Friday, July 29, 2005

Maintaining Composure

The second week of smaller group activities has included sessions on public speaking and question answering. They've been able to fit a surprisingly large amount of advice and example scenarios into a relatively short period of time, and I have truly found it helpful. I'm more impressed now watching people answer questions on TV than I was prior to this week -- there's definitely a skill to public performance which goes beyond simply knowing the material. Trying to envision myself deftly deflecting questions and discussing policy isn't the easiest of tasks, but surely not even the most adept of public speakers started out that way.

My own particular practice speech went fairly well... right up until the point I became overwhelmed with emotion, burst into tears, and couldn't continue. In retrospect this has become more amusing than embarrassing -- definitely a lesson on knowing which topics to avoid. For sure, I'll never talk about steel tariffs again.

(No, no; just kidding -- I was actually talking about the need for cultural exchange, and got tripped up when I tried to address the value I placed on the relationships I formed in Japan. The combination of nerves and strong memories was just a little more than I could handle. But I did -- no joke -- manage to sing the first verse and chorus of the Japanese version of "Suwannee River" during my intro, and I think I ought to get bonus points for that. The nerve-induced excessive voice wavering just made it sound more like enka.)

Practicing answering tough questions in a public forum was a little more interesting than just sweating out making it through (in my case, half) a speech. We were given a scenario the night before the practice (you're speaking to students in China, you're talking to American expats in Columbia, etc.), went home and did a bit of research on the region's policy issues, and then the next day our groups fired questions at us in an attempt to recreate the sort of atmosphere American representatives often encounter. Most people were in press room scenarios, but mine happened to be a cocktail party in India. I had researched the recent meeting between Prime Minister Singh and President Bush, but still I wasn't quite as on top of my answers as I could have been. The thing is, people hardly ever ask about the 'issues' -- question topics ranged from racism to terrorism. It was pretty true to what I had encountered as a private citizen during my time overseas. I would imagine that as an official US representative, things get even more heated.

One part of all this which I am looking forward to is actually having the answers to the 'tough questions'. Sometimes in London, or even in Japan, I found myself caught off guard and floundering -- such as when a South African girl at a dorm birthday party demanded to know why the US had supported apartheid, or when a priest from Northern Africa verbally attacked me on a train for US agricultural policy. It seems like everyone always knows a little bit about America, and is insulted when the little bit you know about their country doesn't exactly coincide with their particular concern. Every person's concerns are always different; it's hard for even the most well-read American to be familiar with everything.

In that vein, for those of you going to foreign cocktail parties, you can always find official American goverment postions on the Department of State International Issues website. You don't have to agree with the US position, but it's always helpful to know what it is.

Next week, we find out where our first postings will be.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Gaining Insight

Last week we split up into three smaller groups, which has made class discussion and organization considerably easier. Parallelling the move to smaller group size, we've also begun looking at particular issues in a more fine-grained way. This has been enlightening on several fronts.

Most importantly, I had no idea that the State Department handled so many different issues. Of course, I had anticipated that the diplomatic scene would be different from country to country, but it's truly amazing what all we are involved in. Combatting drug use, stopping trafficking in persons, dealing with border disputes, aiding in the detection of money laundering groups... The list goes on and on and on. Even if we're not direct participants in a matter, we often act as mediator or contact point for groups that are. The variety of foreign and domestic agencies we deal with is sometimes surprising (for example, who knew that State and the Coast Guard were so intimately involved?). Being a Foreign Service Officer is not just about diplomacy; it really is about furthering broader democratic values, such as human rights and the rule of law. This thought is both comforting and daunting.

The end result is that, for such a small organization, we have a lot of bases to cover. The sheer depth of knowledge each issue requires is mind boggling, and I wonder if I'll be able to keep up with it all. My father told me once that many doctors go into specialties because restricting your claim of knowledge to a very small area is a safe way to avoid criticism and self-doubt. I definitely understand that temptation. If I learn something, I like to understand it completely inside and out before I take on any single portion of it. But as a Generalist*, I have to be able to step into any job at any post at any time. I think a lot of us are wondering how successful we'll be at these constant transitions.

Despite these slight misgivings, I am more proud now of being involved with this Department than I have been at any time since my hiring. Administrations come and go, policies change, but the commitment State has to overarching ideals of basic human freedoms and values has remained consistently high. The "Service" side of Foreign Service is becoming more meaningful for me.

