Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Realities of Foreign Service Life, Part 1

An associate of mine referenced an old movie about the State Department ("State Department: File 649") the other day, and I watched it out of curiosity.  Despite some glaring inaccuracies and artistic license with reality, it was still an entertaining piece of history, dedicated to the FSO's who have lost their lives in the service of the government.  As such, it got me thinking about how the FS is perceived, both from within and without, and about things that may have been worth knowing before A100.

"It's very hard to get in."

That may seem an obvious statement to some, because it is a challenging--but not impossible--process.  In my 18 months with the Department, I believe that the logic behind the selection process has a certain practicality to it that makes it unique among jobs.  First, as Foreign Service Officers, we come into contact with an astonishing array of individuals in the course of our work.  On any given day, I could feasibly discuss the technical challenges of Scriabin with a pianist; the obstacles faced in optimizing a ray-tracing algorithm; or the chute-to-shipping processes inside a slaughterhouse.  I may know very little about a topic, but what little bit I know allows me to carry on an intelligent conversation with the other person and make them feel that their contribution is understood and appreciated. It's essential to the job.

"The OA is unfair, and skewed toward a certain demographic."

This is actually two separate issues, and I respectfully disagree on both counts.  Our A100 cohort had nearly 100 people, and it was an excellent mix of age, race, gender, ethnicity, educational and experiential backgrounds, religion, and orientation.  As to the unfairness, the OA is the very model of what we do all day, every day: discuss and reach consensus, present and analyze information, make recommendations, and remain composed in difficult situations.  The 13-D's are so embedded in how we conduct business that it is necessary to recreate or simulate situations that cause them to shine--hence the OA.

"You have to be Alpha/Aggressive/Type A to be successful as an FSO."

Again, no.  I believe that this myth is more associated with horror stories about the GE portion of the OA than it is about the State Department itself.  With that being said, do not confuse 'aggressive' with 'assertive'.  Some people are more driven than others, but a person who does not 'play well with others' is going to have a difficult time maintaining a positive corridor rep.

"As an FSO, it'll be nice to just pick up and go wherever I get posted."

Nice sentiment, but what you don't see is that PCS'ing requires a tremendous amount of work and coordination on the part of the FSO themselves.  Read that statement again and think about what that could entail.  We are assigned to a location, but then are completely, totally, responsible for getting ourselves there.  Arranging packout, tickets, insurance, school enrollment, spousal employment options, passports, visas, travel orders, vouchers, check-ups, vaccinations, reservations, communicating with predecessor, supervisors, HR at post, check-out, check-in, negotiating departure and arrival dates, communicating with your sponsors and mentors, post research, getting approval for training and/or bridge assignments, scheduling consultations, and so on and so forth--that's all on you, the FSO.  It requires Initiative, Planning & Organizing, Composure, Resourcefulness, and Working with Others, and counts nothing toward your EER!  ;)

"The Department of State is Big; The Department of State is Small"

 Yes, and yes.  Working for the State Department allows you to have some control over your own personal development and career trajectory, as well as to discover or seek out interests that you may have and turn them into your personal projects.  The scope of available positions and portfolios is mind-boggling, and it's not uncommon to hear of some wild and wacky posting that you never dreamed could be affiliated with the Department.  Yet at the same time, State is small enough that you quickly discover that you either know or know of a good percentage of the entire Department.

"I look forward to being paid to learn a language!"

Despite my many years of sharing this same sentiment, the reality is that it can be much more stressful than you may imagine.  It's not laid back like it was in High School or College.  It's your job, and you are completely responsible for getting yourself to the required level within the required timeframe, or you risk arriving late to post.  It's not a great first impression to show up two to three months late because you couldn't get the language in the same amount of time as everyone else.  Again, it goes back to being responsible for getting yourself where you are supposed to be, precisely when you need to be there.

"It sounds like an awful lot of trouble.  Is it even worth it?"

Absolutely.  Despite the stress, this is without a doubt the best job I've ever had.  It's interesting, fun, and there is something new and exciting to discover each day.  The people are excellent, friendly, and helpful--they know that we're all in this together.  It's an amazing feeling to sit down from day one and know--know--that you are accepted as and expected to be an integral part of the team.

As many of you know, it took several years and a lot of frustration and heartache before I made it through the process.  My only regret is that I didn't start sooner.  :D

If you are still in the process, keep at it!  You can do it!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Leap Into the Abyss

I received the offer just minutes before noon on a Friday.

Offers had been going out for some time, and had slowed to a trickle.  Having a score that was on the cusp (5.6), receiving an email from HR was an tremendous shock to say the least.  I did not shout or scream or dance around the office.  I'm certain that if someone had watched me open the email, they may have assumed that I was being told of the unexpected death of someone close to me.  I was quite shaken and it took a minute or two to calm my nerves and regain my composure.

I immediately informed my supervisor and director (who have known about this process for several years) and they both congratulated me and asked if it was too late to "call back that [security officer] with some anonymous information."  I advised HR that I would accept the position and immediately began the process of preparing to move a family across the country at short notice.

That first night was a long and sleepless one.

Every one of the "thirteen D's" come into play with preparing for such a sudden major life event.  What will we get rid of, what to keep?  What to put into storage locally and what to sort into HHE and UAB.  Sell the house or rent the house?  Sell one or both cars or neither?  De we arrange for someone to keep an eye on the house and and yard while it is empty or on the market?  How?  To what address will all our mail go?  Which companies are we forgetting to notify of our change of address?  Will we travel together or separately?  Drive or fly?  Where will we stay in DC?  Oakwood or on the economy?  What about schools?  Do we need copies of all medical records beforehand or just sign releases later?

