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!