International Affairs student makes impact in Colombia and across the globe

Cali, Colombia, native Jeferson Tenorio had an epiphany that marked the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead him to the Penn State School of International Affairs. As he grew and developed as a student and a leader, Tenorio began looking for ways to give back to his community in Colombia.

Jeferson Tenorio in the library of the Lewis Katz Building
Jeferson Tenorio in the library of the Lewis Katz Building Credit: Andy Gabriel/Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A native of Cali, Colombia, Jeferson Tenorio used the phrase “invisible borders of violence” to describe the dangerous circumstances facing many African communities in that country. Tenorio—who has Congolese heritage—has experienced and witnessed the tragic results of those unseen but ever-present boundaries, including the death of his brother, who was killed for the simple act of buying milk in the wrong neighborhood.

In the wake of his brother’s death, rather than seeking retribution, or accepting despair, Tenorio embraced altruism.

“I realized that something within me changed, and I decided that I want to do something for my community,” Tenorio said. “From that moment I said I don’t know how, but I’m going to find a way and I am going to be a different person. I am going to change my reality.”

With that epiphany, Tenorio began a journey that would take him from Cali to locations all around the world, eventually landing at the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA).

Origins of a Leader

Throughout his youth, Tenorio worked odd jobs to help support his family—selling candy in the street, carrying baggage, singing in buses for tips, recycling old cans and bottles for money. Determined to go to college, he worked construction with his father day and night—whenever he wasn’t in class or studying—to help pay the way.

His hard work and sacrifice led to a bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Universidad Santiago de Cali in 2014. It was during his undergraduate degree that Tenorio got his first big break: a Martin Luther King Fellowship from the U.S. Department of State in 2011, awarded to individuals of African descent and/or from indigenous communities to study English and participate in a leadership course.

As he grew and developed as a student and a leader, Tenorio began looking for ways to give back to his community in Colombia.

Collaboration and Community

Tenorio was acutely aware that the majority of youth in Colombia, especially those from African and indigenous backgrounds, had severely limited opportunities to prosper and pursue their goals. The displacement and marginalization of African communities in Colombia, Tenorio said, has led to a lack of education, food, and opportunities, and increased violence.

With these needs in mind, Tenorio in 2012 co-founded Fundación Bochinche, a nonprofit working with vulnerable youth in Cali, Colombia, on human rights, sexual reproductive health, climate change, and leadership.

His work with the foundation was a learning experience in many ways.

“I didn’t know how [to create a foundation], but I knew how to find the right people and convince them to be part of it,” Tenorio said.

Despite his inexperience, the foundation became a prominent organizing force in Cali—thanks in large part to Tenorio’s initiative, ingenuity, and ability to mobilize support.

“The real purpose of everything is collaboration, and from that we can work together and make things happen,” he said.

While his work with the foundation helped make an impact locally, it also opened pathways for Tenorio to expand his global experiences; as a representative of Fundación Bochinche, he traveled to Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates, and participated in meetings at the United Nations.

Tenorio also continued to seek out and earn additional opportunities over the coming years, including his first trip to the United States for the Ultimate Life Summit just outside Disney World (2012); a Youth Ambassador award from Corporación Amigos UNESCO (2016); the Dalai Lama Global Fellowship (2019); a trip to The World Forum for Democracy from the Council of Europe (2019); and a Sustainability Leadership training course through United People Global (2022), to name a few.

Eventually, Tenorio decided that he needed a graduate degree in order to reach his goals and, with the help of a Fulbright Scholarship, he began a master’s degree program at SIA in fall 2023.

Penn State Energy

Tenorio was accepted into master’s programs at five U.S. universities, and when he shared the news with fellow Fulbrighters and peers, he encountered a common reaction.

“Every time I talked to my people, they would say ‘Wow, you’re going to Penn State!’” Tenorio said. “And I would say well, they accepted me but I don’t know. ‘No, choose Penn State, Penn State!’ And I thought, what is it with this Penn State?”

The more he looked into it, the more it seemed that Penn State and SIA would be the perfect fit for him and his wife, Heidy. Now in his second semester of a two-year master’s program at SIA, he knows that he made the right choice.

Jeferson Tenorio and his wife, Heidy
Jeferson Tenorio and his wife, Heidy outside the reading room in the Lewis Katz Building Credit: Andy Gabriel/Penn State

“I am so blessed—so blessed to be in Penn State University,” he said. “The community is great, a lot of people support you, they take care of you, they think of you.”

Tenorio said he has received a lot of encouragement, advice, and mentorship from SIA faculty—specifically mentioning Director Mitchell Smith, Ambassador (Ret.) Dennis Jett, and Dr. Elizabeth Ransom, who teaches Global Cultures and Leadership, a core course.

“Jeferson brings real-world experience to the classroom,” said Ransom, an associate professor of international affairs and senior research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute. “He regularly demonstrates not only his ability to be a leader, but his desire to be a change maker, with the goal of improving people’s lives.”

The core courses at SIA have also empowered Tenorio with new knowledge, skills, and perspectives, he said, that will help him advance toward his long-term goals.

“I just want to say thank you to the energy of Penn State, you know, and all the support that I have received, not only from the School of International Affairs, but from the whole university itself,” he said. “It has been interesting and awesome. It is a place where you feel welcomed.”

Building New Opportunities

In 2023, Tenorio stepped away from Fundación Bochinche and launched a new nonprofit, the Martin Luther King Foundation Colombia, to continue building new opportunities in his home country. Not surprisingly, much of his work as founder and CEO of the foundation revolves around collaboration—including strengthening relationships with the U.S. Embassy, bringing in international activists to engage with local youth, and partnering with Black Entertainment Television (BET) executives to explore investment opportunities in Colombia.

Also in 2023, the summer before starting at Penn State, Tenorio was awarded a Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) Fellowship, a State Department exchange program that matches entrepreneurs from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada with organizations in the United States. Tenorio was matched with the A.D. King Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes social change through non-violence.

With financial support from the A.D. King Foundation and YLAI, Tenorio created the King Legacy Exchange Program, which will bring 85 participants from Colombia—individuals with African and/or indigenous descent—to the United States and Nigeria for three weeks total. The participants will receive training on three subjects in three locations: non-violence and human rights (Atlanta, Georgia); leadership (Washington, D.C.—Howard University); and African cultural heritage (Nigeria).

The program will launch in July 2024.

Another current project for Tenorio is helping to organize a major concert this summer in Cali, which will be headlined by Busta Rhymes and Davido, a popular Nigerian-American musician.

As for the future? Tenorio is considering running for parliament or working in a government ministry in Colombia—anything that will best serve his mission of supporting and developing his community and his country.

“I am really committed to my community. My happiness is working to help my community,” Tenorio said.

“I am going to keep working hard for Cali and for Colombia, keep making things happen until I can sit back and relax and say everything is working perfect,” he added. “But I know I am never going to be relaxed because I am always looking for more.”