Friday, October 30, 2020

Buying Our First House (on TDY!)

I'm excited to share that we just bought our first house! And we did it all on TDY (temporary duty) training status!

To be honest, our first time home buying experience was a complete rollercoaster. Our first week of house-hunting, we were convinced we were going to get this beautiful, recently renovated townhouse. And then we were outbid by someone who showed up with $600,000 in cash! If you know anyone who is buying a house in the United States right now, especially in a hot market like the DC area, you've probably heard that competition is fierce. We can vouch for the fact that it is as wild and fast-paced as everyone said it was right now. We looked at some properties that sold the same day of their open house. Interest rates are low and savings for some are at an all-time high, so it's a great time to be selling real estate.

In our case, we've considered buying a property for a while and were pushed over the edge by the low interest rates and the fact that we have no idea when we'll be back in the United States. It is possible to purchase a property back home while serving overseas, but we love the peace of mind that comes with checking the place out for ourselves. M brings the analytical eye and experience with remodeling to spot flaws or where maintenance work is needed, and I like to think I bring an intuitive sense for what kind of property has broad appeal for renters with good taste (what I call "the vibe").

Our biggest advice to would-be homeowners is to explore all your options first and make sure you do your research. We talked to mentors, financial advisors, multiple realtors, multiple lenders, and multiple property management and real estate advising organizations to decide which market to focus on and whether real estate made sense for us. Once we decided we were going to go for it before we moved overseas again, every weekend became a real estate whirlwind. We'd make a shortlist of properties that met our requirements, hit all of them over the weekend, make offers on our favorites right away, and try again the following weekend. Almost every property we saw was sold within days. But luckily, we finally won a bid on a beautiful townhouse in a great area and we're thrilled with the final settlement. (Speaking of which: closing costs and closing paperwork are no joke! The stack of paperwork on top of countless DocuSign forms was enormous, as you can see at the end of this post.)

Because the Foreign Service is such a unique situation, we highly recommend you talk to people who know the ins and outs of our lifestyle, needs, and eligibility before you purchase a home for the first time as a diplomat. For example, some make a point to include things like pandemic or disaster clauses in their renter's agreements so that in the event of an emergency their family deployed abroad would have a home to come back to in the United States on short notice if needed.

For a more general (i.e., not necessarily Foreign Service) audience considering real estate as an investment, here are some of the things we learned:

  • If you're just looking to maximize your ROI (return on investment), your hometown may not be the place to buy. There are real estate investment strategy planning companies that can help you identify the rental market where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck (multiple folks told us Texas has a number of cities with excellent ROI right now, for example).
  • When you're researching the rental market for an area, don't just look at rent prices but also how long it's taking comparable landlords to find tenants. (A realtor who specializes in investment properties can be a huge help.)
  • What's your investment priority? Your real estate preferences could look very different if you're trying to maximize monthly income (in which case you just want the biggest difference between your mortgage and the rent checks) versus build equity (where you might be willing to break even or closer to even each month but the expected appreciation of that house is the real selling point).
  • Condos are almost never worth it for purely investment. They may seem tempting because of the lower maintenance, lack of a yard, and nice affordability-quality ratio, but we heard from so many people who lost money on them because of high condo fees, restrictions on renters and subletting, and other things that they as the owner couldn't control.
  • Read the fine print on your loan (assuming you have one and didn't just buy the property outright), and make sure there is no penalty fee for paying off your mortgage early. We listened to this sage advice from those who successfully made higher payments than required on 30-year mortgages and paid them off in 15 years. (This strategy can be better than just getting a 15-year mortgage even if you qualify for one because of the peace of mind that comes with having the option to fall back on the lower minimum payment each month if circumstances change.)
  • Always have an exit strategy. Some people really sour on real estate after purchasing a property that turns out to be a money sink, but if an investment isn't working for you then it's time to back out and reinvest elsewhere. Having a backup plan will help you swiftly execute a shift in a crisis instead of scrambling.
  • At the end of the day, (like all financial decisions) real estate decisions are personal. We have resources and access to local knowledge in our home state that made us more predisposed to investing there, even though it meant taking a lesser ROI. That trade-off is worth it to us, but it might not be for you.

I hope this post was helpful for anyone in or out of the Foreign Service considering jumping into real estate for the first time! We're happy to join the homeowners' club and are so grateful to all the mentors, advisors, friends, and family who gave great advice along the way. And if you're looking for an amazing realtor in the DC area who knows a ton about real estate investment (and has the Foreign Service background), we highly recommend Tanya Salseth at Keller Williams!.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Life Insurance as Retirement Investment

As a follow-up to my previous, very broad post about financial management in the Foreign Service, I thought it might help to share something M and I only learned about relatively recently: life insurance as an investment. Like many other government employees, Foreign Service members have access to robust retirement options. For example, I have the combination of Social Security (though I had plenty of public school teachers tell my generation not to count on this one), a pension, and an IRA through the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP, the U.S. government employee retirement plan).

But what if you have more disposable income and would like to invest that in more diverse sources to build wealth for the future? There are so many options out there. A popular avenue with Foreign Service Officers is real estate, which I'll address in a future post. But another strategy involves life insurance. I first learned about this method attending financial education webinars for Foreign Service members, and after that M and I did a deep dive into how this mysterious new world works.

We ultimately decided to purchase permanent life insurance. Unlike FEGLI (Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance), my new life insurance plan is tied to me as an individual and not to my job. In other words, if something unexpected happens and I need to leave government service, I'll still be covered. This advantage alone probably would've been enough to convince us to make the switch, but there were other reasons, too.

At the risk of sounding morbid, I have to say that not too long ago, I thought life insurance only mattered if you die. Turns out, there are plenty of plans that go far beyond this. One thing I like about the plan I ultimately selected, for instance, is that it will pay out a stipend even prior to my passing if I'm diagnosed with a serious illness or suffer a major accident. That security and peace of mind is well worth our investment. Moreover, because I chose a permanent life insurance plan instead of a term life insurance plan, I can collect that savings tax-free with compound interest as a boost to my income in retirement. (Term insurance is cheaper than permanent insurance but is designed to provide coverage only within a specified timeframe. Make sure you hear both sides of the debate, though; some prefer term life insurance plans or say to skip life insurance entirely.) Because I'm starting the process at a young age and in good health, life insurance is much more affordable.

If you want to learn more about life insurance as a retirement investment, I highly recommend you check out The Purpose of Money, a podcast and online resource for personal finance and investment run by our friend and colleague Acquania. You can even contact her through her website and she will do customized financial advising for you and offer helpful advice on your retirement savings plan, no matter where in your investment journey you are. (I should add that we're not getting any kind of referral bonus or kickback for sharing information about her financial advising services; we really just think they're that good!) We especially hope this post was helpful to other investment newbies looking to diversify their savings and build some financial security for the future. If you have investment tips, please feel free to comment them below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

ConGenerally Speaking...

