Well, it took a while due to the ever-present bureaucratic intricacies, but through whatever combination of skill in navigating those procedural labyrinths and total luck, we ended up finding out where the US Government will need me to go next: Jakarta, Indonesia!
There are lots of things about this assignment that make it very exciting for us. It's a two-year Political tour, so I'll get more experience in my chosen career track. It's in the East Asia/Pacific region, so I'll have an "in" to a bureau where I'll be hoping to serve again in future tours. It's very different from Denmark in any number of ways - the climate, the people, the issues, the size of the Embassy - so I'll learn something new. It starts in July 2012, so I'll get to spend six months learning the language at FSI. It's considered a hardship post, so I'll be able to demonstrate my commitment to serving wherever my talents are needed. And it's surrounded in every direction by amazing places we can't wait to visit!
More details about my transfer and training schedule as I figure them out. Friends and relatives are invited to hang out with us in Bali sometime between July 2012 and July 2014 - start thinking about making a reservation!
My tour in Copenhagen was designed as a "rotational" assignment, with one year in the Consular section and one in Political. I've enjoyed the responsibility, the mental stimulation, and even the necessity of navigating a super-complex bureaucracy that went along with being Non-Immigrant Visa Chief, but now the time has come to move on to Episode Two.
The first couple weeks of being a Political Officer have been very exciting. This, after all, is the section of the Embassy that I selected as my "career track" or "cone" back when I first signed up for the FSOT. And though of course it's early days, I'm thinking I made the right choice.
Compared to Consular work, Political is a lot more like college. They give you assignments, then leave you to do the research and writing and turn in the paper by the deadline. "They" include not only my immediate boss and our section head, but also the vast and mysterious beast known as Washington. Meanwhile, it's also part of my job to go out and meet important people. As the Human Rights Officer here, my portfolio includes maintaining good contacts in local NGOs, academia, offices of the Danish government, and other groups. The people I've met so far have been fascinating, and I'm learning a lot. Getting paid to do meaningful, important work that you enjoy is a great recipe for happiness.
Besides my regular job here, I also have an additional role as the Post Language Officer. Each US Embassy and Consulate has a Post Language Program, which supplies language materials and runs courses for the American employees and their families.
Today we started a new class, with a new vendor, which is the culmination of a long process of soliciting bids and selecting a company. Back in February, I had to complete a 40-hour online training course to become a Contracting Officer's Representative, so that I could do my part in creating the RFP and managing the contract. I also submitted a proposal so that FSI would partially fund the program.
I'm pretty excited about the new instructor. Both Bongsu and I will be taking classes, since we didn't get any Danish training before coming here. A little of the local language makes a big difference in being able to do the work. For example, thanks to attending last year's language program I've already conducted a few visa interviews entirely in (very slow, broken, grammatically atrocious) Danish. This year I hope to make even more progress, since my lessons will take place after working hours instead of during the lunch break when the schedule is often touch to maintain.
To myself and to the other participants in the new classes: Held og lykke!
It's already time for us to bid on what our next assignment will be. Bidding is the process of expressing a preference for particular assignments out of the list of jobs where second-tour officers will be needed. The second tour, like the first, is a "directed assignment" - that is, the Powers That Be make the decisions, and while they like to take our input into account, in the end they put people wherever the job requires them to go. That said, most people end up getting one of the jobs they bid high. In choosing the bids, the most important consideration is timing; 15 of our 20 choices have to fit perfectly with my departure from Denmark, give me exactly enough time for all required language and functional training, and get me to the new post right when they'll need me. The other five can be off by a month or two. Timing was something we didn't have to worry about at all in A-100 when bidding for the first tour; it's kind of like going to a higher difficulty level on some fascinating puzzle. In keeping with that, there are also about three times more positions on the second-tour bid list than there were on the A-100 list.
And it is pretty fascinating. A lot of people seem to find bidding stressful and unpleasant. Personally, I find it fascinating and fun. I know wherever we end up will be a great experience, so I just find all the different possibilities to be very exciting and attractive. This would be a great job to do for two years! This one would involve a lot of travel to nearby posts in the region! This one is in such a fabulous location! This other location is totally different but also fabulous! I'd love to learn this language!
Of course I can't speak on mid-level bidding, which is the NEXT higher difficulty level, where you have to "lobby" for the various positions you want, use networking skills, and just hope that some post somewhere shows you love. But at least as an entry-level bidder, bidding is still fun. I do very much like potentials, possibilities, decisions that are not quite made yet. Right now there are about a hundred and fifty possible futures for me, each equally real. That's the approximate number of jobs on the list that would be possible for me in terms of timing. And that is really cool. When the picture crystallizes and exactly one of those futures becomes real, all the others will be lost, and with them, dozens of languages I might have learned, countries and cities I might have gotten to know, portfolios in which I might have become a (somewhat dilettantish) expert, people with whom I might have worked. Rather than feeling sorry for that loss, of course I will instead begin at just that time to get really excited about the one language in which I will get training (because it's required to demonstrate a foreign-language proficiency before the second tour is up, it's guaranteed that my next assignment will include language training), the one place where I will be working, the actual subjects I'll get to learn about and people I'll get to know. I love both types of anticipation.
And it helps that Bongsu and I are having no trouble at all in finding plenty of places on this list where we'd be thrilled to serve for two years. Even after the high-equity bidders (people whose first tours have been in difficult or dangerous places, and who get first choice off the bid list as a reward) have removed some of the cream of the crop, I expect we'll easily be able to choose a top 20 out of which even if we're assigned to one of the lower bids we'd still be very excited and happy about going there.
The Embassy had its biggest event of the year on July 2nd (which, as Ambassador Fulton pointed out in her speech, was the actual date of the Continental Congress voting to sever ties with Britain). National Day receptions are standard big-ticket items on the calendars of every Embassy from every country, and the USA of course is no exception.
It was actually the second such event I've been to; when I was studying in Vienna, I had the opportunity to attend the 4th of July reception in Zagreb, Croatia. But that was as a guest, and this time I was there to work. It's an interesting distinction. There were various food tents that I never visited, being too occupied with my assignment of helping draw people into the party and, when needed, away from the Ambassador (who has to greet hundreds of people as they arrive, so no one can be allowed to monopolize her with a long conversation).
My role was one of the smallest, of course, but from what I could see I think it was a pretty successful event. The first of many!
Since my last post was about an atypical day at work, I thought I'd hit you with what a typical day looks like.
I wake up a little before seven. Lately it's been nice because the sun is already shining. The Embassy is about a five minute walk from my place, and I try to get there around eight o'clock. That gives me some time to check e-mail and get my workstation set up before the day starts. If one of my colleagues hasn't already done it, I print the list of the day's visa applicants and take it out to the security guards so they can get into the building. The first appointments are at 8:15, which begins a solid four or five hours of interviewing. We have about 50 applicants a day, and most interviews last less than five minutes, with a few complicated cases taking much longer.
After lunch, there might be a couple more interviews for people who came unprepared in the morning and had to return with more documents, but for the most part it is other types of work. It's very self-directed, which I think is a cool thing about my boss's management style: as long as he sees that everything is getting done, he doesn't worry about what time I spend on what tasks. Answering e-mails from the public is always an option, since we get between ten and thirty a day. Most are routine and the answer can be copied and pasted right from our Web site, but there are always people with odd situations that need a little more research to find the appropriate regulation to cite or advice to give. Aside from e-mails, I spend some of the afternoon on long-term projects, such as the semiannual Consular Fraud Report which I'm working on now, or figuring out why the software program still thinks there are some open cases from 2002, which I wrapped up recently. The other main activity in the afternoons is processing pending visa applications: sometimes an application is fine except for a missing document or piece of information, and the applicant sends it along later, so we can take the case from the file and approve the visa; in other cases, a particular applicant or type of visa requires us to do additional processing and clearance procedures. For example, if an applicant was convicted of embezzlement twenty years ago, she would be ineligible for a visa; but if she otherwise qualifies for the visa and is not likely to engage in any criminal behavior in the US, then we can request a waiver of her ineligibility, which has to be approved by the Department of Homeland Security. So DHS eventually (sometimes within a couple days, sometimes weeks later, depending on how complicated and serious the ineligibility is) lets us know if the waiver is approved, and we take the case out of the file and issue the visa if it was approved; otherwise we return the applicant's passport without a visa. There are also cases where we just don't know what the regulations are (or how to interpret them) for very unusual situations, and we appeal to the experts in Washington.
