might even entertain a virtual lecture from Cortes-Martinez during his fellowship.
“I would be absolutely delighted if that can fit into his schedule,” Cornet said.
He called Cortes-Martinez’s story an “American experience” his students and others can be inspired by.
“We know about his story in the valley, but I think the more he established himself professionally, the more inspiring he’s going to be to anyone who hears that back story,” Cornet said.
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.