When we began our careers in the 1970s, the Foreign Service was an exclusive club: overwhelmingly white, male and Ivy League-educated, filled with stuffed shirts in striped pants attending swanky cocktail parties.

For decades, you could quite literally count the number of African Americans in the Foreign Service on one hand. Clifton R. Wharton Sr. (whose son, Clifton Jr., later served as deputy secretary of state) became the first black Foreign Service officer in 1924. By 1949, only four more African Americans had joined. Even in 1976, only 4 percent of Foreign Service officers were black. More than a decade after the Civil Rights Act, America was still presenting a face to the world that looked more like a restrictive country club than our multiracial country.

Like Wall Street and the medical and legal professions of the mid-20th century, the diplomatic corps long drew its members from traditionally elite, exclusive institutions, not themselves very diverse at the time. Moreover, college students of color rarely knew that diplomacy was a professional option for them.

That’s changing. Today, our diplomats are more representative. But we haven’t made nearly enough progress. According to the latest statistics, 82 percent of Foreign Service officers (the commissioned career officers serving in embassies and consulates abroad as well as some policy positions stateside) are white. Seven percent are Asian American, 5.4 percent are African American, and 5 percent are Latino. About 60 percent are men. In contrast, the U.S. population is more than 50 percent female, more than 17 percent Hispanic and more than 14 percent African American.

U.S. foreign policy is informed and improved by a wider range of experiences, understandings and outlooks. To represent America abroad and relate to the world beyond our borders, the nation needs diplomats whose family stories, language skills, religious traditions and cultural sensitivities help them to establish connections and avoid misunderstandings. For some of our international allies that are themselves facing diversity issues, American diplomats of diverse backgrounds can help them build bridges. For others, diversity in the American diplomatic corps makes the United States seem more approachable.

For instance, a Foreign Service officer who has served in Haiti, southern and northeastern Africa and Pakistan explains that he is one of only two career diplomats with dreadlocks. “At first, you wonder if your colleagues pre-judge you for having an ‘overly ethnic’ hairstyle,” he recalls.

But when you’re overseas with dreadlocks, he says, “that is when the magic begins. Everywhere I have served, people associate dreadlocks with peace and love… I have been growing my dreadlocks for the past nine years. For each of the seven years that I have been a diplomat, they have helped bridge the proverbial ‘last three feet’ of diplomacy.”

How can the Foreign Service draw upon the country’s total talent pool? The challenge isn’t only eliminating the last vestiges of discrimination but also actively recruiting the most talented and dedicated people from every segment of society, especially those of great ability but limited means.

When the Foreign Service drew upon a narrow swath of the population, most future diplomats already knew people who had represented the country overseas. As part of their upbringings, these young people acquired the mannerisms that would make them at home in the Foreign Service. To diversify the diplomatic service, we must recognize that promising young people from less privileged backgrounds do not enjoy these advantages and assurances. They need to know that the Foreign Service welcomes their skills and experiences. They need role models with whom they can identify. And they need the reassurance that diplomacy can be rewarding and remunerative.

These encouragements and supports are provided by the leading contributors to diversity in the Foreign Service: the [Thomas] Pickering and [Charles] Rangel Foreign Affairs Fellowships. These programs provide mentoring, professional development and financial support for undergraduate and graduate students, more than 600 of whom have successfully completed the Pickering program alone. Women and members of historically underrepresented minorities are encouraged to apply.

In return for promising to serve for five years, young people receive a reciprocal commitment that, after passing their Foreign Service examinations, they will receive appointments as Foreign Service officers.

Responding to the growing challenges to American foreign policy, Congress is considering how to recruit and prepare diplomats with the experiences and expertise to navigate a turbulent international environment.

Every dollar we invest in diversifying the diplomatic service will be repaid many times over by resolving disputes, averting conflicts, making new friends and opening new markets in a world whose variety must be reflected by our representatives overseas.