Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Airing of Grievances

Sub-Title: More Realities of Life in Long-Term Training

Boy, I bet that title is going to garner a lot of enthusiasm! Hey, let's read about somebody else's whining and moaning - woo hoo! But the time comes when even the ugly side of just about anything should be revealed so that when it happens again - or for some of you, for the first time - you can see that you're not the only one and that it will pass; that life will cycle through to the highs again. As a fortune cookie once told me, "You must taste the bitter to recognize the sweet." (But it also gave me a bunch of lottery numbers that turned out NOT to be so lucky, thus casting doubt upon the wisdom of the fortune itself.)

Anyway - greeting from FSI and la semana muerta

That's right, the dead week, and yes - that's what it's called in the Spanish Department. Nice way to describe the holidays, eh? What it means is that during the week of Christmas up until January 2nd, no classes shall progress. With so many students and teachers away for the holidays, FSI figured that it wouldn't be fair if the classes continued with their curriculum while the other students were away. But they also couldn't force us all to take vacation time, and with so many of the instructors being contractors, that would equate to a forced furlough without pay. So, this was their compromise: all students who are not taking annual leave will come to FSI every day like normal, but instead of heading for class, they will develop a self-study plan and work on their own. We have to sign in each morning and again eight hours later before heading home. We see our teachers in the hallways (those who haven't headed to Peru, Guatemala or Colombia to see their families), but we're forbidden to exchange more than pleasantries with them to avoid the appearance that they're helping us and therefore are giving one student an advantage of extra instruction over another.  My most recent teacher warned that she could be fired on the spot for doing this during la semana muerta. I don't know if that's true or not, but I'm not about to risk it by chatting with her. 

So teachers are holed up in the offices and students are wandering the halls like ghosts coming back to haunt the place, looking for a good spot to spread out to read, review their text books, nap, practice conjugating verbs or watch CNN on the classroom SmartBoard - you name it. I've been reading articles online, watching movies in Spanish (and reading the English subtitles), going through units in my Consular Spanish course, chatting with classmates in the cafeteria and generally just  burning time. 

Where's the frustrating part, you say? Because for those of us with precious few weeks left before we take our exam, this time feels like a big backslide. While my classmates and I often make the effort to chat together in Spanish, none of us is really going to correct the other in casual conversation. I mean really, who likes a friend who says, "habia, not hubo, remember you're giving background information here." right? So we end up speaking a version of Spanish like twinspeak, the language that some twins develop among themselves that is based mostly on, "well, you know what I mean!" 

Just before the holidays, I was moved from my usual class to a group of more advanced students. My previous class was breaking apart with people completing their training and taking their tests, so I wasn't surprised to receive a new assignment. This new class is working above the level of my previous one, and it is a real stretch to keep up with them. The classroom dynamic is tangibly different too, with two clear pet students who have been with the teacher quite a while. Then ole' "what's your name again?" joined the group. Yes, that was me up until Thursday when the teacher was finally able to come up with my name without doing the "It's on the tip of my tongue, don't tell me!" gesture with her index finger. I think it was the combination of the stress of the new group, the holidays and all the pressure that brings and probably a good dose of hormones that put me into a real funk and took me to the ladies room to dry my eyes and make sure my mascara wasn't trickling down my cheeks more than once. For any of you headed to language training: get ready. You'll either feel or witness this, believe me. Yes, it's a stereotype, but many women students will cry at least once during their training, and I've seen the guys get ranting, swearing, and fist-slamming-on-desk frustrated. It just happens. That's why I'm writing this: to let y'all know that this stuff just happens. It's not all deep thoughts and the glow that comes with internal growth and greater knowledge to better the world. It's also feeling like an idiot, feeling embarrassed, feeling proud, feeling sharp and clever, feeling superior to others who are still struggling and then crying in the ladies room. 

The above is just the gripes of my life as a student, as the employee. Let me turn the  spotlight a moment to what the spouses/families are going through during long-term training, too:

There are the lucky ones who manage to find work, or keep former jobs from a distance, and can lead a more "normal" existence is this land of limbo. And many get to visit the land of their own peaks and valleys that is language training. While most of the kids are in school, they're also having to make new friends, or feel the pain of not doing so. But there are many spouses who can't work because "we'll only be here three months," or who had to leave behind good jobs in wherever they came from. They are now hostage to this life, cooped up in a small apartment for four, five, seven, nine, even twelve months. Many watch their spouses head purposefully off to training each day, hear about it over dinner, but don't get to take part themselves. My husband was fortunate to have had eight weeks of training in various courses this year, and has been working on his own Spanish training online, but that still leaves four months of "unscheduled time" for him. The first month may feel like a vacation, but the last three are anything but. 

When we arrived it was summer, and days exploring museums or poolside with paperbacks kept him happily busy. But now it gets light at 7:30 and dark just after 5:00. Big, wet flakes are drifting to the ground in one of our first snowfalls and there's only so many classic movies on AMC one can watch. Many carefully, professionally worded e-mails (with attached updated resumes, for your review) have gone unanswered as he tries to be proactive about finding work at our new post. Like bank robbers promising themselves that it will all be better when they make "just one last score, Bobby!", we find ourselves thinking that as soon as we get to Juarez, it will all be better. But without saying it, I'm certain we're also both worrying that Juarez might be a replay of the first six months in Bogota (lest we forget the lessons learned and described here). With young kids to raise, a husband or wife can be exhausted and starving for adult conversation at the end of the day. Without children, the same spouse is simply bored, frustrated and waiting. Waiting for the chance to feel engaged, productive and useful, or simply just to be not waiting anymore.

Every week or so, my A-100 class gets updates from classmates who have reached post and are already DOING what we're still learning about. In words and photos, we see and hear about their work: meeting with local NGOs, writing cables, researching companies in their host countries to assist US businesses, flying with the Ambassador to various parts of the country, volunteering to teach English to local adults or simply putting into action our six weeks of Consular training by adjudicating visas in Chinese, Bengali, Spanish and French.  Meanwhile... we're still here, trundling down to catch the shuttle each morning, sitting at the same cafeteria table and chatting over our same repertoire of frozen lunches or left-overs. 

