Regarding Flag Day

On Friday afternoon I participated in the Foreign Service ritual that is affectionately known as “Flag Day.” You know from our last post that K and I spent a few weeks feverishly researching a whole list of posts and preparing a list of the places where we would most like to go. We turned in the list, and a group of officers went to work behind the scenes to examine our preferences, the preferences of the other 75 trainees in my class, our language abilities, and the level of need in each position. They weighed all of it together and decided where each of us would be going.

The big moment came on Friday when all of us trainees filed into a few rows of seats in front of a podium, with our hundreds of excited family members filling up the space behind us. Our trainers carried a big rack of miniature flags into the room…one for each of us! The announcer would read the name of a post, pause, and then announce the name of the officer who would be serving there. The officer would then approach the front of the room, take the flag, and smile for a picture with the VIP while the crowd went wild. It’s sort of like a high school graduation combined with a game show where everyone is winning a trip.

As the names were called I started to take notes on which of my friends was going where, but soon stopped because I was in such suspense I could barely hold a pen. It was also just so wonderful to watch the smiling faces of my friends and colleagues as they walked to the front to grab their flag.

I was drawn to the edge of my seat many times as the announcer called the name of a post I was particularly interested in…only to not hear my name called.

“Bern, Switzerland!”…followed by someone else’s name.

“Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic!”….followed by someone else’s name.

“Port au Prince, Haiti!”….followed by someone else’s name.

I thought that maybe there was a mistake. Had I turned all my paperwork in on time? Had they forgotten me? Was I not going to get an assignment??

But then he read “Ciudad Juarez, Mexico!” followed by name. We’re going to Mexico! I looked for K in the audience and smiled. She had been telling me for days that she had a feeling we were going to be sent there. We had read quite a bit about it, and were very pleased to rank it “high” on our bid list. I walked to the front, grabbed my flag, and the VIP whispered in my ear that I would love Juarez because they’ve just built a brand new baseball stadium. I have no idea how he knew that I like baseball, but he was right, so now I’ve got one more reason to be excited!

As soon as the ceremony ended and I hugged and kissed K, my sister, aunt and cousin who were all in the audience, I was approached by a group of strangers who told me that they also were on their way to Juarez. They’re from a training class that went through several months ago and they are getting ready to ship out. There’s a very high level of camaraderie in Juarez, and it seems to be starting already! We even took a picture together:

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After the ceremony we went out for dinner…and picked a restaurant that seemed appropriate given the news:

      

We couldn’t be happier with this assignment. Most first tour officers are assigned to do consular work (visa adjudication, citizen services, etc.), so that’s what I’ll be doing. Juarez is one of the biggest and best run consular sections in the world, so this will be a good place to be. Also, a friend and colleague from my training class has also been assigned to Juarez, so we won’t be the only newcomers.

We will post more in the coming months regarding things we’re excited about. We’ll be in the DC area until July, brushing up on Spanish and doing more training. There’s a lot to do before we’re ready to move to the border.

For now we are enjoying celebrating this latest milestone on what has been a long journey to living and working abroad. We’re excited that we finally have a spot on the map to stare at.

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Oh, The Places We’ll Go…

The infamous Flag Day is just around the corner. Friday is the day we learn the fate of where we will be living for the next two years. T’s trainers will stand up at a podium, call out the names of the class one by one, and hand them each a little flag of the country to which they are assigned. We are surprisingly calm as the day gets closer. Less than 48 hours! Many of T’s classmates and their family members are super anxious, and I’m not sure why I am feeling so chill about this. It will probably hit me at some point tomorrow, and most likely lead to a sleepless night.

The whole experience reminds me of waiting to find out where I’d be sent in the Peace Corps. It’s embarrassing to admit that I never paid much attention to geography class or languages spoken in most countries. When my Peace Corps recruiter told me that I’d be most likely going to a Spanish speaking Caribbean country, I just assumed that the majority of those countries spoke Spanish. I later realized that I could have easily figured it out…pretty much the only Spanish speaking Caribbean countries are Cuba (definitely no Peace Corps operations there) and the Dominican Republic. Why I didn’t do my research to figure this out, I have no idea. Instead, I waited in suspense for a couple months. And I was genuinely surprised when I received my Peace Corps invitation to the DR.

Fast forward almost eight years, and we find ourselves in a similar situation except that we have no idea which continent or geographic area we will end up this time. That brings us to the bid list…

You may be asking, “What’s the bid list?” Well, it’s the document with the list of all of the possible posts and current openings available to T’s A-100 training class. The bid list was revealed on the third day of A-100, and has been obsessed over ever since. We’re not allowed to reveal the contents of the bid list through blogs or email, but I can say that there are more than 100 possible positions for 70ish people in all parts of the globe (except Antarctica of course). Since the bid list only contains name of cities, we first had to figure out which country each city pertains. Even T was stumped by a few of them. GoogleMaps sure came in handy! We then spent the next couple weeks researching all the posts in order to rank them based on our preferences for going to each post.