The variety keeps things pretty interesting, and five o'clock usually comes along pretty quickly. In my last private-sector job, I was impressed with the workplace for keeping my interest -- in all the time I worked there, I never dreaded going in to work or stopped enjoying what I was doing. Consular work in Denmark is even more like that. I try to wrap things up for the day by five-ish, which is usually possible because we're pretty good at keeping on top of the things that need to be done right away, and whatever else I'm dealing with can mostly be left for tomorrow. Sometimes I even manage to clear my desk, leaving myself with a fresh start the next day. I go home each evening knowing that I put in a good day's work, made a positive impact on several people's lives, and helped to safeguard the borders of the USA.
There must be a place somewhere on the chain of command where there is a perfect balance. As you rise, you get more exciting work and higher prestige, but the stress and responsibility also increase. If you could work out the conversion rate and graph the two functions on the same field, adjusting them by a personal-preference constant that would be different for each individual, then you could find out where that perfect balance is. I wonder if I'm already there.
Today I teamed up with my friend in the Political section who will be switching jobs with me this November to give a presentation to an American Studies class from Niels Brock College. Spencer started it off with a 15-minute presentation in fluent Danish about the history of US/Denmark relations, after which I briefly talked about visas, and then we spent the rest of the hour in Q&A. They asked a lot of questions about our lives and experiences as diplomats, both in terms of how we viewed living in Denmark and what was different between Denmark and the US, and also about things like how our assignments are determined and why we got into this career.
I was glad that most of the show was driven by audience questions, because I had about twenty minutes to prepare for my part of it. I had signed up a couple of months ago, but the schedule had changed from the original date and the last update I'd received was that they would let me know when a new date was determined. I had planned not to start working on a presentation until I knew when it would happen, and then this morning someone from Public Affairs came by while I was interviewing to confirm that I was ready for the presentation at 14:00. Apparently they had rescheduled and forgot to tell me, but I am flexible. I had actually planned to meet a visiting executive from Scandinavian Airlines at, you guessed it, 14:00, to show him how our visa application process works on the inside and answer questions they have about the new online application form. But luckily, one of the Danish employees in the NIV section took over that (and did a better job of it than I would have done), leaving me to make just a brief appearance to shake the guy's hand and forget his name while Spencer flew solo for a couple of questions at our presentation.
At the end, the students gave us each a box of Danish chocolates, which is always welcome.
Henry Kissinger gives us a really thick book about, first, the ebb and flow of international relations among the European superpowers from Richelieu to World War Two, and then, the prosecution of American foreign policy through the period of the Cold War. I just finished reading it, having assigned it to myself as homework (along with a shelf of other diplomacy books) when I passed the Foreign Service Exam.
The book's mission as outlined above involves going over a lot of history, much of which I was already familiar with, but in a way that ties it together usefully - although at a level of simplification, imposed of necessity by the need to keep the book under a thousand pages, that occasionally calls into question the accuracy of the author's perception of national, not to say global, events, and compels him at other times to omit some ideas that might enhance understanding of the book's themes.
In addition to the history lessons, there were a fair amount of facts that were new to me, correlations I had not drawn myself, and insights into motivations with potential applications to analogous present and future situations - enough of these that it always seemed worthwhile to me to keep reading.
The second part of the book, about the Cold War, naturally enough included a good deal more of the autobiographical; a couple of chapters seemed more directed at answering the many critics of Kissinger's policies while in office than at informing the student of international relations.
One of Kissinger's main philosophical premises throughout the book is that American foreign policy has, throughout the period of the nation's international engagement, been what he terms "legalistic" or "Wilsonian" - i.e., (perhaps excessively) focussed on allegedly universal principles. Americans have internalized Kant's assertion: "Das Problem der Staatserrichtung ist, so hart wie es auch klingt, selbst für ein Volk von Teufeln (wenn sie nur Verstand haben), auflösbar. [The problem of state-building is, hard as it seems, solvable even for a race of devils - if only they have reason.]" And the American ideology applies this not only to relations among individuals in the state, but to the relations among states (and their constituent individuals) in the international system.
You know, along those lines, I always remember my reaction to the Dayton talks that ended the Bosnian War. Specifically, the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina that came out of those talks has specific provisions relating to the various ethnic groups, such as the three-member presidency with one member from each group. At the time, although recognizing that this type of explicitly-defined power-sharing solved a lot of Bosnia and Herzegovina's particular problems, I thought it strange that such an arrangement should be not only written into law but into the constitution itself. Of course, I was only 15 at the time, but I do still feel that a Constitution "should" be a law of fundamental, universal applicability. I had a similar reaction to a complex arrangement outlined by Betsy John at Vienna in 2000 for securing global peace by a system of overlapping geographic, economic and cultural groupings. That system might have worked, but it lacked the elegance of a framework that would be eternally and universally pertinent, regardless of the vagaries of shifting relative economic strength or regionally dominant powers.
So I don't know if I came by these "legalist" criteria for evaluating solutions by growing up American, or if I'm just naturally the sort logic-driven, Enlightenment-era rationalist personality type to whom universal principles naturally appeal. Both, probably.
Moving back to the book review. It would seem presumptive of me, with a seven-year-old bachelor's degree in International Relations and a scant ten months' experience in the Foreign Service, to dispute the conclusions of the former Secretary of State. I do take issue with some of his analysis, mostly from a perspective of interpretation, but I'll save specific arguments for when I meet him. ;)
In the meantime, one quibble that I will allow myself to express here is basically stylistic. Kissinger is constantly discussing what "would have happened" if country X had adopted policy Y, often in ways that seemed to me, subjectively, to be somewhat smug - as if the author would have done a better job at running international relations than the leaders he writes about. This is made more annoying when, at one point, he dismisses intellectual historical what-iffing as pointless, then goes on to continue engaging in it every couple pages for the rest of the book. Kissinger's leitmotif of defending the idea that countries should follow their "national interest" had lead him to defend a historical course of action that, in his own analysis, increased the likelihood of conflict, but he casually passes over that analysis as a meaningless conjecture - whereas, by implication, all the conjectures he does not qualify in that way must, I guess, be quite meaningful.
Another question that gave me food for thought throughout the book was this very concept of national interest. Kissinger likes the phrase "balance of power." His thesis is that Americans often ignore the fact that nations have interests and should pursue those rather than vague universal principles that leave themselves open to subjective interpretation in various situations. But he does not explore the question of where the national interest comes from, beyond the conception of it as territorial expansion and control over resources in the sections on colonial-era European diplomacy. He notes that this understanding of national interest must be revised in the post-colonial world, but does not really answer, from what I could glean, the question as to what new definition should replace it. Nonetheless, countries should still be out for their own national interests.
For instance, at one point Kissinger seems to suggest that the United States should oppose any future developments that might lead to another country or combination of countries (Europe, Russia, an alliance between Japan and China...) to supersede it as the predominant global power, even to the extent of weakening both sides through direct confrontation, as long as we have a good chance of keeping the number one position. Does that hold water? Is our goal, in fact, to promote global peace and progress, or is it to hold on as long as possible to the top place on the scoreboard in a giant real-life version of Risk? I realize my phrasing of the question is leading, but actually I can see the merits both points of view, although I think this is one of those where it can't be had both ways - obviously, to a very large extent, we can do both (policies geared toward maintaining US leadership are also the very policies that will make our country and the world more peaceful and more productive), but philosophically, a mutually exclusive choice between the two outlooks can be easily envisioned. As for my own opinion, I think the UK is in a pretty good position now, for example, despite having lost an empire that covered a quarter of the globe. On the other hand, as another great man once said, "I am an American."
Ambassador Laurie Fulton introduced the President of the United States (POTUS) to a group of about fifty Embassy employees.
President Obama gave a brief speech thanking those of us lucky enough to be at that gathering for all the hard work that the entire Embassy had been doing to support his visit to Denmark and all the other aspects of the U.S. delegation to the Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. He mentioned that he was glad to be able to meet some of us, since he hadn't been able to do that when he was here a couple months ago to support Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics. He said how important it was to him to meet some of us, because he wanted to show that we have a President who understands the importance of the Foreign Service and its mission of promoting diplomacy in all parts of the globe. (He did try to manage our expectations, though, saying that although this was his third trip to Scandinavia in the last three months, he might not be able to come here quite that frequently throughout the rest of his presidency.)