I got out of bed at 9:00 this morning, more than three hours later than I usually do. The Tabbies had been screaming at us for two hours already and my playing deaf wasn't working. They tag-team pounced on the bed and my head in turns, begging for their overdue breakfast. When I begrudgingly gave in to their tactics, Toby then scarfed it down so quickly that he promptly barfed it all up on the carpet. Not on the tile, where it's easy to wipe up, but in the middle of the living room. Thank God for light brown, cat-food-colored carpets, is all I can say. I wiped it up, sprayed that great stuff I always have on hand on the spots and bundled up to go out and care for a friend's cat in the next building over. Walking in the wet snowfall, past the now-vacant kids' play area where someone had forgotten their little down jacket under the bench, now limply wet and useless, I thought of the excitement I'd felt arriving here over five months ago. It was summer, there were new friends to meet, assignments to imagine, the world was possibilities and sunny horizons. Now it's gray, damp and feels like we're still in the trenches, trudging along and trying to make it through. Besides that, someone gave me a nasty cold/sinus infection and my head has become a disgustingly unending supply of.. well, I don't need to pain that graphic of a picture for you. I fed and snuggled my friend's little gray kitty, promising her that her family would return soon, and took a while to look out their 6th-floor window, overlooking the now-closed pool and hot tub area of the apartment complex. It really isn't so bad, I had to remind myself. In fact, it's not bad at all.

It's just that sometimes it's hard to lift your chin up to see the horizon and be reminded that all the frustrations, roadblocks and seemingly dead-ended corridors will eventually have doors or turns that lead to new adventures, new times of excitement and growth. 

Right?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Oh Tannenbaum...

Christmastime in my growing up always meant bringing home a real Christmas tree. There were the traditional family fights about exactly which tree was the best in the lot, and I remember watching my father scale a four-story evergreen to take "just a bit off the top" and then drag that topping home to the living room. Let me not forget the time when he scaled a particularly sappy pine, saw tucked under his arm as he struggled upwards through the branches, and just out of earshot of the family below - madly gestured that he was ascending the wrong tree. 

But now that we're in the foreign service, we're adapting to different definitions of what a Christmas tree is, or can be. 

Without further ado, I'd like to offer a gallery of our foreign service Christmas trees... thus far:
The Oakwood Apartment's standard-issue fake-ficus-of-Navidad. I added piney aroma sticks to make it seem more Christmasy. I'm not sure anyone's buying it and the leaves keep hiding the ornaments.

FSI's two-story tree covered in the flags of the world - just my style!
ConGen's "Country of Z" traditional purple tree! ("Z" is the  mythical country  we use  in our training.)
"Arbusto de Navidad" (Christmas bush) from Bogota. Actually just a juniper with generally the right shape. For $30 we got it potted and delivered to the door - and it was live!




Friday, December 7, 2012

From the Fur Family

We've all seen the commercial for the SPCA featuring Sarah McLachlan and her song, "In The Arms of An Angel." Even though it was on TV for quite a while, I never got dulled to the song, the faces or the message and it just about made me cry each and every time. 

Well now they've gone and done it again. But this time it's Roberta Flack and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." 

Oh geez, are they trying to KILL me here? The shivering Corgi, rheumy-eyed kitten and abandoned Lhasa Apso - it's just too much. But I hope it catches someone's attention. 

I've spent years volunteering in shelters, refuges and adoption centers. During this time, I've had to watch sick kittens die; I've been the recipient of a nervous dog's bite, I've had to break up a nasty dog fight rather than watch one kill the other; I've hoisted crippled donkeys to their feet; I've spent my weekends elbow-deep in bleach after an outbreak of something or other; I've sat in a pet store all day with antlers on my head, taking photos as Santa's Helper for fundraisers; I've scrubbed out wounds on mistreated horses; I've hauled tons of hay in wheelbarrows and scooped exactly one jillion litter boxes. 

But I've also seen these cats, kittens, dogs, puppies and even horses leave the shelters for good to move on to stable (pun intended), loving homes. I've left my shift at the end of the day imagining them sleeping in their new beds, or grazing in their own pastures instead of standing in cement stalls. 

And it's always worth it. 

If you're considering a gift for someone who shares a love of animals, please consider donating time or money to a local animal shelter or national organization, in whichever country you're reading this. It will never go unnoticed. 

Besides a local organization, please also consider my good friends at: 

Purrfect Pals, Arlington, WA

Sathya Sai Donkey Sanctuary, Sligo, Ireland

Asosiacion Defensora de Animales, Bogota, Colombia


And watch out for those ASPCA commercials...




Friday, November 30, 2012

Spanish Class: Part 43A

The last time we chatted, I was nervous about my uncontrolled, spinning descent to earth via my Spanish language parachute (or lack of). To be fair and balanced in my reporting of FSI language training, I thought I'd write about the opposite swing of this linguistic pendulum.

I'm loving my Spanish class now. Yup, I've said it, and have probably cursed myself in the process. We have a new teacher as of this week, and it's not that I didn't like the others - because I did, really! - but this new one combines enough structure to let us feel like we're not meandering, with regular reinforcement of the lessons we're learning and enough correction so that we understand our errors without being humiliated and shamed into not wanting to open our mouths. I'm using "our" and "we" here because in conversation with my two other classmates (#3 went off to post last week), I learned that they feel the same way. He set the bar on day one by writing on the board that two words no longer existed: "cosa" (thing) and "dinero" (money). 

What's the matter with these words? They're either extremely lazy or inaccurate and lazy.
How many times have you said, "Can you hand me that thing?" "There's this thing that I've been thinking of doing," "That thing in the Middle East that has been in the news lately."  When you really need to be learning to say: pencil sharpener, trip to the museum and ongoing geopolitical warfare. 