The Foreign Service Institute has a small resource center with binders full of information about every country in the world. We watched post videos and read post reports written by people that have actually lived at each one on the bid list. Then we met with T’s Career Development Officer (CDO). His CDO is ultimately responsible for assigning us to a post that hopefully takes our preferences into consideration. The needs of the service always trump our wishes though, so we have to be prepared for anything. We considered things like spouse employment options, language requirements, medical care, security, housing, air quality, proximity to the US, posts in T’s cone (Public Diplomacy) or post in Consular (at least 1 year is required for all entry-level officers), whether or not families are allowed to go (fortunately we have less than a 1% chance of an unaccompanied tour this time), and equity (degree of hardship/danger). We eventually ranked all posts as either “High,” “Medium,” or “Low,” and turned in the bid list just before the deadline. We find out Friday which one we will actually get.

I don’t understand my current calmness over the matter. Perhaps it’s because I have convinced myself that we’re going to a Mexican border post. It’s just a hunch, and I’d be OK with that. I will be shocked if it’s anywhere else simply because I have such a strong feeling we are going there for some reason. We are told to expect the unexpected though.

My wise sister (who happens to be celebrating a birthday today…Happy Birthday, Dear Sister!) gave me a knick knack before I embarked on my first solo international adventure years ago. Written on it is part of the Joshua 1:9 Bible verse: “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” I’ve now lived in seven places since then, and I always have this decoration on my dresser as a reminder that God is in control, knows what He is doing, and will be with us wherever we go. Maybe this is the real reason I’m not nervous for Friday…it’s all in God’s hands.

Stay tuned for an entry detailing Flag Day, and an announcement of where we’re headed! Any guesses??

Training

I have now completed four out of the six weeks of the orientation course that goes by the title “A-100.” I guess the course used to be held in room number A-100 of a State Department building somewhere, so they started using the room number as the title.

Almost every day consists of me getting up very early, putting on a suit (the dress code is business-formal), and riding a shuttle bus to the training center. K and I are living in an apartment that was arranged by the Department, and there are enough of my orientation classmates living in the same building that we get our own bus. It’s nice…but feels a bit like riding the school bus all over again, minus the bullies and uncomfortable seats.

I get to the training center and join the seventy odd other trainees in formal clothes. It’s a little bit awkward because there are a lot of people taking classes at this center every day, and ours is the only class that has to dress formally, so we’re a little bit conspicuous. Most days we spend sitting in our classroom, but sometimes we go on field trips to other Department buildings in DC. It really does feel like being in school again.

Every day of class has been a little bit different. It’s usually a lot of fun, but sometimes gets a bit dull. Here’s a sample of what we’ve done in the last few weeks:

  • We’ve been oriented to the confusing world that is the Federal bureaucracy. There are so many different bureaus and departments that I need to deal with for so many different things. I had some IT problems in the first few weeks (my name is a very common one…so there was some overlap with past accounts), and I lost track of the number of distinct IT departments with whom I had to deal with to get it fixed. Crazy! There’s been a lot of HR talks, learning about insurance, vouchers, reimbursements, blah blah blah. All very important…but not terribly exciting.
  • We’ve heard from Ambassadors, Assistant Secretaries, and all kinds of other accomplished diplomats about life in the department, how to succeed, current priorities, what our careers might look like, etc. This has really been interesting, and I admit that I get goosebumps several times a week when I think about where I am and what I’m doing.
  • Many of us have taken language tests to see how much training we will need before we can be sent off. My test was on the third day of class! Luckily I didn’t have much time to get nervous about it….but I also didn’t have time to practice as much as I would have liked so I probably didn’t perform as well as I could have. It involved about two hours of having to explain and read impossibly difficult things in Spanish with a few people watching and taking notes. So much fun!
  • I had no idea, but apparently the Department of State has a whole team of historians on staff who do nothing but study the Diplomatic History of the United States and explain it back to us in a way that is digestible and useful for future application. Talk about cool! This office has spent quite a bit of time with us talking about Franklin’s fur hat, the uniforms Jefferson wanted diplomats to wear, as well as many more important yet equally memorable tidbits from our institutional history. I’m eating it up.
  • We’ve been learning practical skills, like writing, interacting and building relationships across cultures, answering questions in front of less-than-friendly audiences, and giving speeches. I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking at work over the last few years, but it’s really neat to have professionals watch me and give me feedback. Apparently I have a tendency to stick my hand into my left pocket. I shall have to try to adjust this.
  • We also have a lot of brown bag sessions on things like maintaining work life balance, what it’s like to serve in specific parts of the world, how to plan for retirement, how to approach this job if it’s a second or third career, etc.