I had come over to the Bella Center, the convention hall where the conference takes place, with both of my Consular FSO colleagues at about 10:30. We were expecting to be gathering for the "meet and greet" at 13:40, but wanted to make sure we could get through the long lines and potential transportation delays. The trains ran fine, and when we got there we got an update saying the event would start at 13:00 and we should meet at a specified place at 12:15. We walked around a bit, had some lunch, and looked at some of the different places in the convention center.
This banner is at the entrance to the Bella Center.
The U.S. Center, with an animated globe that shows how climate change affects the earth.
The meet and greet was postponed several times, and seemed like it might be cancelled altogether, as the POTUS got involved in the high-level negotiations and his schedule kept getting busier. During the wait, we did get to watch his speech to the plenary session on one of the closed-circuit televisions.
I also watched the speeches of Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but I admit I didn't pay attention to any of the other world leaders. Shortly after Obama addressed the conference, it was announced that our event was moved back again to 14:30 and we dispersed. But not long after that, our Deputy Chief of Mission saw me walking the halls and said it had been moved forward again and we should gather immediately.
We dodged through the crowd to reach our designated meeting point, where Secret Service agents conducted us through a labyrinth of back rooms and kitchens to a small meeting room where there was a lectern on the other side of a rope. After we had arranged ourselves, the Ambassador came in, followed by the leader of the free world. Following his short speech, he made sure to shake the hand of each person in the room, including mine. Everyone applauded and wished him success with the climate negotiations. Barack Obama is a truly inspiring leader, and I hope I will be able to live up to the high expectations that he has for those of us who work for him.
We've been here two months now. They've gone by so quickly!
We arrived on a cold, gray, rainy day. Copenhagen has a lot of those, and it's always nice to be inside and warm and dry, looking out the windows at the shivery rain on the cobblestone streets. Since we arrived the days have been getting shorter and now the sun is only out about eight hours a day. When I go to work around 8am the sky is just starting to cobalt, reflected in the pools of rain on the sidewalks in front of the dress stores, the bakeries, the antique shops.
It's a five-minute walk from our apartment to the Embassy. When I get there every morning I go through the little security outbuilding and into the main building, then down the hall to the Consular section. I have my own office, but I spend more time at the visa interview window. We see all kinds of different visa applicants. Although Danes can travel to the US for up to 90 days for tourism without a visa, they are still the most common nationality of our applicants, whether they want to stay longer or get a different type of visa for work, study, etc. I've also interviewed people from all over the world who happen to be in Denmark for one reason or another and want to go to America. It's important to understand, for each case, the type of visa that would be appropriate, what the qualifications are for that type of visa, and whether the applicant meets those qualifications. So it's very bureaucratic, but there's also a big element of detective work and, in the end, a lot of judgment calls. The wide variety of applicants keeps the work always interesting.
In addition to doing all the non-immigrant visa (NIV) interviews in Copenhagen, I'm in charge of running our NIV unit - updating our procedures and work flow, coordinating with Washington on unusual visa cases, and managing two Danish employees and two Americans who got jobs in the consular section while their spouses are assigned to the embassy. They all have their own roles in the visa process (communicating with the applicants to answer questions, managing the appointments schedule, data entry, printing the actual visas, and a wide range of other important parts), plus they continuously help me understand how to do my job. It's interesting being the "boss" of people who have been doing this far longer than me and know a lot of things I don't. I'm trying to share my own knowledge with them so that they can be as helpful to my successor as they have been to me. My own boss the Consul is probably my most important mentor. He's been a consular officer in Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Bangladesh and Iraq. The amount of immigration law and regulations he can retain in his head is almost scary. The consular section that he runs consists of me and my staff, another first-tour officer who is in charge of immigrant visas and services for American citizens in Denmark, his staff, and a couple other locally hired employees. It's a very fun team to work with; everyone is enthusiastic about doing a good job.
There's also a lot to do outside of work. We had Thanksgiving dinner with my boss, his family, the other vice-consul, and a few other guests from the Embassy and expat community. They had a great traditional American feast. We've also been enjoying walking around Copenhagen. There are lots of parks. We've been to the Danish National Gallery of Art and another famous art gallery that was founded by Carlsberg beer founder J. C. Jacobsen. We've visited Rosenborg Castle, previous residence of the royal family which is now a museum exhibiting the crown jewels of Denmark and other national treasures, with each room devoted to a different former monarch. We've gone to the top of the Round Tower, a 17th-century astronomical observatory. We've walked on Copenhagen's celebrated pedestrian shopping street and visited the symbol of the city, the statue of the Little Mermaid in the harbor. There is still a huge amount to see and do, but what we've already seen has been great so far.
There's a lot of paperwork involved. The key document for transferring to a new post is something called the TM-4, or "travel orders". It takes the form of a cable and specifies who is going where for what job and for how long, how to get there, and what resources are available to take care of people and property before, during and after the transfer. Any time you try to tap into those resources, you need to fill out a form and provide a copy of the travel orders.
Our travel orders allowed us to have the movers come on September 18, pack up all of our stuff and put it in two categories: four huge boxes to send by airplane, and three giant shipping crates with the furniture and other things we can live without for a while, to send by boat. Then the orders let us stay in a hotel in DC for ten days, which was a mixed experience - I had reserved a room at a boutique hotel thinking it would be nicer than one of the big chains, but we were disappointed and ended up going through a lot of hassle to move to a Hilton. On the other hand, we did enjoy being right in the District with access to restaurants and things.
The next thing our orders allowed us to do was to spend two days in New York City, because we have "consultations" (State Department lingo for "meetings") with the Department of Homeland Security before going to a first tour as a consular officer. Those who go to Europe have the DHS consultations in the Big Apple. The meetings themselves didn't take up too much time, so it was a lovely trip for me and Bongsu. Then, finally, the magic travel orders had us board a flying machine in New York and get off the following day in Copenhagen, where we were met at the airport by our Embassy sponsor and driven through the rain to a hotel where we stayed for the first two weeks here.
After our own apartment was ready, we moved in and a couple days later received our UAB ("unaccompanied air baggage" - the four sarcophagi of air freight mentioned above), followed a few weeks later by the HHE ("household effects" - the sea freight). When the HHE arrived, the delivery truck had one of those elevator vehicles which they used to hoist everything up to our third-floor apartment. Luckily we have one large window that opens and everything was able to fit in there. And thus we arrive at the beginning of our adventure.
For my second five-week bridge assignment, I worked in the Legislative Reference Unit of the State Department's Bureau of Legislative Affairs (also known as H, for "[Capitol] Hill").
What with the timing of office turnover and work to be done, there were some days when they didn't really have much for me to do. On the one hand, that meant that I was occasionally underutilized; on the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to seek out assignments in various parts of the office and not get stuck in a routine. So I was able to help with a lot of aspects of the work that H does as liaison between State and the Congress: sifting through legislation to identify reports that Congress wants to receive from the Department, sending taskings to the varoius regional and functional bureaus that could prepare those reports or answer questions from Senators and Representative, maintaining databases, and so on.
Most excitingly, I even got a chance to help to prepare for a briefing on the current situation and future possibilities in Iraq by Amb. Christopher Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Sen. John Kerry. I also got to attend the briefing and help take notes. Ambassador Hill is one of the most inspirational people in the State Department for me; before becoming the Obama administration's Ambassador to Iraq, he served as the principal U.S. negotiator in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, having previously been a very successful Ambassador to South Korea. So that was definitely one of the coolest experiences of my time in DC.
It turns out I wasn't finished with FSI training after all - when arranging my arrival in Copenhagen with my future boss, he suggested that I add one more course onto my training schedule, and my boss in my second bridge assignment graciously allowed me to take a few days off for it.
The three-day course focused on what services the U.S. Embassy can provide to Americans who become the victim of a serious crime while abroad. A major part of it was on how to interview and talk to someone who might be a victim of domestic abuse, which unfortunately is something many consular officers will have to do on a regular basis. Although I may thankfully never have to be part of such cases, there's always the possibility that I will, and the course definitely made me feel a little bit more confident that I'd be able to muddle through. It would be a lot of responsibility, of course, but fortunately the embassy is not the principal resource for victims, as of course consular officers are not trained as social workers.
