Friday, February 24, 2012

Something That Makes Me Happy in Bogota

Gardens and lush landscaping
We've just been added to the FS Blog Round-Up hosted by The Perlman Update. I think it's twice a month that she offers a snippet from many different FS blogs on a particular theme. This upcoming week will be "Something that makes me happy at my current post."  In October I wrote a list of "nice surprises" about life in Colombia, and I think I should add to that list in pictures:
Apparently Colombia loves me, too
Ahhh... the fruit
Colombia is always colorful!
Two coasts: Caribbean and Pacific
Cool architecture

What do you think?

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Other Path: To Consular?

To be an OMS or to be a Consular Officer? Discussion Part Two.

As promised, the other side of the coin. Perhaps it's the Gemini in me that makes me want to look around at what else might be out there, or perhaps it just takes me a longer-than-average time to get something right. I'm not sure which is the case here, but I find myself looking around the restaurant for a nicer table often - just ask my husband. So now, I'm comfortably ensconced in a nice job, lovely post, cool apartment - truly no complaints - and yet I'm getting excited looking forward to another change.

Let me back the story up a bit, for those who came in late. (For those who already know the story - go fix yourself a snack and scroll down a bit when you return.)

In 2009 I decided that I was going to be a Consular Officer. My husband and I attended a recruiting fair in Seattle and listened to active and retired members of the FS speak, both Specialists and Generalists, and I was instantly hooked. We drove home that afternoon sketching out plans for my FSOT preparation, which started the very next morning. I applied in the Consular cone and dove head-first into researching the life and job.

Why Consular and not Political or Public Diplomacy, or something else? Because after hearing the job descriptions and reading first-person accounts of what the work entailed, I saw it as a mix between law enforcement and customer service. This combination matched my professional background and personal interest perfectly. So I took the FSOT that year and passed, but unfortunately was not invited to the (dreaded) oral assessment in DC. Drat.

Meanwhile, the OMS option opened and it also seemed to fit me well, so I applied. I was invited to the oral assessment and within months was en route to orientation in DC. But still running in the background was this goal to become a Consular Officer. I had taken the FSOT again, passed, and this time, within days of receiving an invite to become an OMS, I was invited to the oral assessment in DC.

Blah blah blah... I passed the oral assessment in May 2011 and now have a valid Consular Officer candidacy. A second career path to explore. The one I wanted to begin with.

What to do? 

First, let me also explain that once one has passed all the hurdles and clearances (medical and security), their name is placed on a hiring register in rank order of their oral assessment score. It will live on this register for 18 months and not a day longer. Within that time, one's position on the register will rise and fall depending on how other candidates do on their oral assessments, how many points they receive for language skills or veteran's preference points. When I passed my oral assessment, I received a 5.4 score. It takes a 5.25 (rounded to 5.3) to pass, so I didn't exactly sail over the hurdle. I kinda' leaped and dragged a toe as I did so. In this difficult economy, the State Department is cutting back on hiring to the point of basically hiring to attrition. Meaning to the rate that people are quitting or retiring, instead of the big hiring surge that rode many people to new FS careers not long ago. This makes the process all the more competitive for those of us on the registers, and only the higher scores seem to be getting invitations to come aboard.

However, I have a slight advantage: as I am currently overseas on government orders, I am able to freeze, or defer, my candidacy for a maximum of two years. My 18-month clock is not currently ticking. I decided to be an OMS for one full tour before reigniting my candidacy. This would also give me the chance to increase my Spanish skills to - ojala - and pass the Spanish phone test . This test is offered to candidates to determine if they are eligible to receive extra language points. I need to achieve a level 3 to pass, and I was trained and tested at FSI to a level 2. See my dilemma?

What's so great about being a Consular Officer anyway that I'm not happy just being an OMS? Here are the pros and cons as I see them so far:


I feel I would be contributing more as a Consular Officer. Am I contributing little as an OMS? No, but this just feels like the work would be more in the diplomatic line, more direct representation of the US to the rest of the world. I'd like to be a more visible face of the US to the general public, and as an OMS it is more limited.

