Sunday, August 2, 2020

Need a Challenge and a Break? Hike Old Rag!

One of the best social distancing activities you can do is a hike. If you go to a place at a time that isn't crowded, you can stay safe and still enjoy some fresh air and the majesty of nature. We decided to head out to Old Rag Mountain for this exact reason with our friend R, whom we met and traveled with in Kenya. If you can go on a weekday, that'll be your best best for avoiding crowds but we had to go on a weekend so we went early. We left the DC area at 5am and arrived at the mountain around 7am. This timing had the excellent bonus of making sure our hike was much cooler than if we'd gone in the middle of the day. We even enjoyed a beautiful sunrise on the drive over:

The hike was about nine miles, but you should budget more time than you usually would for a hike that length because there's a decent bit of rock scrambling. You don't have to be a rock climber or a technical expert to get through those parts, but they do take a while to move through. Reviews online recommended we budget about eight hours for the hike, but we did it in only five including breaks! We were pretty proud of ourselves by the end. (You can see the stats of our hike at the end of this post.)

There are a few must-haves for this hike, including lots of water and decent sneakers or hiking boots. Some parts of the rock scramble are slippery, so if your shoes lack traction it can get dangerous. (I wore hiking boots that don't fit perfectly and paid the price for it with torn heel blisters. If I go again, I'll probably just wear my perfectly sized sneakers instead.) People are divided on whether to wear shorts or jeans, but I was glad I wore jeans for the extra protection against the rock even if they were a bit warmer.

You need to be pretty in shape to do the regular hike, but there's actually an easier route through the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and Saddle Trail that you can take. We saw a few families go that way with kids, but if you can do the harder route I recommend it. The views are awesome and the sense of accomplishment can't be beat. Be prepared for incredibly athletic people to pass you, though. One guy passed us on the way up and down and up again, and when we asked him from a distance about it he says he likes to come every week and do the whole thing twice for fun! I will not be reaching that level of motivation anytime soon, but I really admired his discipline.

We enjoyed perfect weather the whole time. It was overcast and relatively cool, and when it was sunny we could stay in the shade most of the time. If you're in the DC area and looking to get out for a half-day or full-day trip, definitely check out Old Rag!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Truth about State FSO Fellowships

I have almost written this post so many times, but I finally sat down and did it after hearing more about the experiences of some seriously awesome people. If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you may have guessed that I am not a fellow. After all, I've never really mentioned either of the two fellowship programs for those who want to become Foreign Service Officers at the Department of State. Then again, I've recently learned that plenty of fellows are made to feel like they have to hide their fellowship background.

Why is that? Well, it turns out there's some stigma there. People believe there is a difference between how hard it is to get in as a fellow and how hard it is to get in "the regular way". This is probably where I should reiterate the disclaimer on my blog and say that the contents of this blog are my personal opinions and in no way represent the U.S. government or Department of State or fellowship programs in any way. All that being said, I do think there's a difference in difficulty for fellows: they have it much, much harder.

Let me rewind a bit and give a (very brief) overview to the fellowship programs for blog readers who are unfamiliar with them. I'm primarily referring to two different fellowships in this blog post: Pickering and Rangel. (There may be additional fellowships I don't know as much about, but the generalizations I'm making in this post are my personal opinions about Pickering and Rangel fellowships.) The Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship "welcomes the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the State Department, women, and those with financial need. Based on the fundamental principle that diversity is a strength in our diplomatic efforts, the program values varied backgrounds, including ethnic, racial, social, and geographic diversity." The Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship "seeks individuals interested in helping to shape a freer, more secure and prosperous world through formulating, representing, and implementing U.S. foreign policy. The Program encourages the application of members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service, women, and those with financial need." Those probably sound similar because they are. At the end of the day, both fellowships aim to help diversify the U.S. Foreign Service. Both programs provide financial support for fellows to complete two-year master's degrees, two summer internships, and mentorship and training in preparation for Foreign Service careers.

I was not a fellow, but of course I wanted to be. What person interested in the Foreign Service and applying to graduate school anyway wouldn't want that kind of scholarship, mentoring, and training support? So I did apply to both Rangel and Pickering and I was ultimately not accepted to either one. (Things turned out completely fine for me. I still found scholarships that allowed me to graduate debt-free, I still had great internships, and most importantly I still achieved my dream of joining the Foreign Service anyway. The moral of this part of the story is: don't give up on your dream, even if your dream path doesn't work out! You can still make it!)