Some of the stories from the Victims Assistance course were pretty sobering, but I'm still excited about moving overseas again!
My A-100 classmates and I are just a dozen days away from the milestone of six full months as Foreign Service Officers. Ever since May we've been saying goodbye as some of us headed off to various posts worldwide, and now quite a few of us are out there. It's been great to hear some of the experiences our friends are having in Niger, Korea, Canada, Italy, and so on and so forth.
We aren't the newest generation in the State Department anymore either. The 145th and the 146th have come and gone, some of them are even out at post by now, and the 147th is at FSI now, looking forward to their Flag Day on the 31st.
Meanwhile, I've had my chance to experience some changes as well. As reported in the previous update, I finished my classroom training over a month ago. Since then I have been keeping busy, moving on to my OJT (On-the-Job Training) at HST (the Harry S Truman Building, also known as Main State). Not all FSOs get OJT as part of their initial training, so I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity.
This was my desk for the past five weeks. As a matter of fact, it was the first time in my life that I've had my own office, with a door and everything. The office is in a suite of rooms in HST occupied by the Office of Nordic and Baltic Affairs, which is part of the Bureau of European Affairs. Working in EUR/NB was a great experience. I learned a lot (about how the building works, what Washington expects from us at our Embassies abroad, what a future DC tour might be like, and not least, how to write for the State Department). I met some great colleagues, with whom I hope I'll have other opportunities to work together in the future. And I felt again the satisfaction of being productive, making an actual contribution - you know... working!
For the first two weeks of my mini-tour, I filled in for the Denmark/Iceland Desk Officer. The previous incumbent had already left for his next post, and his replacement hadn't arrived yet. That was an incredible opportunity, and it was fascinating to follow the reporting coming out of Copenhagen - basically consuming the stuff that I will soon be producing. It was great timing, too, because I was able to help out with our new Ambassador's preparations for departure - she had just received Senate confirmation before I started, and she arrived in Denmark on July 29.
After the new desk officer started, I had three weeks of generally helping out with the EUR/NB portfolio of eight countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia). I contributed to all sorts of really fascinating projects, including some drafting, which was a great opportunity to learn first-hand about the writing style that this bureaucracy needs. Fortunately the people in the office are all great editors, and great at mentoring in general - people were continually finding interesting projects that I could work on, telling me about their own career paths, giving me advice about what to do once I get to Copenhagen, and generally getting me some exposure to an exciting side of real Foreign Service life.
It seems somewhat common for people in this career to look down on tours in Foggy Bottom. "I didn't join the FOREIGN service to stew in D.C.," they say, or they make snide remarks about ladder-climbers who keep coming back to domestic assignments just for the career-enhancing networking opportunities they provide. I do not subscribe at all to this view. In the admittedly limited exposure I've had to State Department HQ, I found it to be a great working environment, full of people totally committed to working with foreign diplomats, other US government agencies, our Embassies abroad, and the general public to advance our worldwide foreign policy goals.
This is where policy is made; when we get to post, we are taught repeatedly, we can recommend actions to Washington, but the final decision-making happens here, and the people in Washington tell the embassies abroad what to do, not the other way around. This is also the one place where the world comes together into a big picture; each post is responsible for the relationship with one country, but here in offices like mine we have a team of people working on a whole region and seeing how it fits together. One floor up are teams of people looking at larger regions and issues that span the globe. All this, and it's also a really fun place to work. I do hope to serve here in the future, so don't think you're finally getting rid of me for good just because I'm a diplomat now!
As of today, I've finished the last course of my initial training at the Foreign Service Institute. My final class was the three-week course on how to be a political officer (the second year of my rotation at Embassy Copenhagen). It was definitely a high point of the overall instruction.
One of the best aspects was a good overview of basic economics. Through lectures and a book ("Naked Economics" by Charles Wheelan) we got just enough of an introduction to speak somewhat comfortably about international economics.
In the second week, we had opportunities to practice various skills of an embassy's political section. We prepared three-minute briefings on a topic related to our destination countries (mine was on the Danish government's environmental policies), wrote and revised cables reporting to Washington, created and presented a PowerPoint on the destination country's economy, and practiced "elevator briefings" (the subtle art of boiling down a complex issue to a sixty-second explanation that one could give to a VIP during the ride in the elevator down to the meeting room). They also showed us some technology, ranging from a pretty cool wiki that the US government uses to share sensitive and classified information between various agencies, to the sometimes bizarrely counterintuitive program that we use for writing and sending "cables" to the Department.
During the Pol/Econ course I was also able to join a meeting the Danish Embassy in DC held for various U.S. diplomats who will be going to Copenhagen this year. My friend Spencer, who passed the FSOA with me and was in the A-100 class right before mine, helped set that up for me. It will be fun working with him in Denmark. The embassy lunch meeting was a great chance to hear the Danish point of view on issues ranging from the climate change conference to prospects for economic recovery in the EU to the best way of keeping a healthy lifestyle in Copenhagen. It was also a good opportunity to enjoy real smørrebrød prepared by a professional Danish chef.
Another highlight was a briefing by Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, State's Director of Policy Planning. She said that she enjoys meeting new officers and encouraged us to go out and have great careers. She also gave us some insights into Secretary Clinton's major speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this week, and into the general style and substance of the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy.
While we were at the main State Department building for the meeting with Dr. Slaughter, I also had a chance to meet with one of the coordinators for our delegation to the climate change conference in December. In general, I've been impressed with how easy it is to make appointments with all kinds of different people who have information that might help me in Denmark, and how happy they are to take the time to share that information. People have prepared print-outs of briefing info for me, talked about the kind of reporting they need to receive back from post, what I can do to make their jobs easier and what I can do to make my own work more rewarding. It seems like a great atmosphere at the Department. Which is good, because another office I checked in on that day was the Office of Nordic and Baltic Affairs in the European Bureau, where I'll be working for five weeks starting on Monday. I introduced myself to the receptionist, confirmed that they're expecting me, and checked out the room that she thinks will probably be my office. I am most definitely looking forward to being productive again - while I've enjoyed learning new things for the past 20 weeks, it will be nice to feel like I'm making a contribution, and earning the salary on which the government is spending your tax dollars.
During the final week of A-100, DACOR invited the 144th (along with our spouses) to a reception at their cool historic house near the State Department building. In addition to having this beautiful old house for members' use, DACOR holds various forums and lectures, and also parties for new FSOs, FS Specialists, and new Ambassadors at the completion of their Ambassadorial Seminar at FSI.
In that they are justly proud of their wonderful edifice, DACOR is kind of the Di-Phi of the Foreign Service. Alternatively, the Foreign Service itself is kind of like Di-Phi (incredibly bright people who take themselves very seriously), in which case DACOR is analogous to the Foundation. Either way, it seemed like a cool thing to join, and Bongsu and I became DACOR members after our A-100 reception a couple months ago.
As such, this evening we attended the reception for the most recent Ambassadorial Seminar. Most hilarious moment: the Ambassador-designate to [Redacted], on being introduced to me and hearing that I am headed to Copenhagen, assumed that I was going there as the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark. I had to explain that I will actually just play the role of the bureaucrat behind the Non-Immigrant Visa window, and that Ambassador-designate Laurie Fulton had her confirmation hearing before the Senate yesterday. As soon as I started to explain, Amb. [name redacted] caught up to speed very quickly, but it was good for a laugh all around.
Another amazing moment came near the end of the party. I was talking with a guy whose name I am annoyed with myself for not having gotten, and in the way of small-talk mentioned that I was from North Carolina. He responded that he had only been to that state a few times, for work, having made several visits to Fayetteville in connection with some military cooperation work, and also a couple trips to Chapel Hill when the State Department was trying to interest the Kenan-Flagler Business School in setting up a satellite campus in Qatar in the middle east. I was amazed to hear that, since I was a UNC student at the time and, as University Columnist for The Daily Tar Heel, had broken the story and dedicated a couple of my columns to supporting the Qatar campus. So, we got a chance to reminisce together about the goal we didn't even know we were working on together. (Now, almost eight years later, there is still no business school satellite campus in Qatar, and it doesn't look like there will be, despite the great effort of the guy at the party and my small contributions.)
