Meet the amazing Cornelius Sanford, who participated in a human rights law internship in Cape Town with the VACorps program in 2021. Cornelius is an alumnus of the Peace Corps and is the recipient of The Rangel Fellowship, funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Howard University. The prestigious fellowship will support Cornelius through a two-year master’s degree in an area of relevance to the Foreign Service.

Please give us a summary of your career to date. What have you been doing and where do you see yourself heading?

I attended the University of Louisville as a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar and double majored in Psychology and Pan-African Studies. During my time in Louisville, I interned for Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Americana to help facilitate cultural integration and language immersion for recently resettled families. I also studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, where he researched Dominican-Haitian relations and infrastructure development across Hispaniola. I later attended the Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Program at the University of California Berkeley as a 2017 Law Fellow. Before joining the VACorps program, I held an internship in Cape Town where I advocated for the rights and equity for women and the LBGTQI+ community at the University of the Western Cape.

I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Educator in a rural village located in southeastern Madagascar until 2020. Along with being an English educator, I conducted secondary projects promoting sanitation, nutritional awareness, and gender equality within his Malagasy community. However, the Covid Pandemic cut my service short, and I returned stateside. I didn’t lose my desire to serve and took a position as a Communicable Disease Investigator and was in charge of the contact tracing efforts in my home county in Kentucky. After my six-month stint as an investigator, I joined VACorps for six months and returned stateside after the internship to apply to various grad school programs and fellowships. Eventually, I was awarded the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship, which will fast-track my career as a U.S. diplomat working in embassies and consulates throughout the world.

Please describe some of your greatest and most memorable professional achievements.

I must say that the achievements I reflect on the most seem to be ones working with people of different cultures. For instance, I remember helping recently resettled refugees in my community, Louisville, Kentucky, navigate the public transit system to get to grocery stores and buy food for their families. Along with that note, accompanying resettled families to the welfare office and advocating for their food stamps and health insurance.

Finally, one of my proudest achievements was teaching English as a foreign language while in Peace Corps in Madagascar. When I first got to my village, hardly any of the 150 + students I taught knew how to introduce themselves in English. However, during my 16 months of teaching, I would always be approached by my students in the village, excited to speak to me in English. While they weren’t fluent in English, they were excited to show me what they learned in my class. We would have small talk, and they would often ask me questions like “How are you, teacher” or “How do I say this in English” etc. I was proud that I facilitated their desire to learn English. Although, I admit that I learned exponentially more from them than I could ever teach them. My students in Madagascar will always hold a special place in my heart. Za manina be anareo sady amin manaraky e!

What were the highlights of your internship experience in Cape Town?

Luckily, I had the perfect balance of fun and work, and I felt that I experienced each aspect to the fullest given COVID protocols. VACorps provided so many opportunities to explore much of the Western Cape’s beauties, as well the opportunities to do “once in a lifetime” joys, such as bungee jumping off a bridge or snorkeling with seals. However, I didn’t realize that my internship would provide so much clarity in determining my career goals. My internship placement in Law and Human Rights was the best fit for my skills set, and my advisor, Kelly Stone, provided me the optimal space and guidance to thrive. She introduced me to communities around the Cape Flats, where I could carve a purpose in aiding and learning from the members of the various communities. I also gained a clearer insight into the realities and disparities experienced by many in the Cape Flats, along with the economic injustices that continue to determine the status quo. I’m genuinely grateful that my internship equipped me with this knowledge in realizing that the issues I witnessed are not specific to Cape Town but affect many worldwide. With this understanding, I feel a sense of purpose and responsibility in counteracting these injustices in countries abroad through my career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.

Can you share an example of how your internship experience aided you with your career?

As a Foreign Service Officer, much of my work will focus on policy research and policy implementation to achieve diplomatic solutions. My VACorps internship in Law and Human Rights provided the perfect practice in that I extensively analyzed the Western Cape Government’s policy implementation in the family reunification process. I looked at the actual laws that governed the process and the shortcomings in how the process is severely lagging in reunifying families in the Western Cape with their children removed in youth homes. I then interviewed various stakeholders in reunifying families to understand what they believed to be the issues plaguing the process. Ultimately, I wrote a position paper offering a feasible solution(s) to make the reunification process more efficient. While I may not be working specifically on the family reunification process in the countries I’ll be serving, I will be analyzing and aiding government(s) in improving governance from a policy standpoint. For this, I can say that my internship in Cape Town makes me confident in my ability to take on similar work in my future career.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d like to give to future VAC interns and/or those considering participation in the program?

Take the leap of faith and fully commit to the experience. Adapting to a new place and culture is difficult, as it should be, but don’t let that frighten you. Try to find humor in the more challenging days and fully embrace the great days. Eventually, you’ll look back and realize just how much you learned and developed in that time.

Any predictions for what we can expect from you in 10 year’s time?

I want to be kind to myself and not be too specific on expectations of what I see myself doing. However, whatever it is, hopefully, I’ll thrive as a U.S. Diplomat and serve in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. I love the continent and want to continue taking opportunities to live there.

Get in touch with Cornelius via the following platforms:

Instagram: @therealiuscornelius