Monday, March 12, 2012

FS Life: A One Year Retrospective

One year ago today, the 119th Specialist Orientation started and I began my new Foreign Service life along with 68 classmates. I flew from the west coast to the east, and somewhere over the Mississippi River, my saying-goodbye sniffles dried up and I began to let myself get excited about what was in store. I arrived in Virginia, exhausted, with two freaked-out cats in carriers and suitcases stuffed with three weeks worth of suits and two years worth of hopes and expectations.

I was met by my first OMS friend who (literally) within minutes of seeing me settle the cats into their new apartment, was taking me grocery shopping and filling me in on everything I'd need. The next day I met the rest of my future classmates. We were a combination of specialties, from OMS to RSO (Regional Security Officers), from GSOs (General Services Officers) to FMs (Facilities Managers) with a smattering of health providers and HR specialists. We ranged in age from 22 to 59, and arrived in Virginia from all parts of the country and as many different backgrounds. That first day found us excited, exhausted and trying to figure out where to go, how to get there and what to do as we started at Main State for Day One. There was a day of in-processing where we got our badges and took our official oath. After that the briefings began: many speeches about "welcome to this great new life," and then something that confused most of us about travel credit cards that one year later I still don't know what are.

There is a new Specialist Orientation in session today, and I wish them the same incredible experience that the 119th had. As I'm feeling a bit sentimental, I thought I'd review the highs and lows of my first year working for the USG in the hopes of inspiring some, or just giving anyone who is interested a short look down the road of a possible new career and life:

  1. The friendships made at FSI and at post. People I would otherwise have never met who I don't have to explain this whole FS thing to. People who respond, "Wow that's great - I'll give you the name of my friend who's posted there" when you tell them you're moving to Uzbekistan. The bonds made through countless evenings in our Oakwood apartments, poring over our bid lists or the insane amount of paperwork we had to go through, all the while sharing a bottle of wine, fresh-baked cookies, stories from our former lives and too much laughter. BBQs and send-off parties as we all spread to the corners of the globe.
  2. The excitement of Flag Day and learning what the next two years will bring me, my family and my friends. Already getting excited about the next bid list, the next post, the next set of friends, languages and challenges.
  3. Language training and being able to put it to use in my new country.
  4. Walking beside the enormous sandstone wall carved with "United States of America Embassy" and the eagle emblem and then past framed pictures of the President, the VP and Secretary Clinton when I come into work each morning and remembering who I'm working for.
  5. A cool apartment with more than one bathroom and more armchairs than we'd ever had before (one for each cat, even). Plus a dining table with chairs for six!
  6. Making phone calls, even if just to reserve hotel rooms, and saying that I'm calling from the Embassy of the United States and having that mean something to people.
  7. Reading cables that offer interesting background to the news headlines. Or knowing about the news before it's news.
  8. Seeing the massive Colombian flag waving near the embassy as I walk out to get the mail each day, its brilliant yellow contrasted against the dark green of the mountainous backdrop that reminds me that I'm on a different continent now.
  9. Meeting regular people in Colombia, from my animal shelter friends, to taxi drivers, to people in stores, and doing my best to be a positive example of what an American is.
  10. Finally not being freaked out by my work responsibilities and feeling proud of what my section accomplishes when we all work together.

  1. Being so far from family and friends back at "home," which is what I still find myself calling it. After a year, are we just distant memories?
  2. Having nearly everything require 14 steps, three separate forms, a memo, and approvals from five different departments. Ah bureaucracy!
  3. Seeing how difficult it is for family members to find fulfilling lives and not feel like 5th wheels to someone else's life.
  4. Having a real face in mind when something horrible happens that makes the news. This year for me it was the bombings in Abuja, just down the road from two friends.
  5. Worrying about a possible evacuation and what what we'd lose, how we'd get the cats out to safety.
I think it's a good thing to have a 2:1 highs to lows ratio, so I'll leave it off there and won't spoil the symmetry by complaining about really expensive cat litter or lousy traffic.

Overall, it seems like my 119th classmates are well-settled and enjoying their new lives. At least I haven't heard any grumblings. Sure, there have been some who have been far too busy to write back (hey Tajikistan - I'm talking about you!), but in general it's been a successfully adventurous year. My favorite story is from my OMS classmate who was depressed after being assigned her 10th pick (out of a list of 13). After only a few months at post she reported that, "they couldn't have picked a better place for me if they tried!" raving how she loved her job and new country. 

From the 119th this year we've already had a marriage, a divorce, a pregnancy (twins!) and a birth (not the same one), and probably an affair no one else knows about. Nobody has quit (that I know of) and we're too new to have anyone promoted or fired. But the coming years will bring more checks to this list, plus some will decide to separate from the service, and someone's spouse will join up to form a tandem.
So, I wish the new Specialists an equally cool journey these coming months. Fill us in on your Flag Day stories, if you would, and believe me - this next year is going to fly by.


  1. You may be gone from Everett, but you will never be forgotten.

  2. Thanks for the shout out and great read, which comes at the perfect time for encouragement, Caitlin! Almost feels like a completely different world back at orientation and training. P.S. I got approved for training in mid July if you're in the area!

  3. This is exactly how I feel!!! This is an awesome post. xoxo.

    From the Divorced One. hahahaha.

    Love ya!!!

  4. It makes me so happy to hear from y'all, thanks!