I loved my previous job in law enforcement (civilian position - I wasn't a cop) and this seems like it would be much the same. As described on State's official website a Consular Officer must "explain/uphold U.S. immigration policy in a professional, fair and compassionate manner." I can do that! I want to do that!

There's also the American Citizen Service (ACS) side of being a Consular Officer where I'd be assisting Americans in need abroad. I'd be helping people who have bad luck, people who do dumb things, people who are criminals and should rightly be locked up - true, but also Americans who lose their passports on vacation, or who have a child abroad, or who retire overseas and want help getting their social security payments. There are certainly as many ACS scenarios to attend to as there are Americans abroad and this sounds like it will provide an endless source of variety and challenge for the restless mind.

Training!  Starting with ConGen at FSI, complete with mock visa interview windows and a jail cell with rubber rats to practice prison visits, I'd receive lots of training at first, and ongoing, on immigration/visa law and ACS services.  I love training!

In the last entry I talked about the pay scale and how as an OMS I would top-out as an FS-03 after starting as an FS-07. However, FS Officers start a few rungs up the ladder, depending on previous experience, and after two tours it would not be unheard of to be promoted to an FS-03. I'm not only in this for the money, but everyone has a retirement to think about, not to mention the tabbies to keep well fed.

Did I mention "CD" (corps diplomatic) plates on the Ranger instead of the "AT" (administrative/technical) that we currently sport? What does this mean: free airport parking in Bogota, for one. Okay, that's a trivial point, but it's still true. That's why I put it last.


People love to complain about "working the line" and what a drag it is. By that, I mean the visa interview line. At a visa mill such as Bogota, Consular Officers conduct 100-120 interviews every day. They have to be quick, yet thorough. They have to tell the nice people that they really don't need to see the shopping bag full of documents they brought, and could they please just respond directly to the questions posed to them in a kind and polite, yet firm and efficient, manner. They need to make important judgments about whether or not the person in front of them is coming to the US with the intention of violating US immigration law, or worse.

This can be stressful; this can be monotonous. Fortunately, I'm innately interested in other people's lives, so I think this will also be interesting. Friends in Consular have warned me that this is interesting... for about three months. I still think I'll like it.

More thoughts, neither PRO nor CON:

On my Statement of Interest (a required part of the oral assessment), I wrote about my last job and how I learned a lot about customer service, specifically:

"It was a different type of customer service, the type where you occasionally had to say not to uphold a policy or procedure. It wasn't 'the customer is always right,' and it taught me that I can still serve people well even when not giving them the answer they had hoped for." 

I really meant that, and I think it'll be a worthy personal challenge to put my money where my mouth is, shall we say, and find that balance between law enforcement and customer service. I'm ready!

So, it doesn't sound like there is much deciding to do, does it?
Yes, I'm fairly certain that I've convinced myself of the right path, and not just because it's a new path. What is holding me back is purely the state of hiring in the coming year and whether or not I can nudge myself up the register with Spanish points.

For all aspiring OMSes out there, please don't feel as if I'm discounting the value of our profession. I just feel that the other side of the coin is shinier for me. If it doesn't work out for me - I'll be happily OMSing to the next post and perhaps I'll see you out there. You'll recognize me; I'll be the one at the lunch table asking the Consular Officers for the latest good story.

Thanks for listening.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Road Branches: OMS or Consular?

Today I was chatting (via e-mail) with my good OMS friend in a neighboring country when I realized that exactly one year ago this month, we were doing the very same thing. Now that may not sound very interesting until I tell you that at the time, I was in Washington state and she was in California and we were both obsessing over how our security clearances were going, and whether or not we were going to get an invitation to the next Specialist Orientation, and just in general imagining what our lives would be like as OMSes. We had met each other through the OMS Hopefuls Yahoo group during our application process and were fortunate enough to end up in the same orientation together last March.
So now it's one year later and we're still writing each other from work, but this time it's business-related: the VIP that our section is hosting is about to head to her embassy and section, and I was filling her in on how the visit was going from our end. From OMS Hopefuls, we've grown into colleagues in one short, but eventful year.