So having experienced all of this myself, imagine my surprise when I started hearing things about fellows. I heard a number of misconceptions, but by far the biggest one was that it was easier to get in as a fellow because you don't have to take the FSOT. Take it from me, someone who passed the FSOT all three times I took it and who scored so high on the FSOA (6.0) I was bumped to the top of the Register: it is much harder to get into a fellowship program than it is to crush the FSOT and FSOA. (Moreover, fellows do take and pass the FSOT and FSOA!) I sometimes wonder how many other FSOs applied to Pickering and Rangel and didn't get in but ended up joining the Foreign Service anyway. Because we as a society and as a work culture don't like to talk about rejection or failure, there's no way to know... but I doubt I'm the only one.

Fellows are generally younger and more racially and ethnically diverse than the general pool of non-fellows. Even so, there's absolutely no way to tell if your colleague is a fellow or not unless they tell you. Some people assume that just because someone is young and female and a racial minority that she must be a fellow, but that's simply not true. And over the course of a diplomatic career, how you were hired becomes trivial in comparison to what you've done since.

I do believe the fellowships are needed to help fill a gap where the traditional recruitment process is failing. It's failing (1) to ensure our diplomatic corps looks like the the country it represents and (2) to include people from all walks of life and races and regions and backgrounds so we can all benefit from that collective knowledge, creativity, and decision-making power. The social science research is clear: there is strength in diversity. I for one am honored to call the accomplished, innovative, energetic, and resilient fellows I know my colleagues.

If you're a fellow, please feel free to share my story the next time someone makes a snarky comment. And if you're looking at master's programs and considering the Foreign Service, definitely apply for Rangel or Pickering!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

So You Want to Start a Foreign Service Blog

A number of friends and colleagues have recently asked me about starting a Foreign Service blog.

Here are things I would recommend reading if you're thinking about starting one (or already have one and want a refresher):

  • Read the relevant guidance in the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual). These are the official regulations and policies, so they're critical information. These include 3 FAM 4176.4 and 3 FAM 4176.5 as well as 5 FAM 792.2 and 5 FAM 792.3.
  • This is covered in those FAM references but is very important and deserves its own bullet: if you are blogging about "matters of official concern", you need to get approval from the Department of State before your post it. (Other agencies may have different regulations, so it's worth looking into whatever those are for your agency.) There's a lot of debate about what constitutes "official concern", but if you're in doubt then please ask your colleagues in Global Public Affairs if you're in DC or Public Affairs in your Embassy if you're overseas.
  • Always put a disclaimer on your blog and make it easy to find. Do not use official government banners or seals or anything else that might make your blog look like it's an official government blog. You should say directly that your blog is personal and does not represent your agency or any other agency in the U.S. government. Read other Foreign Service blogs to get a better idea of what kind of content is typical and what kinds of disclaimers people use. Here's my disclaimer: "The content of this blog does not represent the view of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government."
  • If you post about trips or locations, do so after the fact. It's a security issue to post where you are or what you're doing while you're still there. This can include the metadata in photos, as well. Also, don't post pictures of your housing or pictures of security officers or details like that that someone who wanted to hurt you would really like to have.
  • Be mindful of the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of federal government employees. I would recommend not posting your political views publicly until after you retire for several reasons: our work is inherently apolitical and publishing those views publicly online could jeopardize that perception, it could hurt professionally with other Foreign Service personnel who don't share your views, and the Hatch Act is risky territory. With a U.S. election coming up, AFSA released a great presentation on what is and isn't allowed for Foreign Service personnel; you can see it here.
  • If you're an AFSA (Foreign Service union) member, read this guidance. (You have to be a member and log in to see that page.)
  • Keep in mind that people who are not looking out for the best interests of the United States will likely read your blog. Just because it's legal to publish something doesn't mean it's helpful or good to publish it.

I hope this helps! There's always room for more folks in the Foreign Service blogosphere, so please feel free to link your blog in the comments if you have one and I'd love to check it out. Happy blogging!