By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Headshot of Lafayette student Natalie Beckford '24A semi-professional ballerina classically trained at the renowned Jones-Haywood Dance School, Natalie Beckford ’24 started dancing at the ripe age of 5. Being mentored by the late three-time Tony Award winner Hinton Battle and performing on Broadway, at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at distinguished events for Michelle Obama and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes are just a few of the credits she amassed as a performer. But in her sophomore year of high school, 10 years into her dancing career, Beckford hung up her pointe shoes. Her decision to retire early was spurred by her desire to delve into her studies—and her shift from stage life to academics, she says, was an intuitive one. 

“Dance made me appreciate culture, and academia made me appreciate history,” she says. “They both allowed me to learn about the world around me.” 

Born in Washington, D.C., Beckford was exposed to world travel from an early age—having journeyed to her father’s native Jamaica as a child, to China with her aunt as a middle schooler, and to Morocco and France in study abroad programs as a student at School Without Walls High School. Her AP history classes further deepened her thirst for a global education. 

Thanks to her morning bus rides to school that she happened to share with two of her neighbors during her freshman year, Beckford discovered how she could turn her passion into a lifelong career. “I saw this older couple, Bob and Carol, every morning, and we started talking. They were very interested in my studies, and over time I found out they were both foreign service officers for the State Department—which was the last stop on my bus route,” Beckford says. “They told me stories about their time in places like Russia, Latvia, and Poland, and I knew right then I wanted to pursue international affairs.”

When she applied for the Posse Scholarship during her junior year, Lafayette was her only choice for college. She had already visited the campus, and she was particularly awestruck by the community as she was initially introduced to the International Affairs Program by a student tour guide. In her admissions application, she wrote about her ambition to work and study specifically with Ilan Peleg, Charles A. Dana Professor of Government and Law—which was ultimately fulfilled following her selection as a Posse Scholar at Lafayette.

With a double major in international affairs as well as religion and politics, and a minor in French, Beckford says she was able to accomplish everything she set out to do at the College thanks to the guidance of her mentors: her religious studies adviser, Prof. Jessica Carr (whose personalized approach to teaching and open-door policy, she says, gave her the opportunity to engage in “thought-provoking conversations that blew my mind”); her international affairs adviser, Prof. Douglas de Toledo Piza; her government and law adviser, Prof. Il Hyun Cho; and her Posse mentor, Prof. Larry Malinconico. “I wanted to leave Lafayette knowing I impacted it in some way, shape, or form,” she explains.

In addition to maintaining an impeccable academic record, Beckford wove herself into virtually every aspect of the campus community and culture. As the former president and current senior adviser of the Association of Black Collegians (ABC), she helped rebuild and strengthen the organization following the COVID-19 pandemic. As a member and current director of diversity and inclusion of NIA, a student group for women of color on campus, Beckford helped give back to the Lehigh Valley community through initiatives like canned food drives and fundraisers for cancer research. As a mentee for Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME), she helped tutor students in Madagascar. And as one of the students spearheading Lafayette Mutual Aid alongside its founder Savanna Touré ’21, Beckford helped raise thousands of dollars that were used to provide BIPOC students even greater access to food, educational materials, personal supplies, and more. During her sophomore year, she worked as a student assistant for Student Involvement, and she completed an externship at the D.C. Bar through the Gateway Career Center. She also is a member of International Affairs Club.

Headshot of Lafayette student Natalie Beckford '24

Beckford’s academic achievements and service to the community have been widely recognized. She was recently awarded the Lyman Coleman Prize (which is awarded annually to the senior who has demonstrated broad interest and superior performance in the department of religious studies) and the James Alexander Petrie Prize in French (awarded annually to a student demonstrating a high degree of proficiency in French). She’s also been inducted into the Lafayette College chapters of Sigma Iota Rho and Pi Sigma Alpha, the national honor societies for international affairs and political science, respectively. She’ll be inducted into Lafayette’s chapter of Pi Delta Phi, the national French honor society, in April. 

But one of Beckford’s greatest achievements to date has made Lafayette history: She is the first student at the College (and the only student from a Pennsylvania undergraduate institution this year) to earn the highly competitive and prestigious USAID Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship, which is awarded annually to only 30 graduating college seniors nationwide who are interested in pursuing careers in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The fellowship provides up to $104,000  per student in benefits over two years for graduate school, internships, and professional development activities. Payne Fellows also are offered two summer internships with the State Department: one domestic, and one international.

Through the Payne Fellowship, which is managed by Howard University, and through matching funds provided by partner universities, Beckford has been awarded full-tuition scholarships for graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, American, and Columbia universities—she also is currently in conversation with Georgetown University. This summer, Beckford will be completing a Congressional Internship; following graduate school, she will be entering her guaranteed five-year position as a foreign service officer at USAID.

“This fellowship means a lot to me. It’s allowing me to do what I’ve been dreaming of since I was 15,” Beckford says. “To be funded to immediately start my chosen career is an amazing experience. I’m extremely thankful for all of my advisers, and for Melissa Dalrymple and Jake Bates in Student Involvement, who have been supporting and encouraging me every single step of the way. And I’m grateful to Julia Goldberg [associate dean of advising and co-curricular programs, and director of the Scholarships and Fellowships Office] for helping me get to this point.” 

Beckford says the educational opportunities she’s been afforded through her early education, at Lafayette and through the Payne Fellowship, are particularly significant to her as a first-generation college student on her father’s side, fourth-generation on her mother’s side. “Education is emphasized by both of my parents, but it holds a different meaning for each,” she says. “On the one hand, I’m pursuing an education that my father wasn’t able to get in Jamaica as an orphan who had to leave high school to work. On the other, I’m fulfilling a legacy.”

Looking ahead to the future, Beckford hopes to continue fostering global knowledge and focusing on the human aspect of international affairs: “I want to help others and to leave this world better than I found it, which is something I’ve been taught by my family and Lafayette. Setting aside your own biases and welcoming new experiences, lessons, and perspectives are critical to how you interact with the world. I’ve been able to do that at the College, and all of these experiences have helped me become who I am: Natalie.”

Categorized in: Academic News, Class of 2024, Featured News, first gen, French, International Affairs, News and Features, Posse Scholars, Religious Studies, Scholarships and Fellowships, Student Profiles, Students

1 Comment

  1. Lauren says:

    Wow this is so awesome! What a wonderful accomplishment that must have taken a lot of dedication and commitment. As a Lafayette graduate who worked at both State Department and USAID, I’d say you are in for a terrific and fulfilling career path! Happy to connect if I can help at all! Lauren

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