A-100: Weeks 4 and 5 in Review

It’s Flag Day Eve. Yes, as anyone who has entered the Foreign Service knows, that’s a thing.

Tomorrow at 15:30 EDT, in front of friends, family, and classmates, each member of the 178th Generalist Class of new diplomats will be called one by one to the front of a large room and handed a flag, and a folder containing a training schedule. The flag will be that of the country where we will serve our first overseas assignment, and the training schedule will tell us whether we’re going to post in a matter of several weeks, next summer, or anytime in between.

We turned in our bid lists a couple of weeks ago, with each job ranked either high, medium, or low. However, all of us know that we could end up with any of the 116 jobs in any of the 47 countries on our lists. Needs of the service, and so forth.

Not sure how much some of us will be sleeping tonight.

Myself, I feel eerily calm. I feel excited deep down, but in a content way. I am keenly aware that my placement is a done deal and I am confident that I will make the best of any assignment I receive. It’s unusually fatalistic of me, but then again, despite my need for planning and order, I am the one who signed up to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and checked the “send me where I’m needed” box (or whatever they called it back then).

At the end of the day, despite all of my research, I don’t pretend to know how my life would really be in Moscow, in Cairo, in Ho Chi Minh City. When I received my Peace Corps assignment and saw “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” my first thought was, where? And look how serving there irreversibly changed my life for the better.

But let me back up, and talk about the last two weeks, which for me, have been the most challenging part of A-100 to date.

Week 4 began with our offsite retreat on July 21-22. This trip has been called “The Woods” by previous classes. I think it is typically held in West Virginia, although ours was in Pennsylvania. I was expecting midnight walks, trust falls and campfires, but it was more like…team-building exercises, embassy simulations and leadership development. And a 90 minute follies session that roasted mostly everyone in the class. It was absolutely hilarious, and way more than I was expecting. The committee that worked on it did a tremendous, outstanding job. I can hardly imagine where they found the time.

There were several times during the offsite that I was stretched beyond my comfort zone, and I tried to just breathe and go with it. I mostly succeeded, although not completely. In each instance, I mentally acknowledged the utility of the exercise, even if it made me uncomfortable, as well as my own strengths and limitations. I was surprised that I liked it a lot better than I was expecting to.

Some of my colleagues struggled mightily with things that didn’t move my needle at all, and on the flip side there were times where I was cringing and other people were smiling and wanting more.

It reminded me of the oral assessment in the sense that all of your vulnerabilities are laid bare for everyone to see. You can’t pretend you’re good at something when you’re not, really. Not in front of people who are good at that particular thing, anyway. The good news is that everyone is good at something different, and that nearly everyone is supportive and will try to catch you when you fall.

There are a few moments from the offsite that I’d like to forget, but I have two favorite memories that stand out.

The first was a moment in which a classmate trusted me with her raw feelings about a session that she didn’t enjoy and didn’t feel she’d done well in. To my mind, her performance was completely fine. But in that moment I was reminded that despite our commonalities, we all perceive things differently, and there is so much that we can do to make each other feel more comfortable. We are all going to have those moments when we stop believing in ourselves for a few minutes. When we want to be so much more than we are in a given situation. When we reach out, and hope someone will reach back and remind us who we are.

The second was sitting in the warm night air around a picnic table, drinking a vodka tonic and playing “Cards Against Humanity” and laughing with new friends. Actually – as people who have known me for a long time would expect, I wasn’t actually playing. I was sitting surrounded by players and watching, and following along, but content to be silent and let others compete. What people who have known me for a long time wouldn’t recognize is that these days I could have played, and it would have been no big deal.

Both of those experiences made me feel accepted, and bonded to other people like I haven’t felt in a while. I felt like I didn’t have to prove anything, and like it was okay to just show up and be myself.

When we came back from the offsite, we spent some time dealing with more diplomatic history modules, overviews of the Consular Affairs Bureau, and both cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. We spent the remainder of Week 4 in smaller breakout sessions called “core skills” working on applying what we learned from the Week 3 plenary sessions on speech writing and composure under fire.

I actually liked writing and delivering my speeches, and I learned a lot. Out of eleven different classmates’ written feedback, not a single person checked the box for “seemed nervous”. And they were right – I wasn’t.

However, the composure under fire really made me blue screen. It was literally as bad as you could imagine. Instead of fielding questions, at a certain point, I just said, “I don’t know how to answer that,” and looked at my folded hands on the table and went far, far away in my mind, and lost myself in my own private concerns where I couldn’t be reached. I mostly try to play ball, but sometimes I just can’t.

We continued these exercises through the first part of Week 5 (this week), and additionally learned about supervising foreign service nationals. We had some open forum discussions with our deputy coordinators, as well as a panel of locally employed staff from different posts around the world who happened to be at the Foreign Service Institute for training.

Over the last two days, we’ve had additional sessions about Foreign Service writing, diversity, policy, ethics and leadership, professional conduct, advocacy and dissent within the State Department, meeting challenges, and revolutions in technology, demographics and economics.

And that brings me to tonight, when our non-local hire classmates (who receive paid housing and per diem allowances during A-100, whereas those of us who are locally hired from within 50 miles of Washington, DC do not) threw the local hires a happy hour in Georgetown. I only intended to stop by briefly, but ended up staying for nearly two hours. I didn’t want to run up their tab, so I just ordered a glass of wine and was content to mingle and talk with classmates in such a relaxed setting. I had a couple of conversations with classmates that I will remember and appreciate for a long time.

On Flag Day Eve. Right before all of our lives change forever. Tomorrow afternoon.


What strikes me in thinking about the last two weeks is how torn down I have become. I have hoped, and been both elated and disappointed. I have worn my heart on my sleeve, and been both jubilant and dismayed. I have been brave, and had days where I felt I either failed or succeeded completely. I have assumed, and either nailed it or been completely wrong. I have felt such highs and lows that every day feels like a roller coaster. In some small sense, I momentarily lost a measure of trust in myself.

If you forget to put your own mask on before helping other passengers, you might suffocate.

Which kind of reminds me of a dark time during my pre-service training in Macedonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Going into the experience, I was so sure of myself. A friend of mine, SR, asked me the night before I got on the plane how I was sure that I would like it. I scoffed and said something like, “Why would I go through more than a year of this application process and waiting if I wasn’t sure?”

Little did I know in my arrogance and naïveté how I would struggle, how I would hold myself up to others and find myself wanting. How I would confide in others only to be misunderstood, crushed. How I would look inside and for the first time in my life doubt that I had the constitution to do what I’d committed to doing; that shock alone almost shattered me. And ultimately, how I would tear my ego and my very self down to the core, only to rebuild myself back again stronger, better, more resilient, and gain the true respect and admiration of my colleagues.

And so tomorrow, after a 941 day candidacy to even get my seat in A-100, I will finally, finally learn what is next. All of the possibilities on the list will narrow down to one.

Whether or not I will have the respect and admiration of my colleagues remains to be seen. There have been times throughout the last five weeks where I faltered, surprised myself, looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. Until today.

Feeling humble tonight.

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Sarah W Gaer

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