After waiting on the register for almost a year and five months, it was on this day in 2014 that I received “the call” to join the U.S. Foreign Service. In other words, I was invited to become a diplomat. It was my favorite Cinco de Mayo ever, and one of the most exciting days of my life. Accepting the offer marked the end of my three-year quest for the professional opportunity of a lifetime – my chance to be a part of the 178th Generalist A-100 Class at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington – and the beginning of a whole new career and lifestyle. Finally, my candidacy had been successful and I was in! The last six years haven’t been perfect, but given the chance, I’d do it all again.
After such a long wait during my candidacy (941 days to be exact!), filled with ambiguity, endless daydreaming, clearance and performance hurdles, and desperate analysis of available statistics to guess my chances, I was ready for clarity and assurances. I had kind of thought that once I was “in,” everything would be clearer. I would know what was going to happen, and when. Questions would be answered. Plans would be made. Answers would be revealed.
Little did I know the waiting, guessing, ambiguity, and bottomless quantity of variables I couldn’t solve for that constitute the bulk of this career had only just begun. Once I signed and returned the job offer, I had even more questions. What field trips will we have in A-100? What will be on the bid list? Where will I serve? What language will I have to learn? How will I arrange everything? What will be required? What will our house be like? How do I even log in when HR has misspelled my last name? Every question answered led inevitably to more questions.
There’s a reason one of the unofficial mottos of the Foreign Service is “It depends.” Being simultaneously expected to prepare for everything while knowing little and maintaining resiliency and flexibility is a wild exercise in Type A folks rolling with the punches.
There are times where, six years in, I feel very much like I’m still at the beginning of figuring this whole thing out, even though I’m eligible to retire from the Foreign Service in 14 more years. (Note: We are eligible to retire at the 20-year mark as long as we are 50, and we have mandatory retirement at 65.) Of course, I have learned a lot about what is expected of me and how to navigate the various processes and systems designed to get officers jobs, reviewed and tenured and promoted, and moved from point A to point B. But there is a lot to know.
There have certainly been both incredible opportunities and frustrations over the past six years. I’ve served two very different tours in two cones at two embassies under two presidential administrations. I’