What's the matter with "dinero" you ask? Well, it depends on the situation. Remember, we're diplomats in language training. We're not going to talk about how the USG gives dinero to Sudan, but rather "monetary assistance," "fiscal support," or "humanitarian aid." Dinero you can give to your ten-year-old for their allowance, but to state that the USG gave dinero to Kosovo, well now you're insinuating something a bit unethical. 

After he laid down this law, we (the class, of our own volition) added "problema" to the list (I really don't need to translate that, do I?). Because how Level 3 Spanish does it sound to say that Israel has a problema with their neighbors? 

Suffice it to say that we're learning to advance our vocabulary by replacing old, tired nouns and verbs with more subtle and accurate ones. I feel like I'm gaining traction in my language acquisition (see - I didn't just say "learning new stuff"!) and I wanted to share that there are indeed, precious few perhaps, times of confidence and growth. 

And he's giving us good insight into the methods (I didn't say tricks and traps!) that the language examiners use to gauge our skills. I'm all for that!

I'll sign off for now, feeling like I have a clear view of the horizon and a steady descent to earth. If you're lost with that last sentence, please read previous post.

Nos vemos!

PS And it's not just me -  please read my A-100 classmate's version of his language training.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding Inspiration in the Strangest Places

Today I found myself fascinated, for the second time, by the story of Felix Baumgartner and his supersonic jump from 128,000 ft. The TV was on in the background while I was scribbling out some Spanish homework. It was the NatGeo channel's detailed story of Felix's ascent in his balloon, including the technical difficulties of his visor fogging up and mission control talking him through a solution, and then the step-by-step from his ground crew as he prepared to jump from his capsule towards earth. Things like (and I paraphrase), "Move your seat to the upright position. Remove your safety belt. Now slide to the front of the chair" etc... until he was poised at the open door, feet outside in the atmosphere. Even though this was perhaps the third time I'd seen his jump, I couldn't turn away, and certainly held my breath watching him shoot out of sight of the capsule's camera, begin to spin uncontrollably, miraculously regain control, and finally land as lightly as if he'd merely stepped off a stool. It was awesome.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anything?

Right now - everything. 

As you know, I'm back in language training which is certainly one of those times that is always more fun in retrospect. However, once the honeymoon of, "I'm earning my salary to learn a language!" wears off (usually after about week two), we all begin to realize that we too are merely hurtling towards an inevitable landing in the language exam center. During our descent, we have moments (sometimes even weeks), where we feel as Felix did when his visor started to fog and he couldn't see the horizon, followed sometimes by an uncontrolled spin where we begin to imagine our inevitable demise. While Felix faced the atmospheric pressure, we're faced with internal pressures to succeed in our training; the pressure to make a deadline and arrive at post on time (sometimes someone is waiting to leave for our arrival); and the omnipresent pressure of not wanting to look/feel like a total idiot in front of the rest of our class, our teacher, and finally on the fateful day - the examiners. Then there's the cherry-on-top pressure of learning an "easy language" like Spanish. I mean, they use the same alphabet and pronounce all the letters as they're written, how hard could that be, right? (And no, FSI doesn't call Spanish an "easy" language, they call it a "world language." But it's only because they're trying to be polite. Don't think we didn't notice that other languages are referred to as either "hard" or "super hard.") 

Watching Felix's fall today, I completely related to what must've been going through his mind as he careened towards terra firma. Describing his spinning loss of control (i.e. what most of watching believed to be the last moments of his life), he stated:

"In that situation, when you spin around, it's like hell and you don't know if you can get out of that spin or not. Of course it was terrifying. I was fighting all the way down because I knew that there must be a moment where I can handle it."

I know this feeling he's describing well, and it comes during the part of my Spanish exam called "speaking at length" where we have to speak about a topic for 6-10 minutes in an organized and professional manner, displaying all our grammatical wares like a tour through the galleries of our "Nuevas Rutas" textbook. 

"Oh look, here's the entryway with the present and preterit, and there's the imperfect. Please note the stylish use of connectors and charming idiomatic accent phrase. Finally, don't miss the subjunctive beautifully displayed at the finale!" All this with only a five minute prep time and no mission control in my earpiece, reminding me to unstrap my seat belt and slide to the front of the seat before jumping. There are times during these presentations (we practice them weekly in class) where I realize I'm spinning myself into sentences from which I cannot recover, hurtling towards a conclusion that is nowhere on the horizon with a seriously foggy visor. I begin to panic and start wondering why I didn't ever teach myself to faint on command. 

I mean really - this is just a language exam, right? If he can jump from 128,000 feet, for nine minutes, over four of which were in free-fall, hitting a top speed of 833.9 mph and including a few minutes of having to find the fortitude to right himself from a potentially irreversible spin - then I can manage the same amount of time in front of two examiners, dribbling out some stuff about the environment, immigration or the changing role of women in Latin America. 

I've decided that Felix is my new hero. Because besides all the above, he is also Austrian. Which means he was also communicating with his mission control team in a non-native language. So truly - I have no excuse.  I will fight all the way down because I know that there must be a moment where I can handle it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The power of a flag

File this under: Silly facts for a Saturday.

So you're thinking of starting a blog?
Perhaps you've been thinking of clever topics that will be helpful, interesting, cutting-edge, insightful, funny or in general just make people think?

Sounds great. But how will your readers find you?

I suggest you include flags, lots of flags.

A quick look at the statistics of how people found this blog reveals that besides being linked to the Department of State's official blogroll, one of the largest sources of new readers was my inclusion of a Colombian flag on the blog last year. 
To be specific, the Google searches have been:


459 Colombian Flag
139 Cool Colombian Flag
35 Official Colombian Flag
30 Bogota Colombia Flag

My math tells me that there are now probably 659 disappointed 5th graders out there who found me and the Tabbies instead while working on their world history or social studies reports.