I know, it's been I while since I threw a pun in the title of a post. I hope this one got at least a few of my readers groaning and rolling their eyes, the mark of every truly great pun.

This is a bit of a victory post: after a year of delay when our Baghdad assignment was cancelled, and an additional four-month delay due to the pandemic, I finally started ConGen! ConGen is the common name for Consular Tradecraft training. It was required for me to be able to do my next job in South Korea, which could include adjudicating visas and helping U.S. citizens abroad.

Let me be clear (because some have already asked): I will not be giving out visa advice or coaching anyone, even people I love, on how to increase their chances of getting a visa. All I'm going to say is apply early, organize all your required documents and trip information, and be open and honest. You can find all of the publicly available information on visas at travel.state.gov. Trying to give people I know special treatment is the type of thing that could not only cost me my job but compromise the integrity of the process (not to mention national security). So please do not pressure the Consular Officer in your life to give you advice!

It's often way too much information for one person to try and remember it all anyway. The best we can hope for is to memorize where to go find information. Every day brings new tests of our resourcefulness and judgment. I'm also becoming much more intimately acquainted with certain sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) and Foreign Affairs Handbook (FAH), the compendia of regulation and policy information we need to do our jobs. To my dismay as a stickler for rules and clarity, I came across a poorly written part of the FAM during ConGen. The people I first complained to brushed it off, but then I found the people who write the FAM and suggested that they change it, and they actually agreed! They're working on it now. I love it when nerds and rules enthusiasts band together. (Unfortunately, I can't share the portion that is getting updated here because it's sensitive but unclassified, but suffice it to say I am very proud of myself.)

One of my biggest takeaways from this course is just how important local conditions are. Everything from the most common types of cases, pitfalls to watch for, and statistics on refusal and admittance rates vary widely from post to post. Moreover, certain programs and special requirements have a big impact on circumstances. For example, we have a visa waiver program in place with South Korea, so a lot of the most common tourist visas don't need to be issued at all in my office.

At the same time, worldwide travel demand has decreased drastically as a result of the pandemic. Consular work probably looks very different now than it did even just a year ago. I'll just have to wait until I get to post to see what it'll look like for me!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Virtual Temple Trip?

Your reaction when you hear the words "virtual temple trip" might be similar to mine when I first heard them: Huh? What? And how? Longtime readers of this blog know I (like, it seems, a disproportionately large number of Foreign Service people) am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS Church or Mormon Church). And like many people both inside and outside the Church, I was very excited for the Washington, DC temple to open briefly to the public after years of renovation. Of course, that eventually became another disappointment provided courtesy of COVID-19.

For those who may not know, here's a little background on our temples. They are different from our regular Church buildings that we (used to, pre-pandemic) attend every Sunday and do most of our activities. There are certain extra special ordinances (like sealing a marriage) that can only be done in the temple, and only card-carrying (literally) members of the Church can go inside the temple itself. You need to pass two interviews with local leaders confirming you're a member in good standing to get your "card" (what we call a temple recommend) or have it renewed. Each temple has a Visitor's Center and grounds that are open to the public, but everyone needs a recommend to go inside the temple.

That is, except when there's a temple open house. When a temple is newly built or extensively renovated, they usually have an open house where anybody can come and see the inside of our most sacred space. After the open house, the temple is rededicated and then closed only to members again. I still remember how cool it was to take M to the Philadelphia temple open house and show him what the inside looked like since he could only accompany me to the outside of the DC temple.

Anyway, the pandemic forced the Church to postpone the planned DC temple open house for this fall and I hope they will still be able to do a full open house later because it would be a shame for everyone in the DC area who has waited for this opportunity to miss it. In the meantime, my Relief Society (local women's Church organization) announced we would do a two-week virtual temple trip. We launched the trip with a Zoom meeting sharing our experiences with the temple, received daily invitations to revisit specific temple-related talks, videos, and Scriptures, and agreed to meet again to discuss it at the end.

Did every single word of the materials sent during this virtual temple trip resonate with me? No. (See the part of President Nelson's talk where it says I get to preside through the Priesthood in our home if M dies, except I already have more Priesthood since he's not a member, and that's kind of an old-school way of looking at presiding in my opinion.) But most of the rest of that talk did touch my heart. And certain portions of the temple trip gave me new spiritual insights.

If you'd like to take your own virtual temple trip, here are my favorite resources from these two weeks I just had to share:

  • Convenience Versus Covenants: This talk was something I needed to hear.
  • Finding Healing After the Death of a Child: I don't even have kids, but this one is a real tear-jerker. I love the strength and wisdom of this mother.
  • The Miracle of Hope: This was my favorite! Okay, I'm cheating a bit because this came from a separate Church email, but I really loved it and had to share.
  • Consecrate Thy Performance: This was my favorite that actually came from the virtual temple trip.
  • Sacred Temple Clothing: I love to pull out this video whenever someone asks me about my "magic underwear" or something else inappropriate. (And yes, that has even happened to me at work.)
  • An Especially Noble Calling: This is a celebration of womanhood and women's roles as discplies of Christ, and I'm here for it.
  • #HearHim: I just love this invitation from President Nelson to hear the Savior and reflect on how we hear Him.

A Christian friend of mine who is not a member of my faith recently shared online that many people in the United States and around the world are really struggling with religious observance right now. It goes beyond needing to stay at home during the pandemic, but many people feel lonely, isolated, hopeless, and disconnected from community and spirituality. I hope at least one of these virtual temple trip resources are a blessing to at least one reader, and I look forward to the day I can go to the temple in person again (hopefully in Seoul)! (And if you really are dying to see what the inside of the DC temple looks like, you can see the renderings online here.)

Friday, September 18, 2020

54 Weeks of Korean, and I'm Free!

I did it! I finally graduated from Korean class at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute)! My training was supposed to be about 36 weeks, and instead I was there for 54. I'm not sure how much more I could have handled. It's depressing to admit this, but I'm not sure I made much progress in the past six months or so. All I can say is that I think Zoom and self-study really helped me maintain what I learned, but I am so ready to hit the ground running in South Korea and actually put these language skills to work in a proper immersion environment.

For those who missed my previous posts, I passed my language test back in May, but I was delayed from moving on for months due to the pandemic. Now I'm finally allowed to graduate (albeit four months late)! Oh well, it could be worse: I'm hoping for a speedy resolution for all of my friends and colleagues still stuck in training limbo, too.