I’m enjoying training. It’s pretty exhausting since we’re presented with a massive volume of information every day, so I fall asleep early most nights. Still, I’ve filled up almost an entire notebook with my notes, and I am excited to get out of bed almost every morning. After two more weeks of orientation I will be off to whatever training is deemed necessary for whatever post I get assigned. Stay tuned!

How I got here…

My journey to the Foreign Service began an awfully long time ago. I probably started thinking about it when as a kid I would go swimming and play baseball at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. It seemed like as good a place as any to work when I grew up!

I got a little more serious about it in high school, though, when I happened to be enrolled in an International Relations class when 9/11 took place. I remember sitting in that classroom during the following months as the world watched nations go to war, and having the events interpreted for me by one of those truly great teachers. The way nations interacted with one another was interesting to me, and important, and seemed to demand attention and reflection on the part of those of us who claim to care about the world. I got myself into an undergrad program that let me study International Relations with wonderful professors, and allowed me to spend some time abroad. I learned about the joys and challenges of building relationships across national and cultural boundaries, and desired to spend my life doing just that.

After graduating I headed off for the Peace Corps, and many of you already know much of that story (read it here, otherwise).  I spent a wonderful couple of years living in challenging conditions, trying to do some good works, having all sorts of adventures, and meeting the love of my life. We came back to the U.S. hoping to move abroad again, continuing a life of service. We went to Milwaukee where I got my MA, and then up to Rhinelander to continue doing positive, community-oriented work as K and I figured out the next step.

My first attempt to get into the Foreign Service was in 2011. Now I need to tell you that this process is not anything like applying for most jobs. Normally you would send someone a resume and a cover letter, maybe fill out an application, have an interview, and then hear whether or not they want you. Not so with the U.S. State Department. We start the process by taking a standardized test…a big one. Three hours of questions on history, geography, grammar, culture, management techniques, etc. etc., plus a couple of essays. So I took this test, and I passed on my first try! But our journey has barely started.

After passing the test I was invited to submit a set of essays…I think there were five or six of them. These essays were sent to some office where a team of people scrutinized them, along with my professional qualifications, and decided whether or not I looked like a good applicant. They decided in my favor, so I got to move onto the next stage.

The next stage was the worst part. I reported to Washington DC for what is called the “Oral Assessment.” It’s a full day of interviews, group activities, and writing exercises undertaken under highly controlled and intimidating circumstances. Department representatives observe your performance throughout the day, and at the end of it they tell you whether you scored high enough to pass the assessment. So I went to Washington in March of 2012, gave it my best shot, and…failed. It was terrible.

But if at first you don’t succeed, try try again, right? Many successful applicants end up attempting the process two or three or four or more times before getting in.  Unfortunately the State Department requires you to wait an entire year before restarting the process. So I waited, and took the exam again….and I passed! So I wrote the essays again….and I passed! And I went to Washington again….and I passed in November of 2013! (after months of study and practice)

But we’re not there yet, friends. Not even close. At this stage in the process they needed to determine whether or not I was eligible for a security clearance, which is required in this job. So I was contacted by investigators who needed to talk to just about everyone I’ve ever met to make sure I’m not a criminal or someone who is plotting to overthrow the government. I’m thankful to the many friends and colleagues who sat down with these investigators and made me look good. During this time both K and I had to go to the doctor and receive medical clearance to live anywhere in the world. After both the medical and security clearances I moved to the next stage of the process…

I was placed on a mysterious list that is called “the register.” It consists of all the candidates waiting for jobs in the Foreign Service, ordered by how high we scored on the oral assessment. From the day your name goes on this list you have 18 months before you expire…and have to begin the process all over again. Training classes are held about five or six times per year, recruiting only the top people on the list. If they need ten people they take the top ten; if they need twenty they take the top twenty and so on. I was stuck at about #60, so my odds of getting a job before my time ran out was extremely slim.

There is an option, though, to take a phone test in one of several languages, and get some bonus points (bumping you further up the list). I spoke Spanish during my time in the Peace Corps, so I arranged a phone test to try to cash in on those bonus points…and failed miserably. Maybe they weren’t interested with my Dominican redneck style of speaking. But I am nothing if not persistent…so I found a tutor in Mexico (who I met with over Skype) and hit the books. Six months later I retook the Spanish test…and passed! This rocketed me from #60 to #10…all but guaranteeing me a spot in a training class at some point before my candidacy would expire.

Sure enough, on December 11, 2014, I received an email inviting me to serve my country as a Foreign Service Officer. It has been an incredibly long journey to get here. I am thankful to all the friends and family members who kept pushing me along and encouraging me to keep trying. It’s finally happened…and the fun part of the process is finally here!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you a bit about the training process I’m in the middle of…