Who knows, maybe one of them stopped to read about this job and the interesting life it creates and it planted a teenie seed in the mind of a future diplomat?

Yeah, maybe not - but it would be pretty cool if that were the case. 

That's all for today. And don't forget to add and caption your flags! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Horizons

There is a feeling of having a new start combined with the comfort of the familiar today. It may sound like I'm offering a day-after-election commentary, but actually I'm talking about language training. 

Oh, of course!

Northern Virginia was spared the brunt of hurricane Sandy's force, and we were fortunate that the only negative consequence (and some may even dispute that adjective) was that FSI was closed for three days last week. Therefore last Thursday, instead of last Monday, my Spanish language training began. I was "helicoptered" into an existing class and it seems so far that my classmates and I are a good match, skills-wise. However, they will be taking their (dreaded) formal exams in the coming month, while I have until January to eek my skills from my most recent score of 2+ to the holy grail of 3. Really, I shouldn't describe the 3 in such a lofty manner, as it simply signifies a professional competence in the language and by no means a true fluency. But it means that I could say whatever I want on topics that may even be unfamiliar, and can express myself fully without making native speakers roll their eyes or later mock me in the comfort of their homes. Heck, I may have trouble with that in my native tongue, so I'm aiming for something slightly higher than simply not embarrassing myself. When I was in language training last summer, I needed to score only a 2, commonly needed for OMSes, which meant that I could get my point across, even if somewhat crudely. 

To combine the theme of election results and Spanish training, we spent a good bit of time today reading the President's acceptance speech, which was really great. Being on the east coast and having a very early start time each morning, I wasn't able to stay awake long enough to hear it fresh last night, so it was good to take time reading it and learning all sorts of new vocabulary along the way.  

And did anyone catch that he mentioned me and my classmates? 

Okay - maybe not us specifically, but he said something that I really liked and that struck a personal chord:

"Creemos en Estados Unidos generoso, un Estados Unidos compasivo, un Estados Unidos tolerante, abierto a los suenos de una hija de inmigrantes que estudia en nuestras escuelas y jura fidelidad a nuestra bandera. Abierto a los suenos del chico de la parte sur de Chicago que ve que puede tener una vida mas alla de la esquina mas cercana. A los del hijo del ebanista de Carolina del Norte que quiere ser medico o cientifico, ingeniero o empresario, diplomatico o incluso presidente; ese es el futuro al que aspirimos. Esa es la vision que compartimos. Esa es la direccion en la que debemos avanzar. Hacia alli debemos ir."

I wrote this in Spanish so y'all could play along. (Or, you can read or listen to it here instead in English.) I think you can get the gist, and didja' also see that "diplomat" was mentioned only second to the possibility of being the president? Yeah, that was also pretty cool.

Speaking of cool, yesterday I received a message saying that my diplomatic commission is available for pick-up at the State Department now. I believe this is going to be a lovely suitable-for-framing certificate with the Great Seal on it saying that I'm a bona fide diplomat. Who'd have thought? In fact, I was also just sent a photo of an A-100 classmate WITH Secretary Clinton, holding some document, maybe one of our commissions, with the Great Seal on it. Man - what a day for her! 

So, it is an exciting time of new horizons and hopefully bright futures. At the same time, it feels like there is the opportunity to dig in and really become proficient, to strengthen abilities and continue a work already in progress. 

Perhaps the President and I have something in common after all.




Saturday, October 27, 2012

Side Tracked

Coming back to the DC area in mid-July has given us a luxurious three months of summer, something we've longed for after spending a year at 64 degrees and partly-cloudy in Bogota, preceded by decades in the Pacific Northwest where the sun can be, well, scant some years. But now it's truly fall and we get to enjoy a colorful change of seasons - also something we've missed out on living near the Equator and in the Evergreen State, where things tend to stay mostly green year 'round. We recently headed out to the explore our new surroundings: the towns, mountains and countryside of northern Virginia. 

There's a strong storm descending upon us in the coming days which will undoubtedly strip our lovely pumpkin-colored trees of all their foliage. So I'm glad we were able to enjoy the following scenery in time and share it here. Brought to you by the Shenandoah National Park - I give you the Blue Ridge Mountains and their surroundings in October:











Let me hear your best John Denver now: "Country roads, take me home..."

Meanwhile, back at the FSI ranch - I've just completed two weeks post-ConGen of some really great classes which have included everything from writing annual evaluations to driving backwards at 30 mph; from recognizing stages of learning to recognizing stages of hypothermia and shock; from setting employee goals to setting our sights on targets at the range - it's been a whirlwind of training! But everything will soon settle into a steady routine soon as I head back down the hall to the Spanish Department. 

Coming next: Back to the land of language training


Friday, October 12, 2012

Points of Pride

It feels like I've noted a whole slew of milestones reached over the past year and a half of this blog, but I get to tell you about one more, and it might be my favorite. 
On Wednesday, along with 23 classmates, I graduated from ConGen! 

This means we each successfully completed (with 100% attendance required) six weeks of intensive study for our assignments as Consular Officers. I have a dandy certificate to prove it, a head full of FAM references and binders full of notes, but more than that, I have (now, really!) finally achieved what has kept me motivated since May 2009 when I first heard of what a Consular Officer was. Through an entire summer dedicated to preparing for my first FS Officer's Test, to the disappointment of not making it all the way through the hiring process on the first try, to the excitement of going to my first assignment as an OMS - the spot on the horizon I've always kept in focus has been this job. 

So yesterday was a personal celebration for me. As my first day without an FSI class to attend, I spent part of it in Arlington National Cemetery in quiet reflection. Under brilliant blue skies and crisp early-autumn sunshine, I walked through the rows of headstones and statues and took in the perfect view of DC by myself. Being in that setting reminded me of the importance of service and of creating a life whose focus is outwards, not inwards. Naturally I can't compare my potential service or sacrifice to that of those memorialized at Arlington, but I am proud that it's something, that it's what I can do now. 

