Friday, May 22, 2009

The Education of a Diplomat

I have finally finished my Foreign Service Officer training! Last week I finished 12 weeks of intensive Spanish training, and am now officially able to communicate in Spanish at a "professional" level, which means I can effectively communicate U.S. policy in a number of topics, to include the economy, the environment, the education system, healthcare reform, immigration policy, and a few others.

The training I've been given is incredible. I had a weekly seminar on the region I'm going to -- The Andean Region of South America -- and am now fairly well-versed on the history and current political situation of the countries in that area of the world, and know something about the culture and hot current topics. In addition, I've completed classes on Combating Terrorist Financing; Intelligence & Foreign Policy; Outreach Diplomacy; and Interagency Planning for Conflict Transformation. I've had the opportunity to hear professors from Georgetown and George Washington University; former Ambassadors; lobbyists; Undersecretaries of State; a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist; experts from Washington-based think tanks, and others I can't recall off the top of my head.

At the Foreign Service Training Institute, on any given day there are 1000 students studying 70 languages. When I wasn't stressed out myself, it was sort of entertaining to see all the half-dazed, disheveled students wandering around muttering under their breath in a strange language. Lab time was interesting, but a few times I was a little distracted by someone in the next cubicle reciting dialogue in Urdu or Tamil or Albanian. My Spanish training was wonderful! I went in with a certain proficiency, but four hours of class time with 4-5 people plus two hours of lab work every day really polished up my fluency. Our instructors rotated every 4-5 weeks, and I had the great fortune of working with some really fascinating people from Spain, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Costa Rica.

So, I think I'm prepared now. In the next few weeks movers come and take all my worldly possessions and my car and hopefully get them to Lima without losing them in the ocean. Hopefully pirates won't be an issue, either.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Big Day Today

Today was Secretary Clinton's first day on the job. There was a welcome for her at the State Department's main building ("Main State," as we refer to it). Almost 1000 State Department employees attended. The din was unbelieveable; people cheered and applauded as if they were at a rock concert. My A-100 classmate, Felix, and I were the first two people there, and we were both able to shake her hand as she arrived.

One of the things she said that really resonated with me was that U.S. Foreign Policy rests on three things -- diplomacy, development, and defense -- and that the State Department is responsible for two of them. The "best long-term tools" for securing America's future are "robust diplomacy and effective development," she said. She ended by saying:

"I think this is a time of such potential and possibility. I don't get up in the morning just thinking about the threats and the dangers, as real as they are. I also think about what we can do and who we are and what we represent. So I take this office with a real sense of joy and responsibility, commitment and collaboration. And now, ladies and gentlemen, let's get to work."

You can read her full remarks here
and see some video here

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What Do Foreign Service Officers Do?

I am continually asked by friends and family about what exactly will I do in the Foreign Service. I don't usually respond that I will be a diplomat, because even though that is accurate, it's nonetheless meaningless to most people. Instead, I report that I will process visa applications and assist American citizens abroad, which is also accurate. In fact, diplomats play many roles, but the most important is protection of American citizens abroad. The most recent example happened over Thanksgiving in Mumbai. You can read a bit about the Foreign Service's/State Department role here: tp://
In addition, some of my colleagues here in D.C. pulled shifts at the State Department's operations center over the holiday, pitching in where needed. Many manned the phones, taking calls from individuals in the U.S. about the status of their U.S. citizen family members in Mumbai. Foreign Service Officers posted at the Embassy in Mumbai were present on the ground, pulling 12-hour shifts at the two hotels, at hospitals, at the airport, and at the morgue. I sincerely hope I never have to deal with something of the magnitude of Mumbai, but if I do I am being very well trained, and I have extremely competent, patriotic, and brave colleagues who'll have my back.

Monday, October 27, 2008

South America Here We Come!

The long-awaited flag day occurred last Friday, and it was torturous! The head of the State Department Assignment Office held up 90 little flags, one at a time, announced the country and city, and then the name of the person who would go there. Every time he held up a flag, my heart would race, either in anticipation or dread! Finally, I heard my name after Lima, Peru.

I was not at all expecting Lima, but I think that of all the places on the list, this is the perfect one for us. The Colegio Roosevelt is the school most of the U.S. Embassy kids attend, and it has a great reputation. The school year runs from August to December, and from March to July. January and February are "summer" vacation, since the seasons are reversed in Peru. The climate is pretty mild, ranging from 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, though Lima itself is generally covered with fog from April to December, according to accounts I've read. Lima is only a six hour flight from Miami, and is in the same time zone as Washington, D.C. And, one of the best things about Peru -- ceviche!

Peru itself is very diverse geographically - desert, ocean, rain forest, and mountains. We'll only be there two years, so we'll have to plan carefully in order to see everything (Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins, the Amazon River Basin, and more) and also take some trips elsewhere in South America, like Argentina and Brazil.

I'm not scheduled to report until early summer, so in the meantime I'll receive training on the area (history, political, economic, etc.), and in Spanish. I'll also receive some management and leadership training, and probably some other things I'm not aware of yet!

We're all really excited about going to Peru, and hope to have lots of visitors!