I also enjoyed chatting with some of the non-career political appointees. Those I spoke with seemed very well-qualified to lead a large team working on a vitally important mission. Given that Fulton herself is a non-career political appointee, I was glad to see how comfortably I am able to accept the authority of such people. To be honest, actually, I'm not sure I fully agree with the argument that career ambassadors would be preferable; in the private sector, after all, you don't usually hear much complaining when a top executive is hired from outside the firm. Anyway! I don't intend to get into this complex issue at the moment. For a discussion on that topic, the comments to this post at Hegemonist.com raise most of the important aspects and points of view.
Anyway, the party itself was fun. Bongsu and I both enjoyed wearing a suit and mingling with interesting people and asking them about their lives while drinking mediocre wine and eating hors d'oeuvre . We are happy to find that we like this kind of event, as we have been led to expect that we'll have many, shall we say, "non-declinable opportunities" to go to similar things in the future.
After ConGen, which ended on a Tuesday, I had three more "gap days" to close out the week. On the Wednesday, I was proactive and found a one-day course called "Managing Change" up for which I was able to sign. We all received a copy of the book "Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change" by William Bridges, which is all about dealing with major changes that happen on the personal, team or organizational level. A lot of the course dealt with leadership strategies; how to help your subordinates or your team get through a difficult change, how to communicate upcoming changes to them, etc. Communication seemed to be the main message of the entire day - change is inevitable, but in order to maintain your credibility as a leader, it is key to keep people informed and to be honest about what you know, what you don't know, and what they can expect.
By the way, a lot of the course reinforced what I've learned from the book my Uncle Joe is writing about resilience. His start-up company, Arctos Associates (http://www.get-resilient.com/), identifies seven traits that lead to resilience: Perseverence, Compassion, Humor, Confidence and Flexibility, all supported by a foundation of Honesty, and giving rise to a sense of Balance or perspective. Humor was one trait that several people brought up in my "Change" course as being important to help them adapt to change, as well as Honesty.
In addition to learning about how humans physically deal with change and stress, we also talked a bit about positive changes. The main focus of the course obviously was on how to overcome difficult changes, but in my case, for example, when we did exercises about a change we are dealing with now I could only think of a very positive one (getting a wonderful new job and moving to Denmark). But one point that the instructor made repeatedly was that "all change involves loss", and as I looked more deeply into my analysis I could find some elements of joining the Foreign Service that I might find difficult (mostly, having significantly less control over my own life: I'll be living in assigned housing, for example, and not engaging in political activities). Obviously, these drawbacks are minor compared to the huge advantages, but it does make sense, I think, to look at them directly and think about how to make them even less of an issue. It probably wouldn't be particularly damaging to say "yeah, that part's annoying, but overall it's great" - I could definitely get by on that attitude. But it would be even better if I am able to address the annoying parts right away, move through the stages of grief, and instead of being, say, up seventy percent and down five, something like up seventy and down one. Does that make sense?
Anyway, it makes enough sense to me that I'm glad I spent a day in the course. If I ever have a chance I will definitely sign up for an Arctos course as well, and not just because of the family connection! ^^
All entry-level Foreign Service Officers, regardless of their "cone" or career track, are required, during either their first or second tour, to spend at least one year working in a Consular section at a post abroad. This is the section where people come in to apply for a visa to enter the United States, and also the section that provides services for American citizens abroad in the post's "consular district". I am very excited about my assignment in Copenhagen, which is a rotational assignment giving me first one year in a Consular position and then one year as a Political officer (my cone is Political).
The consular requirement makes great sense for a lot of reasons. First, it is one of the largest segments of the Foreign Service, because there is so much work to be done. It's also some of the most important work that we do abroad; American Citizen Services (ACS) is one of the main reasons for having an official U.S. government presence in other countries in the first place, and vitally important to protect the interests of Americans throughout the world, especially as more and more people do travel internationally. Visa adjudication, meanwhile, is of course a vital step in protecting our national security, as well as ensuring that foreigners who are legally eligible to enter the U.S. can do so as easily as is practicable. So it's important to have enough people filling these positions and doing this vital work.
Another good reason for the consular requirement is that it's great experience. After a year of visa interviews, I expect to be much better at figuring out what people are really thinking when they spin me a yarn, in addition to improving my communication and customer-service skills. It's also a great opportunity because, apparently, "consular officers have the best stories" (an oft-repeated phrase).
The most popular training at FSI, then, is the Basic Consular Course, a six-week seminar that teaches the fundamentals of all the skills needed to do all three types of consular work (ACS, Non-Immigrant Visas, and Immigrant Visas Overseas). It's also known as "ConGen Rosslyn", because the course takes place at an actual Consulate-General of the United States in the fictional city of Rosslyn in the Republic of Z. There is an actual visa interview room in one of the buildings at FSI, as well as an actual jail (a small one with just one cell, but with real bars and real plastic rats). Doing role-plays at the visa interview windows was a lot of fun, although it is not easy to keep track of everything - the piles of paperwork, what the applicants are saying, the various things on the computer screen, and the myriad complexities of immigration law that underlie the whole thing and that must be kept in mind at all times.
At the beginning of the course, they gave us each a copy (to keep) of the 9/11 Commission Report. On the last day, which happened to be my birthday, we had a nice little "graduation" in an FSI hallway. I feel like I still won't be fully prepared until I've been in Copenhagen for a while and have gotten a chance to see the real thing in action, but I'm definitely a lot more confident about starting my consular rotation now that I've got this course under my belt.
This week I had my mandatory two-day "Security Overseas Seminar", thanks to my own ingenuity. I had noticed on my training schedule that I had only one class scheduled this week (the equally mandatory "Medical Emergencies at Post" on Wednesday). Meanwhile, in July I had a couple of weeks free before the SOS course. So I figured out with the online course catalog that SOS was also being offered this week, on days when I happened to have a gap in my training, and I reasoned that if I could move the course up then I could leave for post a whole two weeks earlier.
So I e-mailed my CDO to ask about doing that, and it is a very good thing I did, too, as it eventually led to the discovery that I am NOT actually expected to arrive in Copenhagen as soon as my training is over; instead, they are still expecting me in October as originally listed on our bid list. The July arrival date on my training documentation was just there because whoever put that schedule together was not used to having any time in the pre-departure schedule not filled with training (apparently something that is only recently becoming fairly common). So how does one fill that time? The answer is a thing called a "bridge assignment", where I get to do actual work at the State Department in DC! My excitement at this prospect immediately dispelled any annoyance at having my expectations changed. Plus, I'm actually happy that we have more time in the States to get things done like obtaining my diplomatic passport and working on Bongsu's naturalization.
The end result was that I did indeed move the SOS course up to this week, not so we could leave earlier, but so I could start the bridge assignment earlier. SOS itself was alright; a lot of it had already been covered in A-100 but it is quite important stuff, even for a peaceful place like Denmark, so it was good to go over it again. Same deal with the Medical Emergencies training.
After getting those out of the way early in the week, I still had two more gap days. I had more than enough non-scheduled work to fill Thursday and Friday quite productively. I re-took the speaking part of my German test, which I had asked to be re-graded. I ended up a full level higher than the original score, so I was right in thinking that the first go-around had been mis-graded. I continued to research Denmark and Embassy Copenhagen. I finished a variety of small administrative tasks, including the continuing saga of putting together Bongsu's immigration application. I got a chance to go to the EUR/NB (European Bureau, Office of Nordic and Baltic Affairs) at Main State to meet with the Denmark/Iceland desk officer and (very briefly) the office director. And I spent considerable time continuing to work on setting up those bridge assignments.
Okay, the bridge assignments. When my CDO and I first figured out that I would need to do them, he suggested that I give some idea of where I'd like to work to the person in charge of setting them up. I did that, and she responded that she would get to me as soon as she finished some other cases who would be starting their bridges sooner than I. That sounded good, but I also went ahead and contacted some people I knew in the bureaus where I was most interested in working (the desk officer at EUR/NB and a colleague of our class mentor Amb. Polt in "H", the Bureau of Legislative Affairs). When they responded positively, I forwarded those responses to the person setting up the bridges. I think she may have been a bit defensive, possibly seeing me as overly helpful. It definitely makes sense that their office should be in charge of these things, but it seems an important part of FS culture is "lobbying" for positions that one wants, and I did not especially want to end up in a bridge assignment unrelated to my current or future job goals just because I was being lazy. In the end, I think I struck about the right balance between being proactive and deferring to those whose job it is to put these things together. If I erred on one side, it was probably to take charge of the process too much, but I did work hard always to be polite, to keep all relevant parties informed at every stage, and to recognize their authority -- and in the end, I have ended up with the exact assignments I'm most interested in, so take from that whatever lesson you will.