To top it off, we just learned that on September 22nd, our A-100 class list was sent to the Senate for Presidential Nomination. To excerpt the Library of Congress website:

Presidential Nominations
112th Congress (2011 - 2012)
PN1880-112

Legislative Actions
Floor Action: September 10, 2012 - Received in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Floor Action: September 22, 2012 - Senate Committee on Foreign Relations discharged by Unanimous Consent.
Floor Action: September 22, 2012 - Confirmed by the Senate by Voice Vote.


I'm not entirely sure what else comes next in the process, but just to know that my name was in some way passing through Congress, well - I think that's pretty cool. 

And today the 169th A-100 class will have their Flag Day, and I will be in the back of the room cheering them on. There should be a few new Ciudad Juarez colleagues receiving their tiny Mexican flags, so I plan to be there to welcome them in, just as I was received on my own Flag Day almost two months ago. Each week, more of my classmates head for the airports and we're already receiving word back from colleagues in Saudi Arabia, Mali, NYC and Paraguay. While we're having lunch in the FSI cafeteria, they're out sinking their teeth into the meat of the work that we're still learning about. By the time I start my Spanish classes, some of my ConGen friends will already be in their interview windows, putting all of our training to work. 

To top it off, my husband was granted a spot in his own ConGen course, and just one week into it is now saying things like, "I'd like to, but I've got homework and case studies to work on today..." when we start making weekend plans. We hope that this training will set him up for a job inside the Consulate, but there are no guarantees. The security and economic situation in Juarez isn't as favorable for work on the local economy as it was in Bogota, so we're hoping this will be a good avenue for him. And who knows - maybe he will be so enthralled with the subject matter that he'll consider making it a career, too?  

Just a bit of sentimental pride to share with you all today. Once in a while I think it's important to slow down and really taste the tangerine.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Starting the FS at 20-something


A few weeks back, I wrote about what it feels like to start a new career in the Foreign Service over the age of 40. Today I'm turning to my colleagues in their 20s with the same questions. The State Department hires new generalists and specialists from ages 21 to 59 (see careers.state.gov), and some of the younger set come to A-100 shortly after graduation or as Fellows. My particular A-100 had a good number of Fellows and recent grads, giving me a super resource on the topic. The following is by no means any type of proper scientific survey, but rather a collection of conversations and e-mails volunteered by a handful of 20-something entry level officers (ELOs) from a variety of backgrounds and in various stages of their personal life, from single to expecting a first child.  

So let's dive in. When possible, I'm going to quote instead of paraphrase so you can hear their exact thoughts:

1.   What do you feel are the advantages to starting the Foreign Service at your age?

One 24-year old mentioned that as she had just recently earned her graduate degree months before starting A-100, she was still in the habit and mindset of studying and felt it was easy to keep that level of motivation up.  This was certainly useful in A-100 and in the variety of intense training that often follows.

“As a 24 year old, this will be my first career and I have 41 years to accomplish my goals. I do not have as much pressure as many of my fellow A-100 colleagues due to my age, which allows me freedom to seek out jobs that might not advance me professionally advantageous (allow I think that all positions in the FS can help your career if you do your job well) but are of a personal interest to me. I feel that I have the chance to make mistakes and choose the path I want without seeing each birthday as one year closer to retirement.”

“The mid-20s is a great time to be in the Foreign Service. Since I have neither pets nor a significant other, I am truly worldwide available. I can get excited about serving my country without many caveats or hesitations about places I don't want to go. And when I do pack up and leave, I won't have a home to sell or a settled lifestyle to give up.

A 26-year old noted, “I can see some real advantages, such as being younger and trying to handle the hours and amount of information you have to take in.”

“28 feels perfect to me - I've had four years of previous work experience, two years of grad school, and plenty of time ahead to sink my teeth into this. I'm glad to have had a different life outside the FS to appreciate other paths and to know more of the real world in which policy has to operate. At the same time, I didn't spend so long in another career that it becomes hard to break out of an old life.

2. Do you feel there are any disadvantages/challenges that you face or are concerned about?

A few of the recent grads noted their concern about a lack of significant or applicable work experience prior to joining. Believe me; this was easy to feel, even for those of us over 40, as the FS attracts people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Some felt that although they had internships in embassies and the State Department before through their fellowships, they hadn’t had “regular” work experience and all that comes with it in terms of knowing how to deal with different types of supervisors and coworkers.

“One disadvantage may be that since this is my first career, I might not be taken as seriously in my first posts as someone who has done impressive things already with their lives. While we are told that we all enter on a level playing field, my lack of experience in the "real world" might make the transition take a little longer than others who have had 20 years of working experience.

A mid-20’s man without graduate school behind him saw the positive side of starting from scratch:
“In some ways, I'm starting at a disadvantage because I don't have as much educational or work experience as many of my colleagues. But because of the way entry level officer careers are structured, I have access to the same posts and positions as everyone else. In addition, I have access to great mentoring; I get to work in a range of positions on a range of issues in a range of regions, and I receive excellent language training. Hopefully I'll have the chance to earn my Master's as a mid career officer. All this means that I'm not worrying about how the Foreign Service fits into my career plans--rather, all my career plans fit into the Foreign Service!

One 26-year old commented on the requirements the State Department has for breaking into the Senior Foreign Service, which is something a career employee could consider after about 12-20 years on the job: “Another plus might be that I can look at this as a long term career, but that might also be a drawback as I have to consider, 'Do I want to do what is necessary to make it into the Senior Foreign Service?' I could see someone who was a little older than I could enjoy the job in a different way since they know they don't have the years necessary to try for it anyway." 


3. Are you thinking this is a career for 5, 10, 15 or 20+ years?

This question got the biggest variety of responses, most of them hinging upon family and personal situations, instead of professional. Although more than one mentioned knowing they wanted to be a diplomat since they were in grade school!