Although I don't think I improved quite as much one-on-one with a teacher over Zoom than I would have with in-person classes, I must leave a glowing review of the Korean department at FSI. The teachers are outstanding and helped me learn so much. The photo of this post is actually of a full-length Korean novel I am reading (largely as a result of their hard work and patience). As any foreign language learner can attest, reading a novel in another language is not easy, but I'm surprised at how much I can understand and the fact that it's even possible for me to get through the book. I thought these lines I selected were particularly gripping. (Bonus points if you can translate it into English and extra bonus points if you can guess the name of this extremely popular book. The name is actually mostly in the picture.)

Besides reading, I'll be attempting to keep my Korean skills up by watching Korean dramas (kdramas) on Netflix. I already watched Crash Landing on You, Designated Survivor (yes, there's a Korean version and it's awesome), My ID is Gangnam, and Itaewon Class. I'm currently working my way through It's Okay to Not Be Okay, and I've got Romance is a Bonus Book, Sky Castle, and Kingdom still on my list. Let me know if you have any other recommendations for me in the comments!

For any other Korean learners who might be reading, I'll end on this poem by Kim Sowol, a celebrated Korean poet who died tragically young. It's beautiful and accessible, but difficult to translate perfectly into English. It's called 진달래꽃 (Azaleas).

진달래꽃

나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
말없이 고이 보내 드리오리다

영변에 약산
진달래꽃
아름 따다 가실 길에 뿌리오리다

가시는 걸음 걸음
놓인 그 꽃을
사뿐히 즈려밟고 가시옵소서

나 보기가 역겨워
가실 때에는
죽어도 아니 눈물 흘리오리다

Friday, September 4, 2020

Making Money in the Foreign Service

We have really enjoyed taking the past few months and years to think about our long-term financial goals and make plans for how to get there. You can find the full spectrum of financial security among U.S. Foreign Service members: those who live paycheck to paycheck, those who were doing fine until a devstating illness or unforeseen circumstance changed everything, those who are comfortable, and those who are very well off. I thought I would take some of the most general guidelines we've learned and share them for those looking for information on where to begin. This is especially relevant if you're starting out in the Foreign Service but to some extent probably applies to most everyone.

The most important thing we've learned through introspection and research is that everyone's financial goals are a little bit different. Some people want to increase their net income as much as possible as soon as possible. Others want to build wealth in the long-term for future generations. It's crucial that each person as an individual or household decide what your goals are first. Then you can figure out the best way to achieve those goals.

No matter how young you are or how early in your career you are, it's important to think about retirement. In fact, the sooner you start, the better! I've heard generic advice like "save 10-15% of what you earn as retirement" before, but that may or may not be the most effective for you. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (like me) or others who tithe 10% of their gross income and have other expenses like union dues, health insurance, and more, putting away an additional 15% may not work. Other expenses like eldercare or chronic illness treatment may make it less feasible, too. Moreover, shorter-term goals like saving up for a down payment on a home might mean those contributions change over time. Regardless, it's worth thinking about retirement strategically and revisiting retirement preparations regularly.

In the U.S. Department of State, we have access to what's called a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), where the government will match our contributions up to a certain percentage each year. Everyone agrees maximizing your TSP's matching is a good idea and that you should diversify your investment, but there are a lot of differing opinions about how best to do that given the fact that you can choose how your savings are allocated between fund types. Read up on different philosophies, compare the pros and cons (e.g., how much time and energy you need to spend monitoring financial markets to sustain that strategy, what the growth rates are for fund types, and how much risk you want to take), and then choose what's right for you. The free TSP allocation guide is a great place to start.

If you lack knowledge and experience in this area, a financial advisor (or two or three) can be a huge help. We had the best experience talking to experts who could understand our unique situation: people who are current or former Foreign Service members or who worked with our community frequently. One excellent resource is The Purpose of Money; on their website you can sign up to get a financial tips newsletter, enjoy a financial literacy podcast, or set up a free consultation. We also talked to mentors we knew had successfully invested in real estate and other areas we were interested in so we could benefit from their wisdom and experience. Most people are happy to pay it forward.

I hope this post was helpful to other folks on their own financial journeys. If you have your own advice or recommended resources to share, please leave them in the comments below!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Best Board Games for a Pandemic

If you're like us, you're spending a lot more time at home during this pandemic. We've seen a lot of recommendations for things to binge on Netflix, read on Kindle, and order online. But what about if you want to have some wholesome fun with your family or roommates while giving your eyes a rest from the screen you're probably staring at most of the day and night? Well, then this post is for you.

I thought I'd put together a list of some of our top board games that we can recommend for folks who are social distancing. After all, the games you want to play as a household can be quite different from the ones that fit better at a larger party. (And it's no secret in the Foreign Service community that many U.S. diplomats are full-on board game geeks.) Here are some of our favorites:

  • Pandemic (2-4 players): Of course this had to top the list! Besides being the perfect ironic game for our time, it's the first co-op game Marwan and I enjoyed playing over and over again. This is a great introductory game for people who are more used to playing games where all the players compete against each other, and it doesn't take too long to learn.
  • Forbidden Island/Forbidden Desert (2-4 players/2-5 players): These two are made by the same folks who created Pandemic. The mechanics are different, but both are still cooperative games. These are great ones to turn to when you get tired of playing Pandemic (or if you keep winning on Heroic mode).
  • Fluxx (2-6 players): This is usually M's favorite. This is by far the easiest one to start. The rules are simple (or at least start that way), the cards explain most of everything you need to know, and it doesn't take long to set up or play.
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill/Betrayal at Baldur's Gate (3-6 players): These games are almost exactly the same, but the former is set at a haunted house and the latter is based on Dungeons and Dragons. For the first part of the game, you work together to explore the area. At some point, your exploration will trigger a shift to the second part of the game with a variety of scenarios and rules that will apply depending on chance. Sometimes it's every man for himself, others you work together against the game, and sometimes one of you will become a traitor. The diversity of scenarios, all extremely well done by professional game writers, gives these great replay value.
  • Codenames (2-∞ players): This one is known more as a party game, but did you know you can play it with just two people? Check the instructions for fun variations on the rules that allow you to play it with a group of any size. This one is simple, fast, and doesn't require a lot of explanation. (Also, for those in language class: Codenames is available in some non-English languages, as well!)
  • Terraforming Mars (1-5 players): My wonderful sister shipped this game to us as a surprise, and we love it! The best way I can think of to describe it is a cross between Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. I would recommend this more for people who already like board games and want to add a new one to their collection. And yes, you can even play this game by yourself (though we haven't tried that version ourselves).