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Last Monday, we were informed by our A-100 course coordinators that our schedule for the week was being reorganized because the class had been summoned to Main State for an event on Thursday morning. They said they had no other details, but would keep us informed. On Wednesday afternoon, we were told to wear our best suits. Thursday morning, we were told that we would be departing on buses for Main State, that President Bush was at Secretary of State Rice's offices being briefed by her and her staff, and that he wanted to speak to the A-100 class!

The event was held in the Benjamin Franklin room at Main State. The rooms are all in period style from the late 1700s and early 1800s. All kinds of interesting artifacts are there - China made for Martha Washington, the desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 (the treaty that formally ended the Revolutionary War and gave formal recognition to the United States) - and original portraits of the Founding Fathers and other interesting people from our early history.

We waited for a while, but finally the President and Secretary Rice entered the room. I was lucky to have a spot about 10 feet from them, and was able to see and hear everything very clearly. The President was very charming, and thanked us for our service. He was very engaging when he talked about his Millenium Challenge initiative (see more info about the program here: We could see his excitement and passion for helping developing nations improve the quality of life for their citizens.

After he spoke, White House photographers took a group photo of him and my A-100 class, and I'll eventually receive a copy, which you betcha I'll post here.

I never dreamed that I would ever be addressed by the President, and thanked for the job I am about to do. The coolness continues, unabated.

* U.S. Government acronym: "President of the United States"

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Very Small World + Bid List

Small World!

I live in corporate temporary housing. The State Department contracts with the company that owns and manages it, and employees here in the D.C. area in a training status can opt to live here, or find a place on their own. The beauty of living here is that I didn't have to find a place, negotiate a lease, and then submit paperwork every month to be reimbursed for the rent. It's not as glamorous to live here as maybe it is in other parts of the D.C. area, but it's damned convenient and hassle-free.

My Temporary Home-Away-From-Home

A few days ago, as I was walking to the communal grills, I saw someone who looked really familiar. I think I looked familiar to him, too, because he sort of did a double-take. I was in a hurry, and didn't think much about it. A day later, I ran into him again, and this time I stopped to talk to him, and lo and behold, it turns out we were in the same law school class in Cincinnati!

He, too, practiced law in Cincinnati for a few years, then joined the Foreign Service. He has been on two overseas assignments, and is here studying a language for his next assignment. What a hoot!

Bid List

We received the bid list on the first day of class, and I am only writing about it now, three weeks later, because I feel I have finally recovered sufficiently from the experience of researching places and submitting my final preferences. What an ordeal! First I had to research posts to determine which had suitable schools. Of course, all the info I needed was not in one central location, but scattered around in various websites, in hardcopy in an office at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and on the State Department intranet. Every evening, I'd skype with my family and we'd go over the various options. After two or so weeks of that, I (and a significant number of my classmates) were exhausted! The thought crossed my mind that I wish they'd just assign me and I know I would adapt to wherever I landed! However, I resolved to be thankful that anyone cared what my preferences are.

The list itself was very broad -- Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Canada, Mexico, the Carribbean, China, India, Europe, the Philipines. Some specific places that really caught my eye were Niger, Bangladesh, India, Serbia, Turkey, Kuwait, Burkina Faso, Russia, Melbourne, Peru, and Equador. I have no idea where we'll end up, but we'll find out on Friday, October 24th! If I had to guess, I think we'll end up in one of the following places:

Mexico City
Hong Kong

I'll let you know as soon as I find out!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Adventures in A-100

I am well into week two of A-100. The entire time has been very intense, and I have so much to write about that I don't know where to start! Hence, a quick highlight of the significant events, and a few observations:

The State Department is an awesome place to work. The quality of the people is really astounding. In my class there are, among others, Fulbright Scholars, several graduates of the London School of Economics, entrepreneurs, a former trapeze artist, someone who worked in Africa for the UN handing out money for programs in the fight against AIDS, an Army Officer just back from Iraq, former Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps officers, several Peace Corps volunteers, an editor at the Washington Post, someone who worked in Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign, and seven attorneys, including me. The vast majority have lived and worked overseas numerous times, and most people speak SEVERAL languages, and it's not enough to say you speak Arabic -- people want to know which dialect. I couldn't help but giggle when someone asked if during the Arabic language testing he would be allowed to use "Egyptian colloquialisms!" Class discussions are extremely interesting, and I have yet to be bored in class. Honestly, I keep expecting someone to tap me on the shoulder during class: "Excuse me ma'am, you're in the wrong building; your spot is in the CLOWN COLLEGE across the street."

I am in class generally from 8-5 Monday through Friday. Classes so far have been mostly briefings by Under Secretaries of State and Ambassadors about their experiences in the Foreign Service, and information sessions by the heads of various offices and bureaus of the State Department. Yesterday we visited the main State Department Building (I'm at the Foreign Service Institute just outside of D.C., where all Foreign Service training takes place). It was an amazing feeling to walk around and think about all the discussions going on in the offices there, and the issues being studied and worked out. The green marble plaques listing the Foreign Service Officers who have died in service to the nation were sobering. Everything is fascinating, and my classmates, for all their impressive credentials, are down to earth and fun to be around.

On the first day, we were herded into a wood-paneled room where we took an oath of office, and officially became diplomats of the United States. I have to say that it felt pretty cool.

Stay tuned, when I write next about which countries are on our list of possible first assignments.