With generalist orientation over, we in the 144th plunged right in to our "functional training" (training for the actual posts we're going to). On April 20 I started with Europe Intensive Area Studies, a very cool 2-week course that covers the whole continent of Europe. Two other members of my A-100 class were also in the class. Although I've heard around FSI that some of these two-week intensive area studies courses can be hard to sit through, with lots of information that's hard to relate to the specific place you're going to, in our case we were lucky to have instructors who did a great job of tying things together. For example, we had two whole days just on the Balkans, and I don't think any of us in the course are actually heading to a Balkan country, but the context and application to our own countries (for example, as a flashpoint of EU foreign policy) was very well done. Another highlight of the course was our visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where we learned about a hugely significant event in twentieth-century European history and met with a young Austrian man who is working there as an alternative to mandatory military service. It wasn't all history, though; we learned about topics from the institutional structure of the European Union to the working of the welfare state in countries with a strong social safety net to the political future of countries like Turkey and Ukraine.
Another thing about Flag Day at the end of week six was that, in addition to the flags, we each also got a folder with our training schedule for the remainder of our time at FSI, with things like language training and learning about the specific type of work we'll be doing at post. Although the bid list had listed our Copenhagen job as starting in October and requiring proficiency in Danish, my folder said I'd be leaving in July and didn't include any Danish training. (You should be able to guess that I do not already speak Danish.) In the seventh and final week of the orientation class, I felt like there was not enough time to research the post and answer the burning questions I had, such as the meaning of these apparent changes. I admit I was rather impatient with some of the sessions early in the week. In the end, though, I did get the answers I needed; apparently the language requirement had been waived in order to get me there as early as possible. As a local hire not receiving per diem while in DC, I am pretty much in favor of that decision!
This week had a number of exciting sessions, including meeting with Amb. William Burns, Under-Secretary for Political Affairs. The best, of course, was Friday, when we were formally sworn in by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Seating was alphabetical, which put me pretty much front and center, able to overhear Larry muttering "Oh cut it out" while being praised at length during his introduction. As the only career FSO ever to serve as Secretary, Eagleburger is a hero among professional diplomats. The swearing-in also included the orientation class of Foreign Service Specialists, who work alongside us in the embassies and consulates. It was a big day, with Bongsu and both of my parents in attendance.
After the ceremony Bongsu and I went to pay a short visit to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, where I worked until A-100 started. It was great seeing former colleagues in the Continuing Education office. It was a great working environment, and I think I'm justified in sometims missing ASHA a little bit. I learned that my replacement had been hired (actually, promoted from within another department at ASHA), so things will be back to normal for them soon. I was glad that living in the DC area made it possible for me to continue working there right up until the last week before starting at State, so that the transition time was only a month and a half.
The next day, Saturday, we planned to go shopping with my parents. My dad came to pick us up and then stop back at the hotel to get my mom, but when we went up to their hotel room, it turned out to be a surprise party for us. A bunch of Wessel relatives (some from as far away as Vermont!), more college friends than I had seen at one time in years, and even a couple of A-100 classmates were there. It was a wonderful day. I hope many of those same people will be able to visit us in Copenhagen!
This was probably the most difficult week of our Foreign Service Generalist Orientation Course. Not because of language testing (although I did have a tough German exam on Thursday) or trying to keep track of the plethora of information in our classes (although we did have some important meetings this week, including one at the Pentagon and one with the Deputy Secretary of State), but mostly because of the anticipation for Friday, which was "Flag Day"!
I really like the Flag Day tradition. The A-100 class gathers in the gym at FSI, along with many of their spouses, parents, children, friends and others, plus other FSI students who have the free time to attend. All our class coordinators and CDOs are also there, and they get a round of applause. For every post on our final bid list, Amb. Joe Mussomeli, Director of Career Development and Assignments, held up the flag of the country and said a word or two about the particular posting, then called out the name of the person being assigned to that post. There was applause as the winner walked to the front of the room to receive the flag from our class mentor, Amb. Michael Polt (PDAS in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs).
Bongsu and I had prepared a paper showing the flags of all the posts ranked High, Medium-high and Medium on our list. At the beginning of the ceremony, it was announced that no one from our class had received a Low bid, so that meant that Bongsu and my dad (who were in attendance) could be confident that one of the flags on that paper would end up in my hands. It was quite an emotional experience for about the first half of the ceremony, as every now and then one of the flags from the "High" column would come up and go to another classmate.
Eventually they reached the Dannebrog, the flag of the Kingdom of Denmark, for one Consular-Political rotation (meaning that the incumbent works a year in each of those two sections) in Copenhagen. This was one of our top top choices, and one we had talked about at length in the interview with the CDO. When Amb. Mussomeli called my name, Bongsu leapt out of her chair and I had a huge smile as I walked up to receive my flag. Bongsu tried to send a text message to my mom (who was traveling for work and couldn't be there) which ended up as a text saying "Denm" and a second saying "Denmark" (the response was "www").
We keep learning about all kinds of topics. The ones about how foreign policy is made in the interagency process were interesting. Our class continues to ask lots of questions. There are a number of us who ask something at almost every session; I'm afraid I myself end up asking a question at least once or twice a day, although I try not to if I don't think it will be of interest to most other people in th room. The speakers are just so interesting, it's great that we have the opportunity to hear from them!
We also broke out into three sub-classes for some sessions, including a "Composure Under Fire" workshop in which we learned how to field tough questions about U.S. policy, and a "Public Speaking" one in which they recorded us giving a speech on DVD so we can watch ourselves at home and critique what we did well and what we should try to improve. Although those tasks are difficult, I kind of hope that my job will include them, because they can also be an exciting challenge and also, frankly, a lot of fun.
Over the course of A-100 there were four sessions scheduled of "Diplomatic History", but I only attended the third one because I had my Korean, Spanish and German tests scheduled during the others. From what other classmates tell me, the schedulers did a good job of choosing which parts of A-100 I wouldn't mind missing. In any case, my language test scores in all three of those were not high enough to get me off "language probation" (in order to move to the mid-level of the Foreign Service, you need to demonstrate proficiency in at least one foreign language), but my score in each was more than half-way to the required score for that language, meaning even if I get a full course in one language I can still also have a "top-off" course in any of the languages I tested in, even before moving to the mid-level. Without qualifying for a top-off, entry-level officers can only have one language course.
This week's highlight was the three-day offsite retreat at "The Woods" in West Virginia. We were loaded on two buses and driven a couple hours into the mountains for two days of teambuilding exercises and creative problem-solving. The trip also involved meals with our CDOs and class mentor, which involved lots of interesting stories and a little nervousness as we all knew that the CDOs were also using those days to sit down together and make decisions about which of the posts on our bid list each of us would be assigned. On the second evening there was a performance by our musically and dramatically talented members, called the A-100 Follies, which was amazingly good - especially considering they only had a few days to put it all together. The band was especially outstanding. That was followed by a big drinking party. On Friday we all piled back on the buses and came home.
The second week was about as much of a whirlwind as the first. There is so much to learn and most of it is entirely too fascinating; there are still people waiting to ask questions as every session comes to an end. A big focus of Week Two focused on the bid lists that we received at the end of Week One. Today Bongsu and I met my Career Development Officer to discuss our goals and get a bit of a reality check. Actually, it turns out our expectations were perhaps not all that far from reality to begin with, although with a class of 92 people there will be a lot of competition for the top choices on our list. In any case, we know that whatever the assignment ends up being, we'll have a great experience.
The only question I have left is how I can survive waiting over a month to find out what that first post will be! I'm hoping that the continuing flood of new information will help keep me distracted! ^^
Aside from getting to meet a good number of my new colleagues, the exciting thing about Week One was seeing the Bid List. This is a list of posts where the people in our class might go on our first tour. Each post includes a location (an embassy or consulate abroad), job function (mostly Consular [visa interviews and American Citizen Services]), approximate start date, and required language skills.