“NO IDEA. At least five to ten. This is a privilege not to be taken lightly. But honestly, if the chance to be married came up, and it meant leaving the FS behind, I'd do it.

“Right now I am thinking of this as a career for as long as it makes sense for my family... right now my husband and I want this. Who knows what is going to happen when our parents are aging and need care? At this point in my life, I am still open to whatever is the right choice for the time."

The current economic situation came up a few times in conversation, with a few recent grads feeling thankful to have such solid jobs when they knew other college classmates weren't as fortunate.

“I would love to be in for 20+ years but also appreciate that I have plenty of options and I am not at the point where I need to stay because I need the pension for retirement. It is also encouraging that I will hit my 20 years/over the age of 50 and still have plenty of time to either transition to a new career or stay in until I am 65. The amount of options I have for the future, and the job security of being an FSO, ensure that I am one of the rare recent college graduates that feels some sense of security in my economic future.”

A mid-20s returned Peace Corps Volunteer added: “For some, salary is a consideration. While the Foreign Service may not pay as much as some of the private-sector competition, I'm used to living on a small budget and my Foreign Service salary seems like a fortune. In addition, working in the Foreign Service makes it easy to save for retirement--I've got the Thrift Savings Plan, the Foreign Service Pension System, and the money I'll save abroad living in USG housing. By joining the Foreign Service early, I'm saving when it makes the biggest difference.”

4. Is making Ambassador a goal for you?
During A-100, it was a common phrase among the presenters who came to speak to us on their particular field of expertise, “When you make Ambassador…” but the responses from my colleagues was mixed on the subject:
 
“Honestly, right now I have no interest in becoming an Ambassador. But I think that stems from lack of knowledge about the Department and how things in the Foreign Service work more than it does from a dislike of the job. I could see that becoming a goal someday, but only if I decide to make this a long-term career. As with all things in the Foreign Service, 'it depends.'"
 
“No. Only if it were a small country. I want to maintain some sense of privacy.
I like the title ‘Political Section Chief’ much better.”

“I think it should be the goal of any FSO to reach that level. I am also realistic that only a small group of FSO's ever reach that position and there are plenty of other great jobs in the FS.”

5. Do you have any concerns about meeting Mr/Ms 20-something while bopping around the world? If so - do you picture being a tandem or meeting a local someone?

In regards to the personal side of the equation, many singles expressed concerns about trying to meet a future spouse or partner when their new career required them to move every one to three years. Or, the married ones wondered about starting and raising a family on the move. Such as this ELO who shared:

“One challenge/disadvantage I face is the question of whether or not I want to raise a family in this lifestyle. If I had older/grown children I would be thinking about where I want to go in the FS differently. Right now, I am looking at hardship posts but I know that in a few years I probably won't want to work in those kind of places, and that could harm my chances of making this a long-term career, should I choose to do so."

I heard far more worries from my single female colleagues than from the young men regarding meeting Mr/Ms Right in the FS. The women questioned whether or not a man from a more traditional culture would be willing to potentially take a back seat to his wife’s career, whereas this was not a concern among the men. The whole idea of meeting another FSO and forming a tandem was interesting, but they acknowledged that it comes with the inherent complications of managing two careers. In Bogota, the other two women in my office had each met their husbands in A-100, so it’s not such a crazy notion to consider.

The single women also spoke more about their personal security in certain countries than the men did, and there was one particular assignment in our class that some of the young women agreed would NOT have been wise for them to accept. Fortunately, none of them were assigned there.  There’s a common saying, “You can tell the country of a man’s first post by the nationality of his wife” which is very, very often true. I heard a funny addition to that saying recently, “…and you can tell the country of a women’s first post by the nationality of her furniture.” This made me laugh as I could think of a number of female friends in Bogota who had feathered their nests with Colombian handmade furniture!

“Yes, this is without a doubt the thing that troubles me the most and makes me question this path. How am I supposed to go deep into a community and have enough time to know someone well enough to marry when we are all coming and going all the time?”

Two married colleagues responded with:

“I do feel lucky that I have a spouse who is so open to this life. He is ready to leave his career and move around the world and do different things wherever we are. We are open to the possibility that he might someday join the Foreign Service and we could become a tandem, but after hearing stories about so many others who struggled to be together, I think he is more interested in doing whatever he can at post rather than make the FS his career too."

“All I can say though is that you need to go into this career with a good attitude and not be so worried about your career that you forget about your current (and future) family. I am excited for the opportunity to share this experience with my wife and our daughter who is on the way and will enjoy it that much more because I have people who will be there to support me.” 

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

“I am really glad I got that master's degree. And I finished it just in time too. However, if I was going to do things over again I would have taken more classes in public policy or political science so I was better prepared for this job. I really didn't plan for this to be my career so I operated as if I was going to go into teaching/writing history, which I am still happy with. I worry for those who make getting into the FS their only goal at this age and then get frustrated when it continues to not happen for them. I was glad I had other goals and other futures to focus on. I was moving toward getting my doctorate when I got the A-100 call and there is a good chance that when this is over, I will move back into that arena too. But really, it all depends!" 

“The biggest reasons I'm in the Foreign Service, though, have nothing to do with age--I want to serve, and I want a job that keeps me on my toes. Being young and single just makes it easier.

“I'm going to go down this road as far as God would lead, whether it's just one tour or all the way to Ambassador. If at any time it seems like it's no longer the right place to be, that's okay - there's not one single job that can only make me happy. But this one seems pretty great so far!”

“Ultimately, everyone can have a long and fulfilling career in the FS and age should not be viewed as an advantage/handicap. From being with our A-100 class for over six weeks, I have met impressive people from age 24-59 and would be glad to learn from and work with all of them.” 

I found this last sentiment particularly true. It was refreshing during A-100, and even now in our further training, to continually learn from, and be surprised by, the accomplishments of ALL my new ELO friends, regardless of age.