*The Foreign Service hires both 'Generalists'; i.e., your typical FS Officer; and 'Specialists', people who focus on either administration, construction engineering, IT, international information/english language programs, medical services, office management, or security. The security specialists in particular are interesting, in that some of them have the power to make arrests.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


As an addendum to the Offsite post, I think it might be prudent to mention the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). One's Myers-Briggs type is based on Jungian psychological type models; most people nowadays seem very familiar with it, so I won't go into it here in great detail. If you are unfamiliar with it and would like to know more, here is a link you can use:

Brief Explanation of Myers-Briggs

FSI uses Myers-Briggs as part of training; in fact, at offsite it played a part in determining group structure. If you're coming to FSI, you will be administered the MBTI test during the first couple of weeks. The type break-down of the orientation group is made known to the class (though no one's individual type is made known without permission).

My own Myers-Briggs type is INTJ. Some sources I've read estimate that this type is less than 1% of the general population; the highest estimate I've ever read is 3%. Thus, I was rather surprised to see that there were 7 of us in a group of about 86 people. In fact, the girl who sits next to me is also an INTJ. This is the first time I can recall in which I've been able to observe someone with the same type as myself. (Though naturally, we hardly talk to each other...) It's been an interesting part of my experience here.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Offsite Team Building

This is rather a tricky post, as I've been expressly told not to talk about specifics of the offsite. But I think if I stick to my usual path of generalities, all will be well. It certainly marked a departure from the other training days, and as such deserves some discussion.

Offsite teambuilding is a three day affair. All of us go out to 'the woods' to get to understand a little more about our own particular leadership styles, as well as our comforts and discomforts involving working in groups. I believe there is also some intent of having us 'get to know one another' better, but I must admit to this having been a secondary activity for me. One thing I've learned over the years -- and reinforced at this offsite course -- is that I'm very task driven. Mingling and 'getting to know one another' is a process with no set closure, and a difficult one for me to undertake. It's not that I don't care about you, where you come from, or why you're here; it's just that that information might not be particularly relevant to the whatever task or goal I happen to have at the time. Thus, what occurred at the party:

As part of our FS training, we are asked to volunteer to work on any one of various planning committees for extracurricular course events. There are committees for the swearing-in ceremony, general social events, finances (i.e., dues gathering), and so forth. The committee I ended up with was "Offsite Representational Events," something I gravitated to out of all of the choices because it seemed to promise spending time in the woods communing with nature. What it was, of course, was planning two parties, one for each night of offsite attendance. They are called 'events' mainly for quasi-legal reasons (something I discovered when I phoned the offsite location to ask where the nearest keg distributor might be; no one likes a 90+ person 'party' being held at their resort).

I volunteered to be committee chair because no one else seemed to want to, and because, by gum, I came here to be challenged and stretch myself! The coordination went fine. Each of our parties had a theme ("Survivor: FSI" and "Tacky American Tourist"), and decorations, food, music were all in line. All the committee members really pitched in and took responsibility and initiative. I can honestly say that it went truly swimmingly, and I think everyone enjoyed it.

During the parties, however, I found myself doing something that seemed to make others uncomfortable: party maintenance. I made sure the CD got changed in the player, and that it didn't rain on the expensive donated stereo. I replaced the empty chip bag with a full one, and picked up dirty cups and bottles to recycle. When the light started to wane, I moved the food and drink tables closer to the tiki torches. I made sure there were always enough mixers, and brought food items over to whatever small groups started to form. Besides sending out encouraging email messages to my committee members ("Hey, thanks for going to buy the wine. Who's on top of getting napkins?"), I think this was probably all the work I actually did for the parties.

Throughout all this, I kept getting comments like, "Katie, relax! Stop cleaning and have a drink...," "You can't possibly be enjoying yourself," and (my personal favorite) "Are you sure you don't want any help?" I didn't actually need any help, but if I'm crawling around your feet picking up cigarette butts, do you really need direction as to how you can assist me? But I digress...

At any rate, people kept telling me how guilty my supposed 'selflessness' was making them feel. When actually, I was just performing a coping mechanism which would allow me to avoid any semblance of small talk. At various points people did manage to corner me and converse, but all I could think about during those times was whether or not the keg might be running out, and if I shouldn't be getting the back-up beer out of the fridge. That sort of inattention to others makes me feel guilty. I feel like I ought to care more about what's being said than about possible empty salsa bowls. But there you go. For better or for worse, I'm more of a Martha than a Mary.

