Introduction into the Foreign Service: my A-100 experience
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
You may have noticed that I haven’t written a word on this blog since I joined A-100. Because I’m too busy, right? Well, there’s actually another important reason. Like many foreign service officers who blog, I’m terrified of over-sharing. Having a job that comes with the responsibility to protect sensitive information doesn’t lend itself easily to being described in detail on a public website. Still—many of us do it, and I don’t plan to stop writing.
I want to continue sharing because I think education and transparency are important. Another reason not to give up is because I believe that just because something takes time and careful consideration doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. In fact, it probably makes it more worthwhile.
So, based on a desire to share my journey—the funny, the serious and the interesting—with you, and based on some wonderful feedback I’ve received from readers over time, I will do my best to continue posting as usual about my perspective and experience as a diplomat of the United States of America.
How they turn you into a diplomat
As I’m writing this, I’ve been in “orientation” (the basic training course for newly minted FSOs) for two weeks. That means I’m a third way through.
Despite the fact that I’ve worked in various roles within the State Department for over a decade, I was extremely excited to start the training. I wanted to know how, exactly, they turn a bunch of young(ish) people from all over the country (and the world) into a disciplined group of American interest promoters.
Here are some of my observations so far:
1. We’re getting to know each other
Arguably, the number one goal of the 6-week orientation course is to acquaint new diplomats with the State Department and with each other. We’re sharing. We’re bonding. We laugh a lot and help each other out, have lunch and happy hours together, and generally get into each other’s business.
We keep it professional, of course, but the point is that we’re becoming part of a community and share a sense of service that is bigger than any one individual. We understand that we’re going to be each other’s support systems and that we should know and help each other throughout our careers, because the bureaucracy is a big, complex and sometimes cold institution.
2. We’re learning basic stuff
When you become a diplomat, your whole life is turned upside down. You have to quit your job, move out of your house, change your wardrobe, learn a foreign language, make new friends, and submit yourself to an enormous hierarchical bureaucracy that nobody fully understands.
Fortunately, they start at the beginning and pretty much stick to the basics throughout the training. Most of our sessions provide general information so nobody has to feel ignorant or left behind. They’re designed to help people get settled in, submit the right paperwork, and learn about basic history, security regulations, and leadership skills.
3. Death by PowerPoint
Even though most of the stuff we learn is basic, at the same time we’re bombarded with information about where to go and what to in case we need more information or run into problems, what our careers may or may not look like, what kinds of jobs are out there, all the agencies we’ll work with some day, and a million other things.
We’re exposed to a LOT and I am thankful every single day that none of this information is actually new to me. I’ve been associated with the State Department for a while and I’m a very inquisitive anyway, so thankfully I’m in the know. Most of my poor colleagues, though, are drinking from a fire hose.
4. High-level speakers
As new diplomats—the future, if you will—we’re being treated with a certain amount of respect. One of our benefits is that we get talked to by lots of high-level diplomats. Now, there are lots of “high-level” people in the State Department anyway, so it’s not all that shocking for someone who has worked there for a while but still, it’s nice that many senior leaders grace us with their presence and make us believe that they’re actually honored to speak with us. They share their knowledge about certain regions or issues, and patiently answer even our most basic questions. So thank you.
5. We get time to manage our lives
Somewhat surprisingly—to me, at least—the State Department gives us a fair amount of “admin time” to get our affairs in order. There’s a lot to do, from submitting travel vouchers to completing group assignments, from accessing archaic computer systems to arranging the movement of our household goods, to completing mandatory online training courses and responding to a myriad of surveys and scheduling issues.
We often get time between group sessions to sit behind a screen to organize our lives, and complain to each other about how slow the computers are, how the instructions don’t make sense, and that we don’t understand who, within this complex institution, to call for help.
6. We’re becoming leaders
Our trainers believe we’re all smart—because how else did we manage to get where we are today? What they’re clearly less convinced of is our ability to be effective leaders. They teach us skills that include, but are not limited to: public speaking, writing, and managing others.
They go to great lengths to turn us into emphatic leaders, ready to achieve any objective we’re presented with. I never knew they put so much thought into that. I’m not speculating about the reason why—all I’m saying is that it may be addressing some notable deficit in past foreign service officers...
7. Prepare for the worst
Knowing that the State Department sends their diplomats wherever they need them—whether you like to live in Mongolia or Papua New Guinea or not—I’m not surprised that they focus a lot on preparing us for getting a first assignment that kinda sucks. There’s a big focus on bidding and researching posts, and they talk ad nauseam about what “worldwide availability” means in practice.
They say that we should be open-minded because every tour can be fantastic, even if it’s in Haiti or Liberia. Personally, I think it’s true. One person's nightmare is another person's dream post. For example, when I lived it Nigeria I loved it—something that wasn’t true for many other people who were posted there. Still, right now it’s hard to believe that I’m going to be very open-minded if they announce on Flag Day that I’ll be serving my first assignment Ulaanbaatar. After all, that’s why I ranked it low on my bid list.
8. Explaining the bigger picture
Besides the practical day-to-day stuff related to what we’ll be doing in our respective career tracks, we’re also getting initiated in the “interagency process,” aka what other federal agencies and branches of government do and how we work with them in the field, including USAID, the military, Congress, and intelligence agencies.
We haven’t heard much about it yet, at this point, but from experience I know that this is very important. “Interagency” is a major buzzword within the State Department, and it’s rather crucial that we understand the bigger picture of what we’re supposed to be doing when we’re serving abroad and try to achieve something significant.
9. Take care of yourself
There’s also a big focus on wellness and resilience during this orientation course. We talk a fair amount about how to deal with stress and how we should treat other people, particularly in the cross-cultural context. Some of my classmates seem more interested in this stuff than others.
Personally, I don’t love talking about understanding my inner feelings and those of others in group sessions—it makes me all mushy inside to think about the difficult times I’ve been through, and the hard lessons I’ve learned from failure to communicate properly. I can’t really put it into words. Still, I think it’s good that it’s a “thing.” We’re allowed to have feelings and we get resources and training on how to deal with it. Great!
10. How to have a brilliant career
Clearly, we’re all supposed to become ambassadors one day. Although statistically highly unlikely, we’re all being talked to as if reaching the highest offices in the State Department is the primary goal of our diplomatic careers. I have my reservations about this, and I know a few classmates of mine have them too—some of us aren’t 23 anymore, after all. Still, it’s good to know the do’s and don’ts in case we want to become ambassador or something.
Certainly I would like to get promoted at regular intervals, so I should know how to write good evaluation reports and understand what steps I should take (serve in hardship countries, get management experience, etc.) to qualify for tenure and, ultimately, for promotion into the Senior Foreign Service.
11. Classified stuff
Finally, there have been a few “oh my god” moments related to things I cannot disclose here, or anywhere else for that matter. Save to say that diplomats play a significant role in protecting people’s personal information and other sensitive stuff related to government business that we need to know about to do our jobs effectively. That’s why we have the TS clearance. I’ll stop there ;)