Saturday, March 24, 2007

Halfway...Well 3/7th's Of The Way Anyway...There!!

On Monday when we go back to FSI for class, we'll be entering our fourth week of orientation training. So far there has been a nice mix of 'practical' stuff like "here's how you bid on jobs" and "here's how you fill out your reimbursement vouchers", and 'cultural' stuff like "this is what we mean by protocol" and "an introduction to diplomatic history". The orientation staff and our session speakers have worked hard to keep the interest and energy levels high. Our task seems to be to absorb as much as possible as quickly as we can. There aren't exams (other than the language tests) but there is an expectation that we will fully learn all of the material, practical and cultural. Which is to say that there is an expectation that we will acquit ourselves professionally and begin to behave like diplomats. There is a 100% buy-in to this expectation from the 133rd A-100. During one session, we learned that one of our responsibilities when at post will be to handle visits from ranking VIPs. We were given a list of potential disasters that might occur and asked how we might anticipate and prevent them. We learned how the responsibilities are assigned and which positions are coveted and which are not. One person, for example, is always assigned to ride herd on the visiting party's baggage. The job of 'baggage handler' is extremely important and often competitively sought. Believe me, Diplomatic Immunity won't save your career if you lose the President's luggage!!

The 133rd A-100 is comprised of 23 women and 21 men with (for you statistic wonks) a mean age of 34, a median of 32 and a mode of 29. The range runs from 23 to 57, oh, and that would be me skewing the averages to the ancient side. We come from 25 different states or countries and count 4 PhDs, 5 JDs, 7 MBAs and a host of other degrees in our numbers. Apart from English we can speak 19 languages, with varying degrees of fluency, including Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, Guarani, Hindi, Norwegian and Turkish. Several of us have come to the Foreign Service after serving in the Peace Corps and several others came in from one branch or another of the military. This is a widely diverse group of people and I find that interesting because the rather rigid and formal entry process into the Foreign Service might suggest that it was designed to eliminate or at least control diversity.

In class, we sit in assigned seats and have little contact with those not seated in our immediate areas. At lunch or on breaks we are often scattering to attend to various chores and errands or to make phone calls or just to get some quiet time. Therefore, I had gotten to know some of the folks in my immediate area, but not many of those who sat in other parts of the room. FSI has now fixed that.

At the end of the third week, just as our energy levels began to wane, we were taken out to a retreat in West Virginia for three days. There we were divided into groups of eleven for a series of leadership, management, teambuilding exercises. I was put into a group made up of people I didn't know very well and had a ball. The activities were interesting and well run, but the opportunity to finally get to know each other outside of the classroom was especially valuable. I was speaking with two of my younger colleagues and they were telling me how impressed they were that someone my age would do this. For a minute I thought "Wow, I am really impressive, aren't I?", then I realized that I couldn't have possibly gotten into the Foreign Service when I was their age and that I'm only doing this "at my age" because this is the soonest I was able to qualify. The people who impress me are the people who have already worked in our embassy in Baghdad or served with an NGO in India providing HIV/Aids couseling or taught themselves Turkish. When I look at some of the things my colleagues have already accomplished, it's a bit intimidating. On the other hand, I have grown old....let's see them do that!!

Although they are roughly comparable in age, there are a few significant differences between my Foreign Service colleagues and my Peace Corps colleagues. In Peace Corps there were varying degrees of commitment to the service from 'not at all' to 'extremely dedicated', here the commitment level ranges from 'completely dedicated' to 'extremely dedicated'. That point was made apparent to me the morning after a late night party at the retreat. Every single member of the class was on time for breakfast and ready to participate fully in all the day's agenda. In Peace Corps we always lost a few happy souls on the days following late night 'voluntary' events. In Peace Corps a few folks eventually quit and went home because they didn't like their job or didn't like the town they were sent to; in the Foreign Service we all have preferences as to where we'd like to go and also where we would prefer not to go but no one has considered quitting over any assignment on the list. Finally, Peace Corps could never be a final destination for the volunteers but Foreign Service is the career goal for most of us which, I suppose, goes a long way towards explaining the behavioural differences. That, of course, and the fact that we get paid pretty well in the Foreign Service.

The die have been cast and our fates are sealed. Our CDOs (Career Development Officers) have sorted us all out and assigned us to our first posts. I'm delighted to say that I'll be going to .... Oh, that's right, they don't actually tell us where we're going until April 12th. Not that I'm counting, but that is still two weeks, five days and nine hours away. There are several good reasons for not letting us know right now where we've been assigned and the best of those reasons is that the minute we know we stop listening to anything that doesn't have to do with our future posts, the "Yes, this is interesting, but what does it have to do with Lagos?" syndrome. So on April 12th we'll gather in a large room and there will be a table with the country flags of all the posts in front of us. One at a time we'll be called up and handed a flag and given our first assignment. Weeping with joy is allowed, cursing is frowned upon.

