Saturday, March 25, 2017

Why the Foreign Service?

This post is going to get personal.

Joining the Foreign Service is not a decision taken lightly. This job is not going to be easy, which is fine because I signed up for it knowing that. Contrary to popular belief, it's not all about cocktail parties and setting Americans' hard-earned taxpayer dollars on fire.

This career puts strains on marriages, families, and individuals. My husband and I will miss important milestones in the lives of our loved ones: birthdays, graduations, weddings, and perhaps even funerals. I will miss emergency calls because of work or time zones or both. I know from experience that there will be times when someone I love could really use me at his or her bedside, hospital room, or on the couch with a box of tissues - and I won't be able to be there.

I will go to places more dangerous than my nice suburban neighborhood in Virginia. Foreign Service personnel have lost their lives in the line of duty (including since the attack that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, though to much less news coverage). As former Ambassador Ryan Crocker put it, "It's important that we accept that our foreign service officers need to run risks for the sake of our national security."

There will probably be a time when I have to live apart from my husband (and potential future children). I might live in places where I won't have the option to worship with a single member of my faith on Sundays. Heck, I'll probably have to work on Sundays. Our lives (including friendships, habits, and lifestyle) will be uprooted every few years.

There will certainly be many times when I have to publicly defend policies with which I personally disagree. This is a natural part of the job, because the expectation that one person's views will always perfectly line up with the foreign policy of his or her government is, frankly, unreasonable.

So why do it? I don't think there's one magical reason that applies to all, but I think almost everyone who sticks with the Foreign Service has something (or many things) deeper motivating them. I'll share a few of my reasons here:

  • I love my country. I do not suffer from blind patriotism. Anyone who has debated U.S. foreign policy with me in college or graduate school knows that I am clear-eyed about historical and ongoing problems. No serious American diplomat argues that our country is perfect. Yet I do believe in American exceptionalism and the values that form the true foundation for America I love: equality, diversity, self-reliance, innovation, and so forth. These values may not always be realized, but they are what we aspire to every day. I have friends and family who don't love this country, including some who believe our government is downright evil or conspiratorial. Although I reject their beliefs, I deeply love the freedom here that allows them to express their criticisms and accusations. I will always proudly defend their liberty to do so around the world.
  • I feel I can make a difference doing this. The Foreign Service isn't for everyone. I think it's right for me, and it's important work that needs to be done. If I can build a few bridges between the people of my country and others over the course of my career, I will have done some good in the world. If I can help liberate a few people from the propagandistic disinformation campaigns pushed by malevolent actors with hidden agendas, I will have laid a small part of the foundation for peace. If I can debunk a few misconceptions about who Americans are, what we look like, and what our goals are around the world, then I will have made a small difference.
  • I strive to do the harder right.* It's just too easy in today's society to be a cynic. Sometimes, it seems like hopeful is just a synonym for naive. Yet if all the idealists turned away from this line of work, the only people left would be self-interested, power-hungry, and corrupt. At the very least, they'd be resigned to the status quo as a fact of life. I refuse to accept that premise. I believe that it's not only possible but imperative to do good. So every day, I strive to do the harder right over the easier wrong. That means that although I will have to publicly support policies I oppose, I will do my best to advocate internally for what I believe. I know that there are some wrongs so grave that I would have to resign before carrying out what I was ordered to do. I believe everyone - especially every public servant - should decide for him- or herself what that limit is.
  • I think I'm going to love it. I would be lying if I didn't say that part of my motivation is selfish. I love having the opportunity to learn languages, to adapt to foreign cultures, to engage with hugely diverse (and sometimes hostile) audiences, and to be challenged personally and professionally in a million ways. There will be major sacrifices and tough days, but I hope to be able to look back on my career at the end and say it was all worth it.

*If you're interested in a religious (LDS) talk on choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, you can read, listen, or watch here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My First FSI Language Test

*deep breath* I did my first full language test at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute). It was serious business.

In my A-100, some of us were scheduled for full language tests during orientation. The people who fell into this category usually passed at least the phone language test after passing the FSOA. (My case was strange, because I took the phone language test after I was pulled off the Register, but my Registrar told me to test anyway and I later learned I passed. I was automatically scheduled.) Most others will have to wait until after receiving our assignments and completing orientation to test in their languages. (There is a mechanism for testing self-reported language skills that are relevant to our bid list during orientation, because that may affect assignments. That's a level of detail I won't delve into here.)

Onto the test itself: FSI (and the Department of State and many other agencies generally) use the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale for rating proficiency. We are tested in speaking and reading, but not listening (except that you need to follow what's going on enough to be able to participate in the speaking portion) and writing. In each category, we're scored from 0 (no proficiency whatsoever) to 5 (not only completely fluent, but communicating at the level of a highly educated native speaker). Your combined score is typically written or said as [speaking score]/[reading score]. There are also half increments between each number, which means you show signs of the higher number level but not consistently. For example, a 2+ is someone who communicates at least at a 2 level but sometimes (or in some ways) at a 3 level.

The format of the test is very specific, and they provide you with detailed information about the structure beforehand. A good description of the format of the speaking portion of my test can be found here. I couldn't find a good official source for the reading section accessible online, but suffice it to say I was tested on my ability to both skim for the gist of small passages and read longer pieces in greater depth. (I thought the gist reading was the hardest part! I now know I'm a slow foreign language reader.)

