Thursday, April 11, 2013

Old Challenges, New Locations

The Department of State has a very clever hiring process, and I've talked about this before, but I want to mention it again. To become a Foreign Service Officer, one does not have to have a particular college degree, work background, language skills or even overseas experience. BUT, one most somehow, from whatever source, possess certain personality traits and skills that can then be applied to an enormous variety of situations. That is to say, they want raw material, not necessarily pre-made and packaged employees. (This, naturally, is my take on the whole hiring process and not the official word, but I don't think I'd ruffle too many feathers by stating that.)

In my A-100 class I was surrounded by classmates with graduate degrees in public policy, international relations or public diplomacy. You couldn't swing a cat (NOT THAT WE EVER WOULD!) without hitting a former lawyer or Harvard Kennedy School of Government grad. But this kind of education is not required, and that's what I love; that's what I've been figuring out little by little.

To illustrate my point, let me offer a few examples. I've now been a Consular Officer for just over two months, not too long, right? But in my daily work, I've already put to good use a great variety of former careers (or just part-time jobs), none of which required mortgage-sized student loans to achieve:
  • As a professional horsewoman, I had to hop onto unfamiliar horses all the time, especially when competing in collegiate equestrian events where we drew a horse's name out of a hat (literally!) and simply mounted up and rode that horse into competition minutes later.  Now, as a Consular Officer, the applicants come to our windows totally blind. Meaning, we have exactly zero time to review their case before their bright shiny faces are at the window, staring at us as we read through their applications. Will it be a convicted felon? A student from a third country? A retired farmer from a tiny town? Someone who has been caught and deported multiple times? We review their cases, formulate questions and make important decisions as they watch. Just like at the horse show: I have to figure out what I've got as I'm already in it, keep my focus and do the best I can. Will I get bucked off? Will the horse bolt for the jumps or will I have to kick and kick to get him going? I make my best decision and then the next person is in front of me. Like riding a jump course, it's over one obstacle and then eyes-up and ahead to the next turn, the next obstacle, doing your best to judge if it's a scary vertical, an easy cross-bar or a technical water jump - you can't dwell on what you just did, you just focus on the next, and the next and the next.

  • Although I don't yet work in American Citizen Services, I am aware of what the work involves and I'm certain that my years as a civilian in the police department will directly apply. People will come to my window or call me on the duty phone in need of things like new passports, in distress after crimes or accidents, off their medications, or just to ask basic questions. They'll have to tell me things that are embarrassing and personal and I'll have to give news that can be devastating. I'll have to follow laws and procedures and know who can hear what information and what has to be kept private - exactly as anyone in any police department across the country does. (In fact, I really think any police employee would make a great Consular Officer because of the similarity of the work! Really - think about it!) I'm grateful every single day for this experience. Planning on lying to me? Bring it on - I won't take it personally! Having a hard time with your spouse/child/parent? No worries, I'll listen patiently and not judge. Confused by complicated regulations? Hey no worries, let me explain it... again. (This stuff is gold, Jerry, gold!*)

  • Got 800 applicants to interview today and they're all starting to line up in the waiting room? Sure reminds me of all those mornings at ski school in Colorado when the families would pile into the ticket office to buy their lift tickets and ski lesson packages. Nobody wanted to wait in our office wearing all that ski gear, their precious vacation hours ticking away as they waited their turn at the window. We worked hard and fast as a team and the feeling of pushing ourselves without breaks to get it all done on time was exhilarating.

  • Don't understand what someone's trying to tell you, but you know it's important? So you find one way, then another, then repeat, then use your hands, then watch them use their hands until finally, both of you laugh and say something like, "Oh, okay, I get it!" That was daily fare when I was backpacking in Greece, Mozambique, or even just in France and needed to find a hostel, a bus stop, something to eat or book a berth on a ferry. Yes, I did have all that fine language training at FSI and passed that fancy test, but I never learned how to say, "I embroider dresses," "I work on an assembly line making Christmas ornaments," "I'm a forklift operator," "I own a pawn shop," or "I'm a meter-maid." But that's the stuff we hear everyday and need to figure out, one way or another, and being shy or too proud to keep asking isn't the way.

  • VIP visitors coming to town and you've volunteered to be a site or control officer to keep the visit running smoothly, all details worked out so that the visitors can make the most of their time and not have to worry about bags, rooms, transportation, where the next meeting is or how to make their cell phone work in wherever-country? That's where all that time you spent bartending at resort hotels, waiting for that one guest to finally leave the bar and go to their own darn room so you can clean up and go to bed comes in handy. Being able to just make it smooth, make it seem easy and let them feel welcome while inside you're just waiting until it's "wheels up!" is crucial.
In short, every life experience is like a spice that can be put into your pot and simmered, sometimes for decades, until sooner or later you find yourself drawing upon those little flavors you've picked up from here and there. I'm finding that being a FSO has been the best culmination of a lifetime of training. I'm sure that Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown do a great job preparing future FSOs, but I like the route I took and am glad that the Department of State was willing to take a chance on such a checkered, errr colorful, past.

*if you don't know what this means, you haven't spent enough hours watching Seinfeld re-runs, which is also something I recommend.

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean - my two years at Starbucks when I was in grad school really paid off when I was on the visa line. You have the same conversation with 70 people every single day, but you have to stay polite, professional, and remember that for these people, it's their only conversation of the day. Also, you will consume unholy amounts of caffeine on the visa line.