So, the bottom line is that whether you’re 40+ or 24, there simply isn’t one way to come into this career, nor one way to take it once you’re in. Which is good, because the State Department needs people to take on the job of diplomacy at all levels of the hierarchy, in all subject matters, in all living conditions and in every country (save a few) around the world. Pardon the extra serving of corn here, but there certainly are many roads to Rome!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The FAM: Who'd Have Thought It Would Be My New Best Friend?

It appears I've made a few new friends in ConGen who I never thought I'd find myself spending so much time with. Sure, I knew I'd meet them, and I'd certainly get to know them during these intensive six weeks of training on US immigration law, but I thought I'd just have to put up with them, if you know what I mean. Like coworkers who make you suddenly stop and take a drink from the water fountain to avoid having to make small talk with them when you see them coming down the hallway. You know - the bores who just don't get it when people aren't that interested in their long-winded stories. Not bad folks, just not the types you'd invite to spend a holiday with (or even a nice dinner, for that matter). 

I'm sure you know that I'm speaking of the FAM, the Foreign Affairs Manual, right? Specifically, the 9 FAM and the 7 FAM, my two new best friends. Yeah - it surprised me, too, but really, they're so useful! And interesting! We have a lot more in common than I thought, actually. I mean I wouldn't go so far as to say they have great senses of humor or anything, but they do have a certain way of describing things that just makes sense. Oh, and with all those cross-references and citations of the INA (Immigration and Nationality Act) - who knew they could be so deep, too? 

After four weeks of ConGen, with three exams successfully passed due to being able to access my new bud, FAM, I think we've gotten pretty close. FAM has told me some really cool things, actually. Like just the other day we were chatting about foreign airline employees and FAM was all, "Well did you know that certain executives or specialized technical workers who cannot be classified as E visas can come in as B1?" 
Well naturally that piqued my curiosity, so then FAM goes, "Yeah, not only that, but a medical doctor otherwise classifiable H-1 as a member of a profession whose purpose for coming to the United States is to observe U.S. medical practices and consult with colleagues on latest techniques, provided no remuneration is received from a U.S. source and no patient care is involved...can also be classified as B1!" (9 FAM 41.31 N11.8 emphasis added). Who knew, right? 

But FAM's not just brains - FAM also knows arts, sports and popular culture, too. Last weekend we started talking about the weather, and what games were going to be broadcast on Sunday and all, and FAM goes, "Speaking of which, did you know that professional athletes, such as golfers and auto racers, who receive no salary or payment other than prize money for his or her participation in a tournament or sporting event can also use a B1 visa?" (9 FAM 41.31 N9.4). Well no, I did not know that!  We laughed and then started talking about our favorite Os and Ps (Aliens of Extraordinary Ability - you know, celebrities!).

Sure, I tease FAM for showing such geeky roots sometimes. Like when FAM talks about family, well, it can get a bit dry. I keep telling FAM to keep the descriptions lively, but I'm scolded for being frivolous and that a good solid definition of family is what we really need instead. I guess FAM's right, as truly who could argue with: "For purposes of this subsection, the term “immediate relatives” means the children, spouses, and parents of a citizen of the United States, except that, in the case of parents, such citizens shall be at least 21 years of age." (9 FAM 42.12) 

These days I find myself talking about things that I never thought I'd say, and all because of FAM and best-pal INA. I'm tossing out verbs like, to "g" or to "214 b," and chewing the fat on chargeability, ineligibility, or waiveability. FAM does have a dark side - I won't lie - and when the conversation gets gritty, FAM's right in there with full descriptions of CIMTs (Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude) like arson, receiving stolen goods (with guilty knowledge) and gross indecency (9 FAM 40.21), just to start.

So yeah, I guess you could call me a bit of a nerd. But it's the crowd I've been hanging with, peer pressure - you know? I know that FAM comes from good stock and I'm sure by following FAM's advice, I can't go wrong. 

Right?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why?

I don't know what to say that could adequately express how the FS family is feeling today.
Please see this posting from another FS blogger, and particularly take a moment to know something about Ambassador Chris Stevens:

http://www.lifeafterjerusalem.blogspot.com/

All I can think to say is: Why?

Please also see the Secretary's comments, and I hope you feel the generous opinion she maintains towards the Libyan people, not painting the country with a broad brush for the actions of a few. Just as I hope that Americans won't be painted with the single dirty brush of our own extremists, people whose actions perhaps helped fuel these attacks.  

http://www.state.gov/

My favorite excerpt, taken from this speech:

"But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere Chris and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible."

I'll leave you with that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

FS Over 40

Today FSI welcomed the 127th Specialist Class and the 169th A-100 class and as I stood at the balcony above the Wood Lobby, overlooking the traditional spot for the welcome breakfast of the incoming classes, I noticed that many of my new colleagues-to-be were, well, my age. It wasn't a surprise, as my own A-100 had maybe a dozen new FSOs who fit this demographic, but it made me think of how starting such a career and all the training and life changes it entails might be a totally different experience for those over 40, as opposed to those who are 25, or even 32.

Here is one person's perspective, some postives and some (what are we supposed to call them now?), oh yeah - "challenges." I suppose I could have interviewed my classmates and presented a truly well-rounded point of view, but frankly I've had a bunch of homework lately and I'm tired. And it's Tuesday, and except for the weekly BBQ here at our Oakwood - I don't do anything on work nights. So with that preamble, you just get my opinion. And it brings me to my first point:

1. It's TIRING!
Being in A-100, Specialist Orientation, language training, ConGen or any of the other permutations of FSI training is truly draining. Because I don't like it? No way! Quite the opposite! Because we all worked so hard to get here, sometimes after years of efforts, we just want to do well. We want to be successful in our new careers and they are giving us a LOT of new information. And for the most part, we have to be seated in too-stuffy or too-air-conditioned classrooms to receive it. Or basically immobile recipients of lectures for hours at a time. It's just plain tiring to one's brain to be on the receiving end of this much important information for an extended period of time. And not only are we learning about our new jobs, but also our new lives. Which brings me to...