We hope you enjoyed this list. Feel free to let us know any of your favorite #quarantinelife board games below in the comments so we can expand our collection, too!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Celebrating an Anniversary Mid-Pandemic

Happy anniversary to us! We weren't able to do the things we originally planned to commemorate this year's milestone anniversary, but we went out of our way to make it special while still respecting public health guidelines during a pandemic. When we knew we wouldn't be at our next post and wouldn't be able to travel for our anniversary, we looked around for other options to get away from our claustrophic, one-bedroom apartment by the city. We were thrilled to find this delightful private yurt nestled in a small town by the Blue Ridge Mountains on Airbnb. The best part was that it was part of a category of Airbnb rentals with "Enhanced Clean", meaning the host "committed to a rigorous cleaning protocol developed with leading health and hospitality experts". Our hosts were wonderful, responsive, and went above and beyond to prevent the spread of COVID-19: from sanitizing the doorknobs to letting us check ourselves in with a key instead of interacting with other people.

We took the weekend away to enjoy nature and the beautiful outdoor spaces our home state of Virginia has to offer. We saw a bunch of wildlife, including multiple families of deer, black bears (a momma and her cub), and this adorable wild rabbit (pictured below). During the day, we went for walks and enjoyed beautiful plants and not-quite-ripe blackberry bushes. At night, we watched fireflies light up the grassy fields as the sunset turned to dusk. It was beautiful and reminded me of some of the things I love and miss most of our home when we're away.

For a few meals, we ate outside at a few restaurants with socially distanced tables and mask requirements. It definitely felt different than dining out did before the pandemic, but it was a special treat after months away from restaurants. We had everything from German fare to American breakfast food to Peruvian delicacies to very unusual and exciting artisanal chocolate. (I couldn't help myself and bought some cocoa nibs herbal tea, halwa chocolate from Dubai, and pistachio/fig dark chocolate. I also tried shrimp and bonito chocolate for the first time, which isn't nearly as off-putting as one might expect.)

Lastly, we sought out online experiences we could safely from our yurt to help make the weekend more special. We did an intro to Argentinian tango class run by an expert in Buenos Aires who taught us not only the moves but also the culture of tango. We booked a session with a composer in Singapore to improvise custom music for stories we shared about our life together (the first photo of this post). We even danced again to our first dance song at our own wedding. The best thing about all of these moments was that they allowed us to create that special feeling of celebration and commemoration even if we couldn't go to the places hosting those events.

But all things must come to an end, and so has our weekend away from it all. As disappointing as it was for us (like so many others) to forgo their plans this year, we have been able to reaffirm our appreciation for those things we miss and create happy new memories anyway. And, thankfully, we get to keep doing it all together.

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!

Friday, July 17, 2020

Apolitical Ways to Serve People Right Now

There's a lot of hurt and pain going on in the world right now, but there are so many ways to help. I'm hoping this post can serve as a practical guide for busy people who want to contribute time or money but don't know where to start. It will be most helpful to those who are not looking for political or more controversial causes, as I wanted this list to be more broadly accessible.

Give Time

There are countless ways to volunteer, so I'll just list some of my favorites here in no particular order. You'll see that some are basic and can be done in a few minutes while others can be a more long-term commitment.

  • Send heartfelt digital thank you notes to people in your life who are essential workers or medical professionals.
  • Write and mail letters to your friends in general and people you know from marginalized groups who are disproportionately suffering in particular. We're almost all stuck inside and could use a pick-me-up! A friend did this for me and it made my day! (Yes, that is her drawing of us as the photo for this post. It's still on my fridge.)
  • If you know someone living far away from home, send or offer to send them a care package. (Trust me: this means a lot to people overseas in particular!)
  • Volunteer to distribute food to those who need it most. Many volunteers for these types of services tend to be older and higher-risk for COVID-19, so if you are lower-risk you could be a huge help. Local options in the DC area include the Capital Area Food Bank and Meals on Wheels.
  • Keep your foreign language skills sharp while helping others. For example, the volunteer organization LINK is seeking Spanish translators and interpreters at the time of this blog posting. A number of refugee and social service organizations need foreign language speakers right now, and a lot of work can be done online or over the phone.
  • Tutor kids and help them with their homework. Little Lights is a Christian organization, but you don't have to ascribe to any religion in order to participate in their homework clubs or reading and math programs for underserved kids in southeast Washington, DC.
  • Check with a local faith community other than your own to see what service opportunities they might have. This is also a great opportunity to get to know people from other walks of life. In the DC area, Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington often has excellent volunteer projects and welcomes anyone who wants to help. You can search their opportunities here. Islamic Relief USA also maintains a nationwide registry of current opportunities here. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (my church, also commonly known as the Mormon Church) maintains another searchable database here.

Give Money

A lot of people have lost income as a result of the pandemic directly or the measures taken to prevent its spread. If you're not one of those people or if you have cash to spare, you might consider buying gift cards at restaurants or ordering takeout. Or contributing to fundraising efforts for artists or other creatives who are struggling more than usual to find work right now. Here are a few examples of services you could patronize:

  • Donate food or money to help fight hunger, a cause which needs the support more than ever. Here in DC, the biggest is the Capital Area Food Bank. I can also personally vouch for Our Place soup kitchen in Charles County, Maryland, which provides a hot meal to those in need with dignity and love.
  • Contribute to organizations that provide financial empowerment to those in poverty or at a high-risk for poverty. In Fairfax County, Britepaths is a true leader in both short-term safety-net services and long-term solutions. If you're looking for a way to contribute on a more global scale, I highly recommend GiveDirectly. They already met their fundraising goal for getting cash relief to Americans impacted by COVID-19, but they still need support to reach their goal for giving cash to families in extreme poverty in Africa.
  • Order just-thinking-of-you gifts for the people you love and support small businesses. You could check out options like Uncommon Goods and Etsy to find unique gifts people wouldn't necessarily order for themselves on Amazon.
  • Support people who are trying to earn an income working online teaching languages or music or running virtual tours or games. For learning languages, you can check out italki (where you can learn pretty much any language from a native speaker almost anywhere in the world at a huge range of price points and where I've taken many awesome classes with Ani Kasparian) or NaTakallam (for learning Arabic, French, Persian, and Spanish from refugees specically). For online entertainment, you could try Airbnb experiences. They have everything from virtual cooking classes to virtual custom tours of distant lands.

I know this list is incomplete, but I hope it was helpful to at least one person looking to lose a bit of themself in the service of others. Happy giving!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

What I Wish Someone Told Me Before My First Tour

Not too long ago, I did a blog post on just some of the conflicting advice I've received in the Foreign Service. Now that we're preparing to move to our second post, I thought I'd do a post summarizing some of the most important things I wished I'd been told before my first tour. I wanted to write this down while it's still relatively fresh, and hopefully it'll help some other ELO (entry-level officer) out there.