I can confidently say that we're both happy with our decisions to join the FS, our posts and our work. However, and you knew this was coming, we both acknowledge that perhaps OMS-hood is not a forever state of being for either of us, and perhaps for different reasons. For me, the State Department is going to be a "forever" thing, meaning until I hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. But I can't stop thinking about the other side of coin, and for me that would be my Consular Officer candidacy.

I'm writing this today because I'd like to share what seven months of experience has taught me about these two jobs. Seven months in one embassy is obviously a narrow window through which to view a behemoth organization like State, but it's all I know so far. And in truth, my opinions have been flavored by those of more senior coworkers on endless van rides to and from work, by overhearing conversations, reading cables, management notices and other blogs, and via lots of nosy questions to friends over cafeteria lunches.

To compare the two paths, I'll start today with what I know best, being an OMS.
This job offers lots of variety. In one tour I could work in the Economic or Political Section, and in the next the Regional Security Office and in the third, perhaps  in the Front Office for a DCM or Ambassador. The subject matter and office environments will vary greatly, and as an OMS, particularly in the Front Office, I'd be the hub of what's going on and privy to a lot of information.

Yes, Generalists can, and frequently do, take assignments "out of cone" (hence the title). Meaning, for example, a Political Officer doing an Economic tour, or a Public Diplomacy Officer working in Consular; however, once established, it seems that Generalists continue to progress within their cone. But an OMS can bop all over the place.
Nearly every post has an OMS, so I won't be limited to only being assigned to certain posts - which could be good or bad, actually. However, if I were an HR Specialist or Public Diplomacy Officer, I mightn't have the same options.

When the VIPs come to town, an OMS will certainly be in the thick of things in terms of logistics and planning, but without the joy of endless meetings, late-night airport pick-ups and early morning hotel check-outs that come along with the VIP treatment. (Unless it's a CODEL, in which case anyone with a pulse is called to active duty. POTUS coming? Your pets will be put to work, too!)

All those cables and demarche requests that come from DC? Sure, I have to log them and nag folks to see if they're making progress, but it's not me writing the required mile-long cable on the Child Labor Situation in XYZ country, thank you. It's not me trying to figure out the vague directions from the Ambassador when asked to "brief me on the situation of women in the workforce" and then writing a speech for him/her to deliver on the subject. Phew!
Being seen as "just the OMS" or having well-meaning folks try to compliment you by saying, "Wow, you're sharp! I bet you could even be a Generalist!" (read: "just like me!").
Mindless and repetitive tasks, like motor pool requests, and ordering supplies and filling the copy machines and printers with paper. But to be honest, these tasks really aren't mindless, as sending a van to pick someone up at the airport at 04:00 instead of 16:00 can have big consequences! But they're not, shall we say, enriching or stimulating. I'm not going to tell stories to friends about all the motor pool requests I do in a week, or start a conversation by saying, "Wow, you should have seen that vacation slip I copied today!
... oops, too late, sorry.

Finally, let's get down to brass tacks. There is a huge salary difference between being an OMS and being a FSO (I'm going to interchange these terms for the pure sake of variety: Foreign Service Officers ARE Generalists). An OMS will start his/her career as an FS-07. This refers to the pay scale.  After 18 months of service, we will receive an administrative raise to become FS-06. After that, any further promotions are based on merit, as judged by promotion panels who review employees' annual evaluations. During my recent training at FSI, many of us asked the class coordinator what the breakdown of OMSes was in terms of the pay scale, and this was the answer we received. There are currently:
FS-03- 40
FS-04 139
FS-05 253
FS-06 281
FS-07 125
As you can see, OMSes will top out at FS-03 and go no further, even if they personally reinvent the internet. And these FS-03s are nearly-mythical creatures, "Really? You actually MET an -03? Wow, tell me what she/he was like!"  In fact, the two 20-year veteran OMSes in our front office haven't reached that lofty plateau and one will retire soon without ever seeing it.
Meanwhile, my Economic Officer co-worker at the end of her second tour, and her tandem Consular Officer husband, were just promoted to FS-03. Granted, they're each very capable and qualified, but they're both just straddling 30 years old and in five years have accomplished what only 40 out of 838 OMSes worldwide have.
So does this mean that if I'm bothered by this fact that I'm just in it for the money? No, certainly not. Because I'm truly not. However, it is a bit disappointing to know from the start that my promotional horizon is so limited. Someone put it to me this way: if the highest we can go is to become the OMS to an Ambassador, it means that at that point our life will be completely at the whim of the schedule of another. Want to go home at 5? Nope, the Ambassador has decided to work until 7:30 and needs you to place calls, provide copies or materials, make reservations etc... Have vacation planned? Oops - so sorry, the Ambassador's spouse had his/her eye on the same date and you have to stay behind to mind the home fires.