If you're still reading after that long detour, then let me apologize for not talking more about offsite specifics. Really, I'm not allowed to tell you exactly what went on. But I think the party scenarios were pretty good examples of the sorts of things you learn during the offsite training. The teambuilding activities weren't physicaly strenuous, but they did help me to understand more about how groups can work together, which group role works best for me, and how groups relate to one another within the State Department. I went in rather dubious as to how beneficial it would be, and was pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

My Bid List (The Personal Stuff)

Today I met with my CDO -- the guy who will represent me in the meeting that determines where we'll all be going. I really like him and am glad to have him as an advocate. It's also helpful that he is very forthright, and didn't hesitate to tell me that my strategy of bidding based on acquiring a 'world' (i.e., widely used) language probably wouldn't work out. There are just too many Spanish and French speakers within the Department for them to spend time training me to go to Columbia or Togo at this point. Not to say it couldn't happen. Just that it's not likely.

Now Arabic, on the other hand... Chinese... Apparently if I bid high on posts with these sorts of languages, the Department would be delighted to accommodate me.

And it makes sense. My MLAT score (a rough quantification of language learning ability) was higher than average, and I already have experience with one difficult language. I wouldn't really mind learning another. But now that my whole bidding strategy based on world languages has been rebuffed, I'm faced with a question I realize I've been avoiding: Where do I want to go?

The truth is, I don't know. I honest to goodness don't know. I was really hoping to look at the bid list -- this huge bid list, with a good sampling of posts from all over the world -- and think, "Yes! That's it! All this time, I've been wishing I were in Bamako!" But that didn't happen. I look at it and feel very little sentiment at all. Maybe I just feel a little tired. I think I am overwhelmed by a choice I don't feel educated enough to make.

So, what to do? My final bid list is due by Monday morning. I guess at this point I'm just trying to decide if I really want to be in D.C. for another year for language training before I head out. My gut reaction is no, I want to get out and actually start doing something. But perhaps that's too hasty. Really, I'm just hoping I get sent to Japan for my first post so I'll have more time to think about all this.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Bid Lists (The Technical Stuff)

Probably the first question asked by every person who joins the Foreign Service is, where am I going? The answer to this question lies in your class' bid list. Roughly speaking, the bid list is simply the list of all available open positions. It includes the region & name of each post, the type of position open at that post, when it opens, which (if any) language the job requires, and the difficulty and danger (each rated out of a highest possible 25 points) associated with the post. It is delivered in table format, and looks something like this:

QB 3/3
AD 2/0
TA 2/2
FR 3/3

(Please note that this table is strictly fictional, and has no bearing on any actual bid list...)

For the most part these lists are pretty self explanatory, with the exception of a few of the language codes (for instance, you may have noted that 'QB' is the code for Spanish). The numbers next to the languages indicate the speaking/reading level of language achievement required from a scale of 0 to 5 (5 being native fluency). If there are no numbers, it means the language would be helpful, but isn't strictly required. For TED (Time of Estimated Departure), the dates are mainly important when considering one's language fluency in relation to post requirements. For example, learning Arabic for the Damascus post might be do-able since it's over a year away; the Paris post requires an immediate departure, making French training impossible. People with already established language competency will be sent to these 'NOW' posts -- regardless of their bidding requests -- if there is no one else to fill the position. So if you're fluent in Tagalog but don't particularly want to go to Manila, just remember that the needs of the State Department will trump your own desires (assuming there are no extenuating circumstances which absolutely prevent you from going).

And for those of you thinking, "Then I just wouldn't test in Tagalog," keep in mind that the Foreign Service requires all officers to become competent in at least one language before being tenured (i.e., within 3 to 5 years). Until you prove competency, you are on 'Language Probation'. If you already know a language, especially a difficult one, it is in your longterm interest to declare it.

The 'XXX' TED indicates that the job has been newly created at that post, so there is more leeway in determining when you will be sent.

Difficulty and danger ratings (generally lumped together and termed 'hardship') affect whether or not one can bring Extended Family Members (EFMs) to post. Some hardship posts allow adult EFMs, and some allow none; for those officers with families, this is often a large consideration when bidding. If you have a family and do not wish to be separated, the Department is very good about keeping people together whenever humanly possible. Hardship ratings may also have some positive affect on pay, as one is compensated monetarily for the hardship. Serving at a hardship post increases your chance of getting your top pick from the bid list for your next tour of duty, and may also be good for promotions.

