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.