In no particular order, here are those things that took me by surprise, that I wished I had known sooner, or that I am so grateful someone told me before I left:

  • Save digital copies of the rosters of all the training you do prior to departure (and after that) for your records. (I didn't do this with some of my classes and regretted it later.) It's amazing how easy it is to forget people you were in training with even just a few years ago. That list can help you remember the name of someone you bump into in the hallways of FSI or another office in the future, or it can assist in networking. For example, if you're a Political Officer interested in a certain post, you can see if someone from your Political Tradecraft course went to that post, reach out, and see if they have any helpful insights as you're bidding.
  • Err on the side of looping people in on everything. New people seem to get in trouble way more often for not cc-ing someone than over-sharing work information. Always cc your supervisor and everyone in the chain of command if the communication is between you and someone senior and let them tell you if they don't need to be informed of the details. Think of it this way: you never want your boss to be surprised in a high-level meeting by information they could've learned from you. Sometimes, senior officials will skip the chain of command and come right to you with a request, but those situations are no exception. Inform your higher-ups: it protects you and them.
  • There is an official Department of State Style Guide, but some things are more rigid and others are a bit of a free-for-all. This can be very irritating for grammar nerds and sticklers. For example, there is absolutely no consistency in using the Oxford comma, but all official documents must have the horrifyingly outdated two spaces between sentences. (If you are as disturbed by that last rule as I am, be prepared to find the vast majority of your colleagues passionately defending the wretched double space.)
  • The welcome kit isn't as bad as everyone says. (I know this is controversial, but... Yeah, I said it!) Everyone told us the quality of the items post provides in the "welcome kit" you use until your own stuff arrives is terrible. So imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered the welcome kit dinnerware at our first post was a perfect match for the set we actually owned! Our standards may be lower than average, but even the towels and sheets folks warned us about were just fine. (The exception to this are the kitchen knives... They truly are so bad I pack a chef's knife in my suitcase now.)
  • Read up as much as you can on your post and office before you get there. This includes the Integrated Country Strategy for that country (available online), the most recent OIG report (also available online), or documents specific to your office. In my case as a Public Diplomacy Officer, I read (internal) PD-specific annual strategy documents prior to my arrival in Nairobi.
  • Follow your onward post's official social media pages, read recent press releases or statements on the Embassy website, and pay close attention to (A) the issues that tend to come up most often and (B) the language the Embassy chooses to use in public messaging. This is excellent background for everyone--notjust PD Officers--to have. Some Public Affairs offices will even let you sign up for their curated email media newsletters prior to your arrival. I did this for my first tour and showed up much more well read on current events than average.
  • As soon as you arrive at your first post, set up as many internal courtesy calls as you can. If your work includes building relationships with external contacts, your team will usually help arrange external courtesy calls for you. Meanwhile, it's on you to do the legwork to meet people internally on your own initiative. At the suggestion of an excellent boss, I sat down for 15 minutes one-on-one with every American and local staff person in my office (~15 people) to learn more about their portfolios and where I fit in with them in my first week at post. I took a ton of notes that made very little sense to me in the moment but served as an invaluable reference guide in the following weeks. I also did versions of these courtesy calls with other offices when we had to work together and I wanted to learn more to help me collaborate across the interagency: I ended up sitting down with peers in USAID, the CDC, and the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Defense. It helped a lot.
  • Make sure you create an EER folder in the cloud or in your email inbox somewhere where you can start recording accomplishments throughout the year that will provide useful fodder for your EER. When you start out, you will probably put stuff in there that seemed important at the time that you later realize isn't that special. That's okay: it's better to have too much content to pull from than too little when EER time rolls around. (I actually did this the first time I drafted a Tweet for the Ambassador. Little did I realize at the time that later that would become a daily responsibility of mine, but I sure was proud of that first Tweet!)
  • Your mileage may vary on the Embassy social scene. As a newbie, I felt like I was fed this narrative of the Foreign Service feeling like a family and Embassy communities being very tight-knit. That is true at some posts and less true at others. It also varies wildly based on the family and social composition at your post: for example, are you a teetotaling family at a post full of singles who like to go to wineries on the weekend? It can even come down to where you happen to live: housing pools are often luck of the draw. We and several other friends I talked to from my A-100 did not feel very socially integrated into our Foreign Service communities at our first posts. (I shared what we learned about making friends abroad more generally here, in a separate post.)
  • Drinking is a huge part of U.S. Foreign Service culture as well as global professional diplomatic culture. If you don't drink (or don't drink much), expect comments and have polite but firm responses ready.
  • Age is an EEO-protected category for older people (over the age of 40), which means if you believe you've been discriminated against on that basis you can file an EEO complaint (more on that here). There is no EEO protection for ageism against young people, and that's reflected a bit in the culture. For example, I saw two equally skilled officers with similar rank get very different tasks delegated to them even within the same office, with the younger one obviously getting more of the administrative or grunt work. I've also heard colleagues complain about a supervisor by saying things like "No wonder they're so terrible, they're only in their 30s! They have no idea what they're doing." Thankfully, most people in the Foreign Service don't think that way, but enough do that it seems like all young people encounter that mindset at some point.
  • You'll learn a ton on the job. Plenty of people go to post without training that might seem absolutely critical to a new person (and it certainly doesn't hurt), but once you're at post you will figure out everything you need. I felt nervous about filling in an Information Officer (i.e., Press Attaché) job because I never received any IO training, but I was reassured by all of my coworkers that it wasn't necessary. I'd learned everything I needed to be successful in that role on the job already.
  • There are so many Foreign Service-related Facebook groups, no one could possibly keep up with them all. Check out a few and see which ones (if any!) you find the most interesting or useful and then just forget about the rest.
  • Your first tour really does fly by (for most). There will always be a special place in my heart for Kenya and Embassy Nairobi and I can't even imagine having spent my first tour anywhere else. Enjoy it while you can!

I hope this list had information that was helpful or new to some folks, particularly brand new officers who haven't been to their first tour yet! And please feel free to offer any additional advice in the comments below.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Happy Birthday, USA!

Happy Independence Day! Today is the Fourth of July, though this year obviously looks a little different from previous years. While serving in Kenya, I spent months leading up to this day working my butt off on the huge events U.S. Embassies typically hold to commemorate the occasion. (Pretty much every embassy of every country has a big "national day" celebration with external guests each year, and when we do events like that they are called "representational events" since their main function is to represent the United States and strengthen our relationships.) Needless to say, 2020 is looking a lot quieter. We're still social distancing, so we looked for ways to make it special this year that did not involve jostling with crowds on the National Mall to see fireworks.