That sounds a bit harsh, and I need to back-pedal a bit: an Ambassador's OMS is truly the eye of the storm, requiring professionalism to the highest degree, resourcefulness to be able to make things magically happen and intelligence and intuition to know where and to whom to turn to keep everything running (seemingly) effortlessly for the principal officer, the direct representation of the President in the host country. It's by no means a cake walk. 
Still, it can be a little disappointing to know that the best I can be is to be at someone else's beck-and-call.  And this is coming from someone with a deeply-ingrained motivation to serve, who truly just wants to make others happy and comfortable. Somewhere deep inside me is the urge to do a bit more.

Which brings up the next topic: chewing the fat about being a Consular Officer. I've gone on long enough today and will leave Part Two for the next entry.

Sorry there are no pictures in this entry, but a shot of me scratching my head or furrowing my brow in concentration just isn't an attention-grabber anyway.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

From the Tabbies

The Tabbies would like to apologize for not keeping up with their part of the story lately.
They'd like me to tell you that they've been very busy:

They thank you for your understanding.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

We're Finally Licensed!

First of all, I'd like to say welcome to any readers who've found us here from the homepage. Hello!  They just added us to the official blogroll, which is kinda' cool. Guess I'd better proofread a bit more carefully from now on out.

So, after waiting for our truck to make its way from Seattle to Bogota (about three months) and then watching it sit on the Embassy lot for  another two months awaiting its dip plates-  we're finally legit and have our very own vehicle in our apartment parking garage. While Tim and I don't plan to use it much for regular commuting, we've been looking forward to taking some weekend trips, or even just day trips, to explore the area. Last Saturday we started by heading up into the mountains of La Calera, the eastern spine of Bogota. I've been looking at this vertical barrier for months now, watching the car lights on the one road as they wind their way up into...? I didn't know. I've had daydreams of what it must look like "up there," and finally got to see it firsthand.

We found beautifully green and rolling (sometimes very steep) countryside with farms, sleepy small towns, fancy developments with golf resorts, roadside grill restaurants (parillas), weekend homes for Bogotanos and historic towns complete with legends of gold-filled lakes (El Dorado in Guatavita).

Let me show you around a bit:
Nice local gentleman taking it easy in Guasca under the umbrella-trees
How many shades of green?
Roadside restaurant - vegetarians beware, it's a carn-fest here!
"Protect him - It could be your son!" to remind us not to run the cyclists off the road.
Uhhhh... what? Any ideas?
Approaching Guasca
So it feels great to have the liberty of a vehicle again. We even went grocery shopping and it didn't involve a taxi or a heavily-laden 20 minute walk with the grocery bags and their tourniquet effect on my fingers. Seeing new horizons has a rejuvinating effect, too, reminding me of what a beautiful country this is instead of just the big ole' brick city that I see everyday through the windows of the armored van. We even had the truck windows open for fresh air! And were able to play music we loved as we drove!

Ah, the forgotten pleasures.

Although we visited the plaza of central Guatavita, quite a tourist attraction, we didn't hear the whole legend nor hike up to the gold-filled lake. That'll be for another weekend adventure.

In the meanwhile, it feels so nice to be normal again.