2. It's harder to pack up and move all your stuff when you're no longer 25 because, frankly, there is simply more of it to move!
Before joining the FS last year, I had to go through an attic and a garage full of my childhood. Boxes of childhood "treasures" that were packed when I moved away to college had to be opened and each item had to have a decision made as to its fate. Decades worth of worldly possessions had to be sorted. For some of us, houses had to be sold or prepared for rental. All this is far more mentally and physically taxing than for those of us who merely had to not renew a rental agreement, drop off a few boxes of text books at mom's house and get on a plane.

3. What about the significant other?
I see two sides to this situation: over 40 and attached, you're either asking them to leave a career at its peak - or if you're lucky - they're on the nearing-retirement side and can easily make the graceful slide into probable unemployment. Do the family members try to continue growing their career, or accept that this new phase in life is going to be about valuing different types of rewards? Of my classmates, many have chosen the semi-retirement route and seem to be far less stressed and more excited about accepting options that take them waaay off the beaten path.

3. But what about your kids?
The over-40s could easily have to support college tuitions about now - harder to do on suddenly one income. Or the teenagers are still in school and you're faced with explaining to them why they're learning French (to move to the Congo) and how great it is that they'll meet so many new friends (that they'll leave in two years). Our solution: I waited to apply for a FS career until my youngest step-child was about to graduate from high school and head for college dorm life, only then did we feel "available" to leave the country.

4. Let's add some advantages:
In my brain right now, alongside all the new material I've been shoving in under the cushions, are decades of memories and experiences from many different careers, jobs, travels, accidental learning moments and lessons from watching others. I can honestly say that my five years in an urban police department has prepared me far better for this work than if I'd chosen to study International Business somewhere. And being self-employed as a riding instructor taught me about customer service, managing my own schedule and handling crises. I wouldn't have all that if I chose this path fresh from college. And I wouldn't have all the role models of great managers and co-workers that have been picked up along the way (and their opposites).

5. And on the other side of that coin...
Next to the aforementioned experiences come 40-something years of memories taking up vital gray matter byte space. Things like the lyrics to 1970s pop hits ("Sky rockets in flight...afternoon delight!"), every Brady Bunch episode ever filmed, the Denevi Camera commerical from the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1976, what Bubble Yum gum tastes like and how much a pair of jeans cost in junior high. This stuff is taking up a lot of room that I could be using to store all this new information! Is it physically possible to be 56 years old (I'm not - I'm jus' asking) and absorb six weeks of A-100,  six weeks of ConGen, ten weeks of GSO training with its 2000 page procurement regulations guide and a full course of Arabic? This is not a rhetorical question - there is a real possibility that this could happen to you!

To summarize: while I know that I gain from my experience and history and general life knowledge and have the more relaxed demeanor of someone who doesn't feel they need to go out and conquer life, I do feel at a disadvantage in terms of stamina. Let's face it, it's a lot harder to get up off the carpet after tying my shoes in the morning and I'm just not up for Wednesday night Happy Hours and going out clubbing on ladies' nights ("but it's only $5!" isn't such a draw anymore). We just get tired faster, and that's okay.

Next up: I'll see if I can wrangle some classmates to help me with FS at 25.

I'm sure I'll find them in the gym.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

From the EFMs (Eligible Furry Members)

The Tabbies have asked if they can have a word with you all this morning.
Actually, they would like to use some pictures and therefore (they reminded me), have 3000 words:


From Bogato to Mexicat, Dodger's remains our color guard.

Daphne contemplates our new situation from her secure balcony: "House with yard? I believe that will be adequate. Scorpions? Not sure what those are, but I'm sure I can eat them. Four days' drive to get there? I call shotgun."
Always the Diplocat, she never loses her composure.
  
Toby is fitting into FS life just fine (so long as there's a new cat tower with each post, he adds.)

 
 
Next: Starting the Foreign Service After 40

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gardening

A wise gardener once told me that for a successful garden, one should spend more money on the soil than on the plants. This is the tack I'm taking towards my upcoming training and first assignment as a Consular Officer.

Tomorrow, alongside a good number of my A-100 classmates, I will start "ConGen," the State Department's intensive training for all Consular officers. While you may have heard me say, "this is what I've been looking forward to for two years, three years..." in regards to oral assessments, Specialist Orientation, getting to our first post, starting A-100, Flag Day etc... THIS really is what I've been waiting to sink my teeth into!

Without being too much like Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick character in "Election," I want to be front and center in class each day, absorbing the details of the stuff I will be using every day, the heart of my new career. Then, once in Ciudad Juarez, I'm planning on taking advantage of what I've heard is great management and training for this massive Consular machine. All facets of Consular work will be available: immigrant visas, non-immigrant (tourist) visas and American Citizen Services. Not every post can say that. Oh, and the shiny new Consulate in Juarez has over 100 visa windows to man! (What kind of geek am I to be excited about that?)

While still in Bogota, one of the Consular Section supervisors gave me her best advice for someone starting out in this career path. She told me not to shy away from the Mexican border posts or the "visa mills" (we're not supposed to call them that anymore, but I don't have a better term yet) in India, Brazil or China, as they will provide a great foundation and breadth of experience for me.

This tour is not going to simply be a box to be checked off on a list of career requirements: danger post - check, Consular tour - check, get off language probation - check. While we undoubtedly would have more visitors had we been assigned to Athens or Rome, and fewer well-meaning friends touching us on the elbow and asking, "Are you okay with this?" about our assignment, I keep remembering that although everyone loves showy annual flowers - they will eventually lose their blooms. Starting in Juarez gets us right into the thick of things. This is the soil from which I hope a twenty-year State Department career will grow and then, in time, blossom.  I can't wait to get my hands dirty in it!