In the meantime, we will continue to receive orientation training designed to give us a thorough indoctrination into the Foreign Service. Although I am anxious to know where I'm going, I don't necessarily want to rush through orientation to get there. I'm enjoying every bit of this and the best is yet to come, in the next week or so we'll receive our first paychecks!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

At The FSI

I've been in the Foreign Service for two weeks now and the experience has been fascinating and intense. The seven week orientation program for newly hired Foreign Service Officers is held at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The first order of business on the first day was to swear us all in. The last order of business on the last day will be to swear us all in again. The first is for dough and the second for show. Until we're officially sworn in, we can't be put on the payroll but the 'official' swearing-in ceremony comes, naturally, at the end of the orientation program. So, we are quickly sworn in right off the bat on Monday morning so we can be entered into the system and then we are sworn in again in a very official ceremony in the Ben Franklin room at the State Department when we complete our initial training.

On the first day we were also given the list of posts to which we will be assigned. This is known as the bidlist and we are encouraged to research the various posts and to rank them, according to our own levels of interest, as High, Medium and Low. Each post lists the job, the required language level, the date of departure and any financial incentives associated with it. For example, A Management job in Bucharest requires a fluent level of Romanian, departs in March '08 (giving one time to learn Romanian) and carries a 15% 'hardship' differential. There are 44 positions for us to rank, but we must bid for them all. We have all made a commitment to the Department of State that we are 'worldwide available' and, therefore, we have agreed to accept any position on the list. In my case, I feel that I could rank them all high and be very very happy with any job they give me.

So I ranked all the Management positions High. I also ranked three Consular jobs in Chennai, India High and one Consular job in Islamabad, Pakistan High. I ranked a few of the Consular positions in a couple of Mexican cities Medium and stuck a couple of other South American posts on the Medium list too. Every time I research a new post I change my mind and want to go there. We had a job fair one afternoon. It was an opportunity for us to mill around and speak with people who had been to all of the various posts on our list. I had to stop talking to people because everyone I spoke with convinced me to rank their post as a High. As of today, I'm hoping to get assigned to the Consular position in Hermosillo, Mexico. Yesterday it was the Management spot in Jerusalem and tomorrow it may shift to an Econ job in Lagos, Nigeria.

Our final bidlists have to go in tomorrow and then our CDOs (Career Development Officers) will get together and assign us to our first posts. Stop me before I rearrange my preferences again!! We won't learn where we're going until April 12th. That makes a lot of sense because there is still a lot for us to learn and as soon as we know where we're headed, all we'll want to focus on is that future post.

Aside from the bidlist and all that it represents, we also had to go through the mundane things associated with any new job, badges, health plans, savings plans, credit unions, Human Resource stuff and protocol. All right, most new jobs don't really have a protocol section but we do. The United States Foreign Service is a very formal organization and is rightfully proud of its long and distinguished history. Part of that pride is manifested in the structured formality of the Service. For example, we wear suits and ties to the FSI every day. When a speaker of the rank of Ambassador or above enters our classroom, we stand and applaud and remain standing until the speaker indicates that we should be seated. Then we stand again when they leave the room. In an informal world this is somewhat old fashioned but I appreciate it and see it as a mark of respect for individuals who have given extraordinary service to the country.

The clock is ticking on tenure for all of us. The most immediate hurdle is getting off of language probation. You must test at a pre-determined level in some language in order to be tenured. If you don't get tenure within five years of joining, you are thanked for your service and are set free to seek employment elsewhere. The levels for passing language probation vary between languages, with world languages (Spanish, French, etc) requiring higher levels of fluency than hard languages (Arabic, Chinese etc). Our CDOs have assumed the responsibility for guiding us along paths most likely to lead us to succeed and language probation is right up on the top of their list. Therefore, someone like me who hasn't tested at the required level in a language will be urged to look at first posts in areas of the world that require a world language. The theory is that I could take an immersion course in Spanish, pass at the required fluency level and serve my first two years towards gaining tenure. If I take a first post that has no language requirement, then the pressure is greater for me to pass a language on my second tour.

There are a host of other rules, regulations, norms and considerations that come into play when looking at the bidlist. However, I can honestly say that I will be delighted with any job on the list. I have some relative degrees of interest in one city over another or one job over another but there just aren't any on the list that I'll be disappointed in receiving. My goal is to learn a language, get to post, master a new job and get tenured. Along the way I expect to have a ball. This week we're going to an 'offsite' meeting for a few days. We'll participate in a series of Leadership exercises, put on a Follies Night and spend some time with our CDOs. Heck, I'll even sit around the campfire and sing Kumbayah if they want me to.

So, The Foreign Service chapter of my life has begun and it's terrific!! I'm really hoping to be sent to Addis Ababa for my first post. No wait, make that Sao Paulo. Wait, wait I really want to go to Bogota. No, Kinshasa....... Well, you get the idea. In just a few hours I have to submit my Really Last Final Ultimate No Kidding Bidlist. Arrrgh, I want them all.