I started the day reading my friend's blog post, To Be An American, which briefly examines some of the contradictions, promises, and hopes implicit in our country's Founding (and I've recommended his blog here before.) We listened to the official National Anthem ("The Star-Spangled Banner") and the unofficial Black National Anthem ("Lift Every Voice and Sing"), the latter of which I only learned this year while participating in Juneteenth for the first time. (We also watched this interesting video explaining why our anthem is so complicated and difficult to sing. Apparently, there was even a major campaign to try and prevent it from becoming our anthem back in the day!)

We took full advantage of streamable content, starting the night before when we hopped on to Disney+ to watch Hamilton the movie with our friends (when I snapped the post photo while relaxing on the couch). If you haven't seen it, please go check it out! That Disney+ subscription is a lot more afforable than $300+ Hamilton tickets. And even M, who usually hates everything musicals and Broadway, enjoyed it. Later, we're planning on catching the U.S. Air Force Band streaming their July 4 tribute and watching the official fireworks show online (if we can't see any from our apartment window). So we were able to capture at least some of the spirit of festivity we'd normally have on this day.

M and I are grateful to be home for this holiday and to have the time to reflect on the many ways we love our country. This list of things non-Americans said they love about us and watched this funny video of people around the world imitating us also put big smiles on our faces. So Happy Fourth of July from our home to yours, wherever you are in the world!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Conflicting Career Advice in the Foreign Service

Every Foreign Service Officer has heard a great deal of conflicting advice on how best to advance their career, and most after a while form their own strong opinions. Here are just a few examples of things I've heard from more experienced diplomats:

  • If you don't inquire about a job at an Embassy by August that bidding season, you must not want the job. / If you inquire about a job at an Embassy before August, you must not be doing much of your current job.
  • We almost always use first names right away in the Department. / It is rude to address someone you haven't met by their first name.
  • Your statement in your EER should contain two well-developed examples only. There's not enough space to do more than that well. / Your EER should include many examples covering every aspect of your job. You don't want them to think you neglected any of your responsibilities.
  • You should focus on honing your expertise and building contacts in a "home" regional bureau. / We're generalists! You should dip your toes in as many bureaus as possible.
  • It will hurt your career to spend too much time studying single-country languages. / Language study time won't affect your career. Who cares exactly how many tours you've done?
  • You have to go back to Washington for your third or fourth tour. And make sure you return every so often. / Go to Washington whenever it's best for you; plenty of Foreign Service rockstars don't go back frequently or at all.
  • Ops (i.e., the Operations Center) is the best tour you can do for your career. / Ops doesn't give you the skills or bidding opportunities people say it does.
  • Try to serve outside of your cone. We're generalists! / Try to stay in your cone as much as possible. That's how you get promoted.
  • Play up your pre-Foreign Service experience. It can help you stand out. / Nobody likes it when people make it all about their pre-Foreign Service experience. We all came in at entry-level here.
  • Excellent language skills are critical to being a good diplomat. / Language skills are separate from what makes someone a good diplomat.
  • Don't speak up in meetings. / Speak up in meetings.
  • Explain you don't drink coffee, tea, or alcohol for religious reasons so it doesn't seem rude when you refuse. / Don't explain your religious reasons for not drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol because it makes people uncomfortable.
  • Check to and respond to emails on nights and weekends. That's part of public diplomacy. / Don't perpetuate the lack of work/life balance in public diplomacy. Insist someone call you if it's urgent and otherwise it can wait for the next workday.
  • If a member of the public harasses you, be nice. You're representing America. / If a member of the public harasses you, stand up for yourself. You're representing America.
  • Wear a suit jacket every day. / We're at an Embassy and you're a woman. You don't need to dress so formally.

The list goes on (and on and on)... It can be really challenging as a junior officer to try and figure out what is right and wrong in an institutional culture that doesn't come with any sort of handbook. Regarding the comments above, I've distilled a few hard-and-fast rules myself that I'm now going to impose on others through this post:

  • Bid on jobs that you're genuinely interested in rather than ones that fit any kind of 20-year strategy, or so I've learned from many who only went for something because they thought it would guarantee them a promotion or the perfect follow-on assignment. Most of them came away disappointed with that choice. At the same time, those who went for things they're truly passionate and excited about more often ended up doing great work, after which the connections and opportunities followed anyway.
  • You do need to serve in-cone (i.e., in your main career track) to get promoted, but there is a still a lot of pressure for non-reporting officers like me to do at least one tour in a political or economic job. If you ever want to be a DCM (i.e., Deputy Ambassador) or be competitive for other high-level, generalist positions, it wouldn't hurt.
  • No employee should be told to tolerate harassment for professional reasons. Part of representing America is representing our values with strength and courage, even when it's not what someone else wants to hear.
  • Always have a suit jacket (preferably one with usable pockets) on the back of your chair and dress shoes at your desk at a minimum at work. You never know when you might need it unexpectedly. Once, I was expecting a casual day at my desk wearing a cardigan when I was tapped to accompany the Ambassador to a meeting with external contacts. Thankfully, after I frantically messaged a number of women at the Embassy, my friend who worked two floors up was able to spare me her jacket for the afternoon. I didn't make that mistake again.
  • There is no one path to the top. That conflicting EER advice I received above came from two excellent officers whom I respect and look up to, and I ended up writing my EER somewhere in between what they each said.

A lot of the rest is honestly just using that good judgment and emotional intelligence we were hired for and deciding how to adapt to our environment (cultural, political, interpersonal, etc). Some of the above can be chalked up to rookie mistakes, but to be frank a sizeable portion is just a matter of opinion. So it's okay if you were mistaken or if you heard from a previous boss to do things one way and your new boss wants the exact opposite. By the time I'm in one of those higher-level roles, I hope to remember just how confusing it can be and to be sympathetic when they do something wrong. After all, it's always possible someone else told them to do it that way first.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Two Simple Ways to Fight Racism

Unless you live under a rock of willful ignorance, you've heard that racial strife is boiling over in the United States. I am not an expert on this subject, but there are a lot of opinions flying around online about this. So here's that part of mine that I actually find worth sharing on my blog: the status quo is unacceptable and these injustices cannot be tolerated if we are who we say we are.

There are many people more worth listening to on this subject, but I have seen a lot of lists going around like "75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice" that seem mostly already geared towards people who have some understanding of the problem and want to be a part of organized action. The target audience I'm envisioning for this post is more curious about where to start on a more basic level. Perhaps you're even diving into this subject matter for the very first time. And that's okay because we are all constantly learning and growing. So that's why I wanted to distill my suggestions down to just two simple ways to fight racism. Please note this is not a checklist; this is a starting point. That being said, I hope some readers find it helpful.