Fortunately, the rest of the family was on board and excited, so psychologically it was not as stressful as it could have been had they been caught totally unprepared for this eventuality.  They pulled together to make this transition far less stressful than it could have been, and I am thankful for them.  This could not be done without our teamwork and unity.

This has been a long and arduous road.  It's terrifying now that it appears to actually be reaching its' destination.  Will I be able to be successful?  Could BEX have made a terrible mistake?  How will I adjust to this tremendous shift in responsibility and expectations?

I hope yes, I hope no, and I hope well, respectively.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Patience, Grasshopper

Being on the Register itself is possibly more excruciating than going through the clearances.  Being stuck at a certain rank, movement is uncertain and nerve wracking.  One week I'm at X out of 200+, and two weeks later I'm further down the list at X+6.  It's at this point that I need to leave it in the hands of fate.  Obsessively checking my email or refreshing the group when calls begin to go out are less than helpful; all I can do is begin to refresh my CNL and schedule a test (of which I am less than certain of passing) and sign up again for the next FSOT testing window.

It'll either happen or it won't.  The aggravating thing is that it's just right there!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Clearances, Pt 2: Under the Microscope

Going through Security Clearances was the most enigmatic part of the whole process so far.  It's not so much for lack of transparency on the part of DSS, as they provide a lot of information in the FAQs and the Adjudicative Guidelines.  I say enigmatic because there is so much uncertainty about the interview and investigation itself. Many of us in this process are probably borderline OCD and this part of the process falls outside of our locus of control.  ;)

I had filled out the SF-86 prior to my Oral Assessment, as required, using the e-QIP system, and gathered all the recommended documents to bring to the OA.  This took quite a while to complete, and my last ten years have been relatively uneventful!  If you are gearing up for you own OA, do NOT put this off to the last minute, as it could delay your clearances if you pass.  Most of my information was still accurate from my previous OA in 2006, but still took a little while to update and verify.

I had been expecting a call from DSS any day for several weeks after my OA, and had to contact Customer Service a few times until I was notified that my case had been opened, and a target date set.  A few days later, I received a call from the local field agent who was assigned to investigate me.  We arranged a meeting at my office, and he was very interesting to talk to.  The initial interview took less than two hours, as I recall.  I had a list of references for him, and he asked to speak with some other people in my office.  According to the Yahoo Boards, some candidates have had issues with this in the past, but in my case, everyone in the office has known that I've been pursuing this for years, and were each vying for a chance to 'meet with the investigator'.  Of course they were also teasing me that they would 'come up with something bad so they don't take you away'.  :D  I work with a great group of people and will miss them if this all goes through.

He met with several current and former coworkers, and interviewed at least one neighbor.  He also indicated that he would also do a local records checks with the city and county law enforcement agencies in the places I had lived over the past ten years.  One friend from another state (that I had listed as a reference) called me up later to say that he had been interviewed as well.

I have a number of international friends, both Stateside and abroad, and I had quite a stack of informational forms to complete for all of them.  The litmus test, as I understand it, is that a 'close and ongoing relationship' with a Foreign National can be defined as 'are you comfortable with that person coming over and having dinner with little or no advance warning'.  I am not beholden to them in any way, and so they do not pose a security risk in any way, but yes, I am comfortable having them over for dinner.  Several of my friends I had not seen physically in years, but we communicate periodically through Facebook, and so fell under the reporting requirements.  Some of the information required was impossible to obtain (I don't know some current contact information other than email addresses, for example), but the Investigator seemed to shrug it off, stating that more information would be requested if it was deemed necessary.  He did ask, however for the A-numbers of my friends who were now Stateside.  This was a little awkward for me, but after explaining the situation to my friends, they were willing to provide that information.  (Thanks guys!)

Then I entered that case approval purgatory and adjudicatory limbo, but did contact DSS regularly every two weeks or so for an update on the status of my investigation.  Each time I was told that my case was 'still under review.'  The investigator called me back two or three times with clarifying questions, which I was able to easily answer over the phone.  At one point, he requested that additional documentation to be scanned and emailed to him.  No new information, just documentation supporting for what was already contained within the SF-86.

Finally, several weeks after my target date had come and gone, I was told by DSS that I had gone through adjudication and the Final Review Panel.  I was on the Register at last!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clearances, Pt 1: Off to the Doctor

I made appointments with our physicians almost immediately following the OA, and filled out the requisite DS-1843 and DS-1622 forms.  It had been emphasized to me that the physician should make certain that all the tests were ordered and that everything was filled out correctly.

Since my physician used to work at a government hospital, I did not think this would be much of an issue.  During my physical, I went over each section with him and he ordered all the necessary tests.  I was to return a few days later to pick up the lab results, x-rays, EKG printout, etc.  When I went back, everything was there, but he had neglected to fill out the form in it's entirety, and I had to have his nurse track him down to fill in the few remaining spaces.  I'm glad I did.

This process was painfully repeated for every family member, reminding them not to overlook this test or that test and double checking to make sure it was filled out correctly.  Even so, some things slipped through the cracks, and Medical requested that our oldest child go back in to give more blood to take care of a few tests that had not been ordered!

We finally received our clearances, but not without quite a bit of sweat.

LESSON LEARNED: If you are not having your examinations done at State, do not assume that your personal care physician will automatically do it correctly.  Familiarize yourself with the form and the required tests (for each family member) BEFORE your appointment, and verify that each test was ordered and completed and the results and observations entered correctly on the form!

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