Over the last couple of years, I have spent what is cumulatively an embarrassing amount of time reading the blogs of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). I admit that my interest – all right, let’s call it an obsession – was always geared towards whatever stage of the daunting hiring process that was ahead of me at that particular point in time.
Early on in my candidacy, I was interested in tips on passing the written exam, the first substantive step in the process, back at a time when I could have hardly fathomed advancing further.
As I progressed, my primary focus shifted to reading passers’ summaries of their oral assessment experiences. I would study their narratives for hours, searching for clues and insights, and wondering how it would feel to be on the other side of that curtain – to know and to conquer that most dreaded, most anticipated and hair-raising of hurdles. And then one day, two years ago this week, I did know, to my great humility; the orals have foiled many a determined and worthy candidate.
Over these last 16 months since January 2013, as I’ve waited on the consular register with my conditional job offer and no guarantee of anything except the clock ticking down towards the 18-month expiration date on my candidacy, I read most longingly the blog posts where successful candidates described, sometimes in great detail, receiving their offer to join an A-100 class. They were in! They had made it! They did their happy dances, and I daydreamed that one day it would be my turn. If only my turn would come. Pick me, pick me, I thought. I am made for consular work.
I couldn’t help but notice that many FSO blogs seemed to start with a perfunctory post announcing they’d received “the call”. Nothing more to publicly reveal the waiting, effort and anguish on the road to their A-100 destination, but I knew. Sometimes I scrolled back years through their blogs to find this announcement.
There were a few admirable but heartbreaking blogs that I came across, in which faceless wannabe FSOs wrote about their failed candidacies over the course of several years, with long, disappointing lapses between posts, punctuated by more disappointing updates. “I failed again. Have to start over next year from the beginning.” I silently cheered alongside them that they’d make it someday, knowing that only 3% of all applicants get the job offer, and knowing how easy it would be for me, too, to become a part of the 97%.
The blogs that discussed pack-outs, moving overseas, and oh yeah, the job itself…all of that seemed too far in the future, and didn’t fuel my obsession of what it would feel like to get that A-100 offer. How would it come – in a phone call? A letter? An email? I held the reading of those other blogs for a future date, not daring to get my hopes up any higher than they already were (or at least not to admit it).
And so my turn came, at last, on Monday, May 5, 2014 at about 2:30 in the afternoon, an incredible 941 days after beginning my candidacy.
I was sitting at my desk at work at the Peace Corps headquarters. I was logged into a private Yahoo group where candidates who have passed the oral assessment are allowed membership. A couple of the highest-ranked candidates on the consular register had just posted that they’d received offers for the A-100 class beginning June 30. My heart started beating faster, as offers weren’t expected for at least a week or two yet. I thought, Here we go again. I minimized the window and got back to work, because I had ridden this particular roller coaster many times before and I knew it was a long way down.
I’m lucky to work for Peace Corps, I reminded myself, lest I forget. I love it here. The best way to look for your next job is while you still have a job you love. The Foreign Service will happen, eventually. If you have to try with another candidacy, you will. The registrars might not dip down to you this time, but someday. There are people ahead of you. Be patient.
Moments later I received an email from another candidate, GA, with whom I’d been corresponding for two and a half months via the Yahoo group, and with whom I’d agonized weekly and sometimes daily (including throughout that morning) about when, if ever, we might receive offers. He was waiting on the management register in roughly the same position as me, but with many more months left on his candidacy. When I saw his message confirming that he had received an offer and asking me to give him a call, I just thought, Good for him! I hope there’s one for me too.
Several minutes later, as I was reading something else on my iPhone, at the top of the screen a banner notification of an email from my registrar appeared. All I saw was the subject line, in all caps: “GENERALIST CLASS OFFER”. My heart went into my throat and I felt as though someone suddenly had shined a gigantic hot spotlight on me. I clicked, and read the email and its attachment. I realized after reading it three times that I hadn’t really seen a thing, and I started to grin.