So how did my test go? I tested in Arabic, and I now realize I went in a little overconfident. I was hoping to get a 2+/2+ at least, and as soon as I started I realized I wasn't going to get a 3. Later that same day, I received the email with my score: 2/2. My first reaction was to be a little disappointed because I had overestimated my abilities (and let my language skills deteriorate since living abroad 3 years ago).

My second reaction was relief. In Arabic (and other "superhard" languages), you only need a score of 2 in speaking and 1 in reading to get off language probation (a requirement for tenure which must be achieved in the first 5 years) and go to entry-level posts that require that language. That means that I have already been removed from language probation and that I have a much better chance of going to posts that require Arabic language skills (if the positions are immediately available, which our bid list doesn't tell us).

My 2/2 score also qualifies me for language incentive pay. That's a pay increase for going to posts that require my language skills.

I heard that you used to receive your test score immediately at the end of the exam and that your testers would also give you on-the-spot feedback. Because I have not been spoiled by that system, the score notification timeframe of 1 business day seems extremely fast to me (especially compared to other administrative processing timelines here). I also understand why they don't give feedback right away: they need (and should take) more time to deliberate and ensure the decision is fair. It seems odd to me anyway that they would offer feedback in a proficiency test, when the goal is just to do everything better and more naturally in the foreign language.

If you're interested in learning more about the ILR scale, see the official website (with descriptions of what a person can do at each level as well as self-assessment tools) here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The "Typical" FSO

The Department of State has been working to diversify the Foreign Service. It wants to be more representative of America generally, and it takes a very broad view of diversity, encompassing not only ethnicity, race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, but also things like geographic location and ways of thinking. In other words, we're not all supposed to be "male, pale, and Yale" privileged, liberal yuppies from the East and West coasts. :)

In all seriousness, things really have been improving, from diversity-promoting programs like the Rangel and Pickering Fellowships to greater mentoring programs and specialized associations. (See additional information at the end of this post if you want to learn more about that.)

Despite all of the above, I can tell you from my experience preparing for the FSOA with other candidates and taking a look around at my own A-100 that certain patterns still emerge. Here are a few groups that are at least well represented in my experience:

  • Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), Fulbright alum, Boren alum: RPCVs and alumni from other major international exchange or language or service programs are a natural fit and are often aware of the Foreign Service through working with the Department of State directly.
  • Active duty military, veterans, and military contractors: They tend to be really qualified and some benefit from hiring preference.
  • Current Department of State employees: See above.
  • Lawyers: Wow, there are a lot of lawyers.
  • Those with advanced degrees: There are those with "just" a Bachelor's degree, but they are in the minority - especially now that hiring rates are so low. (There also may have been those like me who only had a Bachelor's when they passed the FSOA but received a graduate degree by the time they were hired. I didn't see many in this position, though.) I haven't seen anyone so far without any college-level education, with the exception of one respondent to an anonymous A-100 survey who has not identified him- or herself. (If that were me, I would be shouting it from the rooftops because that's awesome.)
  • Those on at least their second career: I definitely feel like the baby in my group, though it's a very cool opportunity for me to learn from my more experienced peers.
  • Those with some language skills: I debated whether I should include this one, because there's a sizable group with either no language skills or very minimal/deteriorated language skills. (I also don't want to perpetuate the myth that you need to speak a foreign language to get this job.) Yet it seems like most have at least some experience studying languages, even if it's high school Spanish and they are barely conversational anymore. Even some who have worked in the foreign affairs field didn't have extensive language skills.
  • Mormons: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), more widely known as Mormons, seem to be disproportionately represented in a lot of U.S. government foreign affairs jobs, and the Foreign Service is no exception. Full disclosure: I'm a Mormon, but it seems to be more coincidental for me because I'm a recent convert. Other Mormons I know were drawn to (and successful in) the Foreign Service because of factors like mission opportunities they had when they were young (i.e., learning a new language and living in total immersion for two years in a foreign country) and the fact that no drinking, drugs, or excessive debt helps with the security clearance.

So there you have it. I was surprised I didn't see more businessmen and -women and NGO workers, among other things. That being said, we have at least two engineers in my A-100, so they're serious when they say you don't need an international relations educational and professional background to make it!

Here are a few additional resources if you want to learn more:

  • You can watch a PBS video about diversity in the Foreign Service here.
  • Learn more about the Rangel program here and the Pickering program here.
  • Check out a few Department of State official statistics and initiatives for diversity in diplomacy here.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

What's A-100?

I am about to start A-100. What is that? It's basically an orientation class for my cohort of Foreign Service Officers. We refer to ourselves as the 190th class, meaning we are in A-100 #190. A-100 is specifically for Foreign Service Generalists (one of the 5 career tracks I discuss here), so it doesn't include Specialists or other Foreign Service personnel even if they're starting around the same time.

During A-100, we get to know our classmates, undergo training that's relevant for all regardless of career track, test in languages (if applicable), and hear from a lot of higher-ups in the Department of State (someone described it to me as "everyone wanting to see the cute, new puppy" where the puppy is us). I'm already scheduled to test for Arabic, even though I haven't started yet. Fingers crossed!

We'll also get our first bid list during A-100. The bid list has a list of possible jobs we could fill - and every one of us will be assigned one of them at our Flag Day! Everyone gets to sit down with their families and rank posts high, medium, or low (not numerically). Our preferences are taken into account, but ultimately we've all agreed to be worldwide available and to go wherever the Department sends us. Bidding is one of the most exciting (and probably stressful) parts of being in the Foreign Service, but (as with most things) an open mind always helps. We're very excited!