Because our class is big, our bid list is long, which is great because it really covers the whole world - there's a lot of diversity and so, I am sure, something for everyone! By Wednesday we have to turn in the list with each post ranked High, Medium-high, Medium or Low.
I and my 91 colleagues in the 144th Junior Officer Orientation Class have spent the last two days at the Harry Truman Building (aka "Main Sate") in DC, doing in-processing. Mostly it's been lectures on security and classified information, as well as some on retirement plans, health insurance, and other issues that you would expect to hear about when starting any new job. Also today we had our ID badges made, so we'll be able to get into buildings.
It's been fun to meet everyone and to soak up the atmosphere of the Department. There are displays of photographs and historic artifacts of diplomacy all over.
My only suggestion for improvement, so far, would be that they might have given us a list of each of our classmates' name, career track, hometown and photo. That would have helped with the daunting task of trying to meet 88 other people all at once, plus answering some questions that it seems kind of strange we still don't know the answers to (like our class's ratio of men to women, number of local hires, that kind of thing). I'm undecided as to whether age should also be on that list - I would definitely say yes, but I expect some people would rather not disclose their age.
From what I've been able to glean so far, we seem a diverse and very interesting group. I am greatly looking forward to getting to know everyone better!
It's amazing how a little thing can change the course of a life.
When I was a freshman at UNC, I was hanging out with some Di-Phi classmates and Betsy John mentioned she was going to a presentation about study-abroad opportunities and asked if anyone else was interested in going. I had a couple hours between classes at the time of the meeting, so I decided to tag along. I was interested in the description of one of the programs, a summer term in Vienna studying multilateral diplomacy and international organizations. This ended up being the same program for which Betsy was applying, so even though it was intended for sophomores and juniors, I turned in my application as well. We both ended up in Vienna that summer, and in addition to learning a lot I gained 9 credit hours toward an International Studies major, which I ended up completing for just that reason. So it all came down to a casual remark in a gathering of friends in the lounge in Old East dormitory.
Another example: when Bongsu and I were living in Duck and looking for jobs, my mom's brother Joe "the Bear" Williams suggested that I get in touch with his wife's cousin, an FSO who was then preparing for her next post as the DCM in Embassy Bujumbura, Burundi. The phone call I eventually had with her was the first time I ever learned about how the Foreign Service application process works, and really the first time I started realizing that it might be within my reach as a career. (Of course, it took Bongsu a couple days to convince me fully that I was qualified enough to make it worth registering for the test.)
You never know what's going to happen. It's exciting!
At 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 28, I was at my desk at work adding up the minutes on the agenda for a continuing education program for speech-language pathologists in order to ensure that it was being registered for the correct amount of credit. My iPhone started ringing from its place in the belt-clip on my left hip. It was my wife.
Me: Yoboseyo? [Hello?] Bongsu: You know how we decided to sign another one-year lease on our apartment? Me: Mm-hmm. Bongsu: But we still didn't sign the contract, right? So we can still change? Maybe we have to change to a three-month lease. Me: Okay. Why? Bongsu: Did you check your e-mail? Check your e-mail NOW.
I checked my e-mail.
There it was. In my inbox. The message commonly referred to as "the Call."
I read it three times to make sure, but there was no doubt: it was an offer to join the March 2, 2009 incoming class of Foreign Service Officers in the US Department of State.
WE MADE IT!!!
I really like my current job; I will be sad to leave. But I am more excited than I can say about this new career! I can hardly believe I am just a month away from starting my dream job.
A huge THANK YOU to all the people without whom I would never have been able to earn this offer. I couldn't list all of them, but they include: * my wife Bongsu and her family * my parents and family * my mom's brother's wife's cousin, a current FSO who, back in October 2007, explained the selection process to me on the phone and convinced me to apply * a number of excellent and inspirational professors at UNC * the investigators and witnesses who participated in my security clearance background check, including my supervisor Anne and my colleague Joan, and friends Mac, Brad, Max, Eric, Ryan, and Bill (and maybe others - they didn't tell me who all was contacted) * the people who were in Vienna with me in 2000, when I first realized how exciting diplomacy is * the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies * the BEX examiners and the other candidates who were at State Annex 1 in DC on April 15, 2008 for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment
All these people and many more I haven't listed... this is their success as much as mine. I hope to make them all proud.
Since my last post on the security clearance, I found out that apparently I have not been granted an actual clearance, but rather am now in a kind of nebulous state where the investigation required to grant a clearance is finished, but in order to get the actual formal clearance I have to have the job and be sworn in and so on. Just to set the record straight.
The main difference is that if you have a clearance, it remains active for five years before you need to go through an investigation again; whereas this potential clearance thing only lasts for two years - if, for example, I were not to get an offer by then and then take the test over to get back on the register, I would have to go through a new security investigation. That doesn't sound like much fun, so ideally I'll get the call sooner rather than later. :D
I made it on the list! Now everything that needs to be done, in order for me to become a Foreign Service Officer, has been done: it now depends entirely on how many new FSOs the government needs - and on how many are on the list with higher scores than mine (there is one more thing I can do to affect that, viz raise my own score by passing the German exam, which I will attempt for a second time on December 18).
I am now in the 35th position on the registry of 95 Political career track candidates. Here's hoping the rush of Obama administration appointees takes up Diplomatic Security's clearance-granting resources and prevents too many people with higher scores from popping up ahead of me. ;)
I had a scary couple of moments when I called to enquire about being on the registry. Today marks one month since I was granted the security clearance, so I phoned to see if any progress had been made on getting the Final Suitability Review. At first the answer was the best: "You were just put on the registry on December 2" - but then it quickly became the worst: "You're number 92 on the list." Fortunately, I stuck up for myself, questioning that number several times until we realized that they thought my score was a 5.3 (the minimum passing score)! I assured her that I was pretty sure I had a 5.5, and when she checked (man, THAT was a nervous minute or two), she found I was right and fixed the typo, jumping me up to my rightful place.
The clock has now started; I can stay on the registry until I (hopefully!) get an offer, or until 6/2/2010 (a total of 18 months) before dropping off and being back at the very beginning.
After returning on Monday from a two-week trip to Korea for my brother-in-law's wedding, I called Diplomatic Security again today and was told that, on Thursday Nov. 6, the U.S. government had granted me a Top Secret security clearance. Apparently, this is the highest level of security clearance the government has, but that does not mean I have the same access to information as a CIA director or somebody, since all secret and top secret information is available to anyone only on a need-to-know basis. So the thing is, if the government decides that my job needs me to know something classified, it is now legal for somebody to tell me about it, probably with certain restrictions on the manner of the communication and so forth. Since I don't even have the job yet, I'm not being entrusted with the launch codes just at present.
I found one Web site that says something on the order of 3 million individuals have a security clearance at any given moment. That would be about 1% of the national population. Most of those are military or people working for defense contractors. Top Secret clearance remains active for five years, at which point it has to be renewed with another investigation.
You know, it does feels a bit ironic that my immediate reaction to this news is to run over and throw it up on the Internet. Like maybe I should start practicing being secretive by not telling you that I got my clearance. But I was not told that the clearance itself is a secret, so I guess I can talk about it.
Here's a quick overview of the various steps or hurdles to get past:
Completed: 1. Register for the Foreign Service Officer Test: done, Oct. 2007 2. Take the FSOT: done, Dec. 6 2007 (3. Pass a "Qualifications Evaluation Panel" who review test results and background information and select a predetermined percentage to go on to the next step: passed, March 2008) 4. Take the Foreign Service Oral Assessment: passed, Apr. 15 2008 (you get your results at the end of the day) 5. Obtain medical clearance to travel worldwide: done, Jun. 13 2008 (6. Obtain top secret security clearance: done, November 6, 2008)
Pending: (7. Pass a "Final Suitability Review" which looks at the test, interview, background, security and medical information and makes a final judgment that the candidate is an appropriate fit for the Department) - at this point one is added to the "register" 8. OPTIONAL: Pass a foreign language exam (via phone) to jump to a higher position on the register (9. Receive offer to join an incoming class of new Foreign Service Officers)
So as you see, in my case the process has been going on so far for exactly a year, a month, a week and a day, and six of the nine discrete hurdles are behind us!