1. Listen and Learn

It's exhausting for people who are suffering from a problem to have to explain the problem to others over and over again. That's why it's so helpful for those of us on the outside to be able to take ownership of our own learning, seek out good resources, and listen. Some of my favorite resources include @laylafsaad and @jameelajamilofficial on Instagram. If you prefer to read things, I recommend The Root and particularly this timeline of events that led to what we are seeing right now (note: it does have cursing). One Foreign Service-specific example that I consider a must-read is this heartbreaking article by someone who should have been supported enough to have been able to stay in public service. As one of my colleagues put it, "The State Department lost a great officer due to indifference that could have been based in a number of -isms. Hopefully, this story and our current environment will inform the way we manage and engage with colleagues at post and at FSI and in social media." (And yes, do at some point go and read that "75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice" article even if you find it a bit daunting. It includes more recommended resources for learning, too.)

2. Lift Where You Stand

We have a powerful influence in our families, circles of friends, and communities. Whenever we can, let's stand up for others even if they're different from us. That means not only refusing to laugh at the racist joke but also calling it out directly. That means not scrolling past that social media post where an echo chamber is reinforcing racist stereotypes but engaging in the conversation and providing an alternative point of view not just for the posters but for the many silent others watching. Take those materials and sources you discovered while following step one and share them with people you care about. Join diverse book clubs or start one of your own. If you're a parent or teacher or auntie or uncle, talk to kids about racism and help them consume entertainment featuring diverse characters.

It's that simple and easy to get started. I'm trying to do better and be better, too, so let's make this journey together as a society and as a country. Now, there is surely some subset of readers who will think, "But I thought you were in the Foreign Service? Aren't domestic issues a little outside of your purview?" To whom I offer the following:

  • In the digital age, the foreign/domestic issue divide is to some extent a false dichotomy. Especially as a Public Diplomacy Officer working to improve America's image, influence, and partnerships abroad it's impossible to ignore the effect what's going on in our country has on our effectiveness on the international stage. I highly recommend this article where the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom explores some of the main issues youth in the UK have with the United States (spoiler alert: racism and police brutality are high on the list).
  • I have deviated from this blog's regularly scheduled programming before, when there were outbreaks of violence in Kenya and Charlottesville. I will probably do it again.
  • This is my blog, and I think advocating for what is true and right (even when it's hard) is more important than making everyone comfortable.

Please feel free to share your thoughts or advice in the comments below. Trust me: I'm listening.

Monday, May 25, 2020

(Happy?) Memorial Day

Isn't it interesting that we say "Happy Memorial Day" when we're recognizing a national holiday to honor and remember those service members and families who served and sacrificed for us? I'm grateful for those brave men and women, but it doesn't feel quite right to say the mood of a day like today is simply "happy" when there is a need for solemnity, not as a matter of obedience but of respect.

M and I tried to make our Memorial Weekend and especially Memorial Day special. We visited the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, worked on genealogy and thought about the veterans in both our families, and took some time to reflect quietly over long walks in the beauty of nature at Great Falls Park and in Georgetown. In this post, I thought I would intersperse photos we took this weekend with quotes, poems, or thoughts that I found worth considering on Memorial Day. I hope you get as much out of them as I did.

I'm embarrassed to say I never knew the story behind Taps until this year, but almost everyone will quickly recognize the tune. It was first played in 1862 during the Civil War and has now become our traditional military funeral melody. You can read the heartbreaking story behind it and listen to it played at Arlington National Cemetery here.

Regardless of political leanings, I hope we can all agree that we owe a lot to the sacrifices of our soldiers. Although we can never repay what we owe, we should strive to build a nation worth serving and a world where the horrors of war are lessened as much as possible. Adlai Stevenson II once said, "Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." And on Memorial Day in 1982, Ronald Reagan said, "And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice." (You can read more excerpts from that speech here.)

Many soldiers including some of our loved ones have drawn additional strength from their faith before, during, and after military service. I was struck by this Memorial Day message from Church in 2015 that still resonates today, as well as this linked video about two brothers who struggled with PTSD and addiction after returning from war.

I want to end with a poem called "The Unknown Dead" by Elizabeth Robbins Berry that I liked even as someone who is not a big appreciator of poetry in general. (You can read other Memorial Day poems here.) Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope you had a peaceful and sound Memorial Day.

The Unknown Dead by Elizabeth Robbins Berry

Above their rest there is no sound of weeping,
Only the voice of song-birds thrills the air;
Unknown their graves, yet they are in God's keeping,
There are none "missing" from His tender care.

He knows each hallowed mound, and at His pleasure
Marshalls the sentinels of earth and sky;
O'er their repose kind Nature heaps her treasure,
Farmed by soft winds which 'round them gently sigh.

Bravely they laid their all upon the altar,
Counting as naught the sacrifice and pain,
Theirs but to do and die without a falter—
Ours to enjoy the victory and the gain.

They are not lost; that only which was mortal
Lies 'neath the turf o'erarched by Southern skies;
Deathless they wait beyond the heavenly portal,
In that fair land where valor never dies.

In the great heart of coming generations
Their fame shall live, their glory never cease;
Even when comes to all earth's troubled nations
God's perfect gift of universal peace.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Final FSI Korean Test Complete!

I have thoughts, I have advice, and I have feelings to share. But first of all, what a relief to have passed my final Korean test at the Foreign Service Institute (i.e., Diplomat School)! After almost nine months of intensive studying, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Now, I'll be working on maintaining the language skills I've gained so far, but there's definitely a lot less pressure.

Given the pandemic situation, instead of a normal in-person test I was assessed over video conference. Even though the setting was remote, the format of the test was very similar to what it would have been under normal circumstances. The biggest difference was being able to take the reading and speaking tests separately instead of in one sitting. Thankfully, I received the results even sooner than I expected. My final score is: 2+/2+!

I have a lot of conflicting emotions about this score. I did much better on the reading than I expected, but I was disappointed I failed to reach a 3 in speaking after being estimated at a 2+ months ago. At the same time, I only needed a 2/0 to pass so I'm grateful to have that out of the way at least. Maybe I can even try again for a higher score once we make it to Seoul and I spend some time living in a more immersive environment. And although I failed to reach the 10% language incentive pay threshold, I still qualified for a 5% pay bump!