I got up and walked to the elevator, rode downstairs, and walked out of the building to get some air and call my husband. I don’t really remember the specifics of our conversation, except his cheers and my giggling while trying not to look like a be-suited nutcase lurking in a Washington, DC alley. I had a funny feeling of elation and release and I kept expecting to cry, but no tears came out. It was like when the Board of Examiners hauled me into the room at the end of my oral assessment and said, “On behalf of the United States Government, we are pleased to inform you…” and all I could manage to repeat over and over again was, “Wow. Thank you so much. Wow,” as I gasped and grinned like a moron.
(The irony of a day nine years and ten months earlier did not escape me, in which I walked out the same front doors of the Peace Corps headquarters after being medically separated from my Volunteer service. Profoundly ill, and holding in my hand a same-day plane ticket to my home of record (HOR) in California, I’d burst into tears in a startling and uncontrollable lapse of my personal stoicism. Passers-by awkwardly hurried away, avoiding eye contact with me. On that day I’d been convinced I was losing everything, but I hadn’t yet realized my Peace Corps experience would inform all future decisions, and would be with me every step of the way. Indeed, the experience was irreversibly enmeshed with who I am, and it can never be separated.)
I called my mom, my dad, my brother, and each call went to voice mail. So I took a chance and called my future classmate GA for the first time while still standing in the alley, and he answered. We talked about what we were doing when we received our offers. He told me that he’d been in the grocery store and happened to notice the offer had hit his phone. He said that he had walked right out of the store without buying anything in his cart, and I thought, I get it.
I went back to my office and saw that folks underneath me on the consular register were reporting offers, and someone, a future classmate on the consular register named CB, speculated that it must have meant I also had received one. I confirmed this, and, aware that people I work with at Peace Corps HQ were also part of that candidacy group, I walked into my boss H’s office and shared the good news with her. It was strangely harder than I expected, and her elation reminded me why she is such a great boss. I also ran through the seventh floor and shared the good news with colleagues who had supported and encouraged me throughout my long candidacy.
I texted a million people, and a million people texted me back. My mom, my dad and my brother all returned my calls nearly simultaneously.
I went home to a wonderful celebratory dinner of wine and sushi with my husband, and I just kept thinking, it’s over. I don’t have to wait anymore. I’m not going to expire. I realized that I could cancel my backup candidacy, and that I would never have to go back to the oral assessment ever again.
My elation was the quiet kind, typical for me. I didn’t cry, or scream, or get raging drunk on the town with Cinco de Mayo revelers. It was the contentment of a job well done and anticipation of new, unknown challenges ahead. I composed a Facebook announcement that I would be joining the 178th, which received more likes than anything I’ve ever posted.
I can soon change the tagline of this blog from “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and Foreign Service Hopeful” to “Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and Foreign Service Officer”! And it will be my tremendous honor and privilege to serve my country overseas again. I’m proud to join the ranks of those already in the Foreign Service, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my family, friends, colleagues and study mates. Thank you for encouraging me and believing in me, and I promise to make you proud.
In my next few blog posts, I will outline each step of the Foreign Service candidacy, as well as my observations and strategies for passing, within the confines of the non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I will also address the many questions I’m getting, like, “What happens now?” and “Do you know where you’ll go?”
Please stay tuned!
I just re-read this post of yours, after taking myself off DNC this week…Fingers crossed…for an invite to the 183rd! I too obsessively open the Yahoo group every morning.
Congratulations on becoming a Foreign Service Officer and thank you for posting all the details you did. I have just submitted my PNQ’s for the 4th straight year and hope that I’ve cracked the code this time. I hope the reality of being in your A-100, flag day, and being an FSO is everything you dreamed.
Thanks so much! It has been a wild ride so far, and I am constantly amazed by it all. I wish you luck. Don’t give up! If it is your dream, you have to keep trying. All the best to you.
This isn’t my first time reading this post but I keep coming back to it because I love that you’ve been in my shoes before too. I feel like most diplomats don’t really talk about what it was like to apply for the Foreign Service or weren’t as obsessed with the idea of it as I am or you were. But you are proof that “everyday” people like me and the literal hundreds of other people I know who are aspiring diplomats can someday get to where you are now 🙂
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