It's just over four months since I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment. The next steps: once I get a Top Secret security clearance and a medical clearance for worldwide availability, my name will be listed on a rank-ordered registry of candidates who might get job offers with the State Department.
The medical clearance has involved a fair amount of work. Mine went through normally enough; there was a checkup at the DOS Clinic in DC, followed by an X-ray at an outside clinic, and after a couple months I had my clearance. Bongsu, however, had a bit more work to do because her hemoglobin count was low. Fortunately, just by taking over-the-counter iron supplements she seems to have brought it back up to well within the normal range, so we expect to get her clearance soon as well.
The security check has not involved so much work on my part; there was a long form to turn in on the day of the FSOA, including information about all the places I've ever lived and worked and the names of people who can verify them. The hardest part was letting my current boss and colleagues know that a federal investigator would be visiting the office to interview people about me. I had been a bit worried about how they would react to my pursuing a new career when I just started working here last December, but it turns out I needn't have been: my boss was very excited for me and totally supportive. She's even been involved in the security clearance investigations of other friends, so she knew something about the process. The investigator duly came back in June and talked with me for a while, then with my boss and another colleague for about ten minutes. Of course, I also had to inform everyone else who's ever known me that they might get a similar call; so far I have heard that investigators met with my parents, neighbors in Duck, various friends, Bongsu's family, and of course Bongsu herself in our brand new apartment. I also got a call at one point from the guy in New Hampshire who was trying to confirm my employment at the Highlander Inn (where I worked part-time, about ten hours a week, for just over a month right out of college). Apparently they had no record of me there, although I know I received a W-2 from them. I didn't hear back from that investigator again, so I assume he found someone who remembered me and checked off on that part of my background.
With luck, the next post on this page will be the news about the adjudication of my clearance. When both medical and security clearances are complete, the next step is something called a Final Suitability Review, which apparently is usually fairly quick, before being added to the registry.
What happens next? I passed the Foreign Service Officer Test in December of last year, and the Foreign Service Oral Assessment in April with a score of 5.5 out of 7 (the passing mark is 5.25). But I haven't quite gotten my dream job yet.
In order to be hired as a diplomat, you need to be medically cleared for worldwide availability (that is, you must be free of any medical conditions that require access to first-world health care facilities). You also need to obtain Top Secret security clearance from the federal government. Candidates who complete both clearances are then reviewed by a panel of State Department officials for "Final Suitability"; this panel looks at the clearance investigations, resume and any other pertinent information, and has the final say on who is suitable to become a U.S. diplomat.
Once I pass the Final Suitability Review, I will be put on a register of candidates who selected the Political career track (the other tracks are Public Diplomacy, Economic, Consular, and Management).
They recruit FSOs in classes of between 50 and 100 people (around 10-20 from each of the five registers). There are typically four classes in a year. The registers are sorted first by score and then by the date of joining the registry. So I'll be recruited ahead of anyone already on the list with a 5.3 or 5.4, while anyone who reaches the list after me with a higher score than mine would be offered a place before me. If you haven't been recruited after 18 months on the register, or if you turn down two offers, you drop off and have to start all over again.
My plan is to start all over again anyway as soon as I'm eligible (one year after the first FSOT), trying to get a higher score in a different career track (Public Diplomacy). You are allowed to be on two registers at once, which makes it more likely that the recruiters will get down to your name on one of them. I also plan to try to improve my score by passing a foreign-language test, which would bump my current score up to a 5.67, which would be in a pretty good position on the Political list.
So that's how it came to pass that I'm hopeful for a new job, as much as I love where I am now. I'll be sorry to leave ASHA if I get onto the register and receive an offer, but the skills I've learned here in terms of managing bureaucratic processes and working toward a larger goal, not to mention what I've brought with me from my previous career in teaching English, will serve me well in the future, whatever that future may bring.
I was signed up to take the FSOT in Raleigh on December 6. In the months before the exam, I studied compulsively, reading books and articles on management theory, American history, economics, public relations, current events and geography. At the same time, I did not neglect my job search, the result of which was that my first day at ASHA was scheduled for December 17. As much as I expected to like working there, I was not about to give up on the Foreign Service, so after Bongsu and I found an apartment in Rockville, we drove to Chapel Hill for the exam (I'd chosen the Raleigh location with the idea that there might be regional quotas, and that North Carolina might be less competitive than DC).
So I gave the test my best shot, again not really thinking that I would get to the next step, let alone all the way to a job as a diplomat. Most successful applicants end up having to go through the process multiple times before getting an offer. Right after the exam, I was full of beans - all that nervous tension let out (because even as I expected nothing, I couldn't deny to myself that I knew there was at least a chance, after all...), the memory of several questions that I thought were probably considered "hard" but that I was sure I'd gotten right, the memory of others that I didn't know the difficulty of but did know I had answered with a total shot in the dark, the feeling that I'd nailed the essay section....
As I started getting into the rhythm of being a bureaucrat in a professional association, furnishing our nice new apartment in Rockville, and living a normal life, I again let that enthusiasm fade away. I was still conscious of a slight chance that I'd passed and would be going on to the next step, but I didn't invest much time in thinking or planning for that. The fact is, I've never been happier in my work than I am right now at ASHA. Every day since I started, I have actually wanted to go to the office - the projects I work on keep my interest, and I feel like my work makes a valuable contribution to the association's mission of making effective communication accessible to everyone.
So for three months, I scarcely worried about the State Department until one day in March when, out of the relatively blue, I got a letter saying that I had passed the FSOT and the Qualifications Examination Panel (which reviews your test scores and resume, a step in the process over which the candidate has no control), and that I should now schedule my FS Oral Assessment, a full day of role plays, interviews, writing practice and other activities to gauge the candidates' aptitude for a diplomatic career.
I threw myself into preparation for the assessment, which I signed up for on the second-earliest possible day (Tuesday, April 15) - the less time to wait, the less nervous I would be able to get before I got there. In the intervening month, I read State Department Web sites during down time at work, attended practice sessions with other local candidates, started exercising for 30 minutes every morning to work off some excess adrenaline, read everything I could on various online forums related to the FSOA, attended an information session with a mid-level FSO, and made Bongsu read me more interview questions than she had for all my actual job interviews put together. I took both Monday and Tuesday off work, so I would have a three-day weekend to prepare.
One of the best things about the FSOA is that you learn the results before you leave the assessment center. At the end of the day, I was able to call Bongsu with the wonderful news that I had passed the assessment.
Well, almost as soon as I arrived in Japan, everything did change. I met Bongsu at the guest house for foreigners where I stayed while looking for an apartment in Tokyo. We connected by talking about her native Korea, and I quickly decided on a second year in Japan to stay around her. During that second year, we got engaged and decided to come back to America together, where I might find some career prospects that would provide more fulfillment, more long-term prospects and more opportunities for advancement beyond a tiny fixed annual salary increase. That decision was not easy, since it meant she would be leaving the doctoral program in Visual Communication Design that she'd started at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, but we figured we'd give America one chance to prove to us whether she really was the Land of Opportunity.
So began a long six months of staying with my parents again (now in Duck, North Carolina) and looking for any job that had anything to do with teaching, international experience, training programs or the like. A lot of the jobs I applied to were extreme long shots - things I knew I didn't meet the written qualifications for, but that I thought I would be able to do well if they randomly decided to interview me anyway, and that looked like a lot of fun. The other half, on which I spent much more time customizing my resume and polishing the cover letters, I regarded as serious possibilities.
It was during this time, on September 8, 2007, that Bongsu and I were married in Duck.
In trying to see what my connections could do for me, I spoke on the phone with a distant relative whose career as a diplomat has been very successful. That conversation, along with intense discussions with my wife, convinced me that I might have a chance at my dream job after all, and so the longest of the long-shot application was when I submitted the online registration for the Foreign Service Officer Test. At the time, despite Bongsu's overwhelming confidence in me, I didn't really expect anything to come of it; I was actually surprised they even let me register for the written test (considering how my "slacker" phase had affected my college GPA).
When the time came to take that exam, I had just reached the crest of my job-hunting - I'd been to several interviews in the past few weeks, one of which looked like they would be making me an offer soon, and another of which had even already done so. Partly because the salary was better but mostly because I knew I would enjoy working there, I had already accepted that offer, as a Continuing Education Provider Services Manager at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.