So without violating any non-disclosure agreements, I do have some advice. I feel like I've learned a lot since my first FSI language test in Arabic a few years ago. So I thought I'd share a few things that I found helpful or that I wish I had known earlier in hopes it'll benefit some future FSI language student:

  • Familiarize yourself with the ILR standards. The language scores are based on Interagency Language Roundtable criteria, described in detail here. You can also watch short clips demonstrating the various levels in English. There's an example of where I wanted to be here, and where I currently am here.
  • Do your best to get your head in the game, but accept that (as my dad often said) excrement occurs. For example, in preparation for my reading test I went to bed early the night before, had a nutritious breakfast, and tried not to stress out. Despite my best efforts, though, I ended up having a horrible stress dream where I had to take the test while insects were laying eggs in my ears (gross, I know... I probably read too much science fiction). Then, I accidentally burned my breakfast and set off my smoke alarm. I was way more frazzled than I'd hoped the morning of my test, but I just had to roll with it! I tried to think of it as good preparation for work, where I'm sure I'll someday have to use my language skills when my brain feels completely fried.
  • Be bold. The language test is not a time for shyness; you've got to give them something to evaluate you on, after all! I would err on the side of being talkative and don't be too timid to interrupt the tester if you need to ask a question or clarify something.
  • Practice your self-introduction. The speaking portion of the test always begins with an introduction and small talk, so I always find getting that right helps me build confidence for the rest of the test.
  • Time yourself reading. It's not enough to have good reading comprehension. The reading portion of the test requires you to read fast, so when you're getting closer to your test date I highly recommend giving yourself a limited amount of time to read, summarize, and analyze articles to practice increasing your speed.
  • Try to avoid comparing yourself to your classmates or others. I personally struggle with this, but comparison is not only the thief of joy but it's the mother of a whole lot of unnecessary stress. (Yes, I just made that up... But it's true.)
  • Prepare a one pager with all the vocabulary and expressions you want to memorize for articulating yourself intelligently before the test. I was inspired to do this by my colleague S's excellent one pager specifically for how to discuss economics and statistics in Korean (it's amazing how many words there are for "increase" and "decrease"). I found it really helpful in elevating my ability to have a conversation, so I called it my "Sound Smart Reference Guide". (A snippet of it is the cover photo of this post.)
  • Team up with others. I really benefitted from helpful videos, articles, and tips other Korean students sent me, so I tried to share relevant things with them. We're all in this together.
  • Put things in perspective. Plenty of successful diplomats I look up to have failed language tests. The vast majority of people will not have their career ruined by a single bad language test. Most folks will just take a little more time and then wind up exactly where they are supposed to be anyway. And a few years later, nobody will likely know, remember, or care how many weeks it took you to get that score.

I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Best of luck to all of my colleagues who are preparing for language tests, and I'm raising a glass (of grapefruit seltzer) to myself and everyone else who is done!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Top Email Newsletters I Recommend

I enjoy using email to stay informed, and I've tried a ton of different free email newsletters over the years. I use emails to stay on top of political and financial news as well as stay connected culturally and digitally with information that I feel adds something to my life. So I thought I'd sum up the newsletters that I've found to be tried and true. In other words, these are the ones I open and read every single time. Most are daily and concern the news, but there are some that are less frequent and more varied on topics. (And of course, you can sign up to receive emails for this blog, too! If you're on a desktop, just submit your email address in the lower right. If you're on a mobile device, just click view web version and then enter your email in the lower right.) Enjoy!

News

  • Vox Daily Sentences: This is a left-of-center summary of the news that covers a fair number of issues. Their reporting is thoughtful and they include information aggregated from other news sources in their newsletter.
  • The Atlantic Daily: I don't read most of The Atlantic in detail, but their newsletter gives me an idea of which longform pieces I actually want to take the time to read. Several of their articles have stuck with me years after I read them.
  • Robinhood Snacks: Robinhood provides succinct, punchy, and interesting finance news digestible even for not-so-economically-inclined readers like me.
  • Stephen Aftergood's Secrecy News: This is a bit of a niche newsletter that doesn't publish that frequently but provides updates in publicly available U.S. government secrecy, intelligence, and transparency policy. I recommend it for folks interested in national security and open government policy.
  • Diplopundit: This is essentially a blog for State Department insiders with a mix of breaking news, gossip, and analysis. I recommend it for folks who work at State who want to keep up with the goings-on of Foggy Bottom.

Spiritual

  • Latter Day Light: This is a short daily devotional with a brief Scripture, Church leader quote, Church history factoid, and usually a one-panel cartoon. I like it because it gives me a brief pause in my day to think about eternal things.
  • The Well Examined Life: This is a blog recently launched by my dear friend E, who is a lawyer by day but an excellent scholar of the Scriptures and religious history in his spare time. I always find his perspectives deeply thought-provoking and insightful, and I hope you will, too.
  • FamilySearch: I'll be the first to admit I'm not the most diligent family history researcher, but I still enjoy the emails from FamilySearch letting me know when there are some records in my family tree I can clean up and reminding me of memories and stories recorded about my ancestors.

Miscellaneous

  • TED-Ed Newsletter: I get about three original animated educational videos per week, and I watch whatever's in the email. The topics include history, literature, science, math, and even riddles, and the animations are beautifully done. I highly recommend this if you're just generally curious and want to learn something outside your wheelhouse.
  • Morgan Hazelwood's Writing Blog: This has great tips and encouragement for the creative writers out there! I heard about this great blog from someone at the Washington Science Fiction Association, and it definitely lived up to the hype. The newsletter is helpful without being overwhelming. Check it out!
  • Blogilates Newsletter: This is the newsletter for YouTube fitness legend Cassey Ho. I originally signed up for this to get the free monthly POP Pilates workout calendars, but I've also grown to love the blog posts and videos about body positivity, fitness, healthy eating, and more.
  • Slate's Dear Prudence: So I confess, I'm addicted to advice columns. I don't always agree with Slate's columnist, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, but I do like to think about the dilemmas posed in the weekly chats and think about how I would advise a friend in that situation. And thinking about those things has increased my understanding and compassion for people going through various hardships and has even helped me comfort my friends in real life more effectively when they're struggling.

Of course, there are some newsletters that I once read but fell by the wayside, but a lot of that is due to personal preference. I cancelled my subscription to theSkimm because they had a few cases of misleading reporting, and when I reached out to them they followed up with a form reply and no corrections. I stopped following Foreign Policy and Politico because I find they publish too many viewpoints too frequently for me to keep up with limited time. With Foreign Affairs and various DC think tank newsletters, I felt their most important content was generally captured in the news or conversations I'm already having with friends. I also used to get a lot of food-related emails and cancelled those because I can pretty much find all the food information I want when I want at my own convenience. Not all of these newsletters are bad, it's just that I don't have the time to read them.

If one or more of the newsletters above interest you, you should give it a shot and see if you like it! You can always unsubscribe later. I've sure enjoyed them a lot. Let me know in the comments if you have a recommendation that I missed; I'm always looking for more!