Positions available at the junior level are most often consular (CON) positions, which means one would be handling visas and assisting travelling Americans. There are five career 'cones' to choose from (Consular, Public Diplomacy, Economics, Management, and Politics), but officers are considered generalists, and as such must be willing to take on any job as needed. Within the first two posts, the Department requires that an officer serve at least one Consular tour.

Numbers next to the post names, such as the (2) next to Bogota, indicate that there are two openings for that job at the post.

The regional bureau tells you which office the posting is under. These regional offices are grouped together based mainly on geography, but also on Departmental areas of emphasis. Thus you have WHA (Western Hemisphere), EAP (East Asia Pacific), SA (South Asia), NEA (Near East Asia), EUR (Europe), and AF (Africa). Some people attempt to manuever their bidding so that they can stay only in one region, effectively 'majoring' in that area. Personally, I'm bidding based on the desire for broader language training, hoping to see as much of the available world as possible!

In my own class of 80+ people, there is a post for every person. For bidding, the department asks that we list each available position as either 'High', 'Medium', or 'Low', depending on the level of our desire to go there. This has been somewhat difficult, less due to the number of posts (the State Department provides ample research materials on each location), but more because I'm not sure really what my priorities should be. Today we turned in our draft bid lists, and later this week we have one-on-one meetings with our CDOs (equivalent to military 'detailers') to help us make final decisions. I think I'm doing the right thing.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Week in Review

One week down, and my overall feeling is a good one. As the jetlag has worn off and I've reached a state of greater equilibrium, things are much easier to take in and digest. Still, I am grateful for the current long weekend.

Much of what we learn the first week pertains to broad matters of protocol, presented in what the instructors have termed "the firehose method" -- blasting us with as much information as possible, presumably with the notion that something is bound to stick. Generally speaking, this has resulted in long lectures, often with little content directly applicable to one's own situation. These can be a struggle to sit through. However, given the great number of us in the orientation and the even greater variety of programs, departments, agencies, positions, and peoples involved in the Foreign Service, I can't honestly come up with a better orientation method. A lot of what we're hearing seems only tangentially important now, but might be crucial a post or two down the road.

Thus, I find myself trying to take things in wholesale, much as a snake would go about swallowing an elephant. Hopefully when the time comes I'll be able to spit up the bones of something relevant.

Clothing has been more of a problem than I anticipated. Even though I packed out early enough that my UAB is already in D.C., actual delivery is only an option from 8am-5pm. Thus I'm having to wait until next Friday (when instructors have indicated we can leave class if necessary) to receive my stuff. Beside the fact that this leaves my patronizingly bland apartment in its sad, pale state for another week, it also means I have to recycle a lot of clothing.

This wouldn't normally bother me. Those of you who know me know that I'm not adverse to wearing the same pair of shorts / shoes / trousers / underwear etc. all year round (with appropriate washing, of course). The problem is that much of the clothing which seemed very smart and professional in the Ross and Macy's in Hawaii assumes a whole new persona in Washington, D.C. Suddenly I feel as if Stevie Nicks could comfortably pull pieces from my closet to prepare for her next tour. I have inadvertantly arrived ready for a night of clubbing instead of a day of orientation in a town which could only reasonably be termed "fashion-oppressive."

So, if you are coming to D.C., go ahead and stock up on the suit sets. Whatever it is you're wearing, make sure it looks good with a jacket. Cut off those cute little embellishments which seemed so trendy at the time of purchase. Go for structure and a tailored fit over loose and flowy. And remember that, if you're here in the summer, you're going to sweat. You're going to sweat all over that crisp, clean collared shirt and that expensive jacket. Don't expect to comfortably wear the same item in a week more than twice, max. And since it will take at least 2 weeks to receive your UAB, that should give you a pretty good idea of how many suits you're going to need.

Finally, some items you should bring to the first week of orientation:

  • Your passport. Other forms of government id (such as a drivers license) require backup identification, such as a social security card. A passport will be faster and easier to deal with.

  • Copies of your travel orders. This first week I've already needed to turn over one copy; I've been told others might be necessary.

  • Banking information. Specifically, the routing number for the bank account you want the per diem and travel advance to be sent to. I brought this the first day "just in case" and was lucky to have had it on me.

  • If you are like me and filled out all of your forms ahead of time, you might want to bring a book or magazine. Some sessions are nothing but instructions for those people (a lot of people) who did not feel comfortable completing the forms on their own.

This weekend I'll explain the bid list.

Happy (early) Fourth of July.