Pickering Fellowship Places Davidson College Alum on Path to Diplomacy

a young man stands in front of a valley

Ryland Pitts ’20 has spent much of his life abroad, from childhood in Belarus and Hungary to studying and researching in Moscow, to teaching in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The Knoxville, Tennessee, native and Davidson College alum will return stateside this summer and spend the next two years on a fast track to a career in international diplomacy.

Pitts has received a 2024 Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. The fellowship supports enrollment in a two-year master’s degree program, domestic and international internships, mentorship and training for a career in the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State.

He’s scheduled to complete the program in 2026 and become a U.S. diplomat, working to promote “peace, prosperity and human dignity around the world.”

Some 1,400 candidates applied for this year’s Pickering Fellowship; Pitts is one of 45 selected. The program is run through Howard University. The State Department will help pay for tuition and living expenses at an approved graduate program in the U.S. Pitts is likely to attend the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston.

“I thought there was very little chance that I could get this, it’s incredibly competitive,” Pitts said. “I’m looking forward to getting back stateside to start grad school, and also excited to know that I’ll be overseas again soon.

“I love being in different countries. There’s such a richness in experiencing other cultures on an authentic level.”

Pitts is currently in Qarshi, Uzbekistan, serving an English Teaching Assistantship with the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. At Davidson, he double majored in Political Science and Russian Studies.

His parents, Greg and Suzanne Pitts, are non-denominational Christian missionaries who worked and raised their seven children in Minsk, Belarus and later Budapest, Hungary. Knoxville remains their home base.

Besides the Fulbright program, Pitts interned in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor while participating in the Davidson in Washington program. He studied abroad in Moscow, Russia, through Middlebury College, conducting research on corruption with Transparency International. With an Abernethy Endowment research grant, he wrote an honors thesis on Russian media influence in Belarus. All these cemented his interest in foreign policy and international affairs.

After his first year of graduate studies, Pitts will head to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2025 for a domestic internship. After his second year, he’ll intern overseas in a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Receiving the award came after extensive work: when he learned he was shortlisted among 90 candidates, Pitts says he immersed himself in reading about world events, wrote multiple practice essays, and held mock interviews to win one of the 45 spots. Having already passed the FSOT, Pitts will take the Foreign Service Oral Assessment ahead of his appointment as a Foreign Service Officer in the political track.

He’s already proficient in Russian and hopes to add another language and develop regional expertise in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia in grad school.

“It’s an amazing region, and a difficult one,” he said. “I think it’s that complexity that keeps me in it.” 

The need for such expertise is great, says Amanda Ewington, chair and professor of Russian Studies at Davidson.

“As the last two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine reminds us, we are missing a generation of Russia experts due to decreased attention and funding after the fall of the Soviet Union,” she said. “Ryland, with his integrity, work ethic, hard-earned Russian language skills, and immersive experiences in Russophone countries, represents the best of an emerging generation of diplomats who are poised to tackle the challenges posed by Putin’s Russia.”

Pitts has spent 20 years in the region and points to specific days that shaped him: from working with kids in Ukraine affected by war, to witnessing the Syrian refugee crisis in Budapest, Hungary, to playing soccer with children in a remote Kyrgyzstan village. 

a young white male smiling

My experiences have taught me adaptability; constantly – sometimes painfully – adjusting to new environments and looking to understand others’ perspectives and put myself in their shoes. That’s a lot of what being a diplomat is all about.

Ryland Pitts ’20

He holds this quote from the writer Ernest Hemingway as a mantra:

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”


Learn More

Office of Fellowships Davidson's Office of Fellowships supports current students and alumni applying for the Pickering Fellowship. Learn more about the Pickering Fellowship and the Office of Fellowships.

Russian Studies at Davidson The Russian Studies curriculum offers important opportunities to study Russian language, history, politics, and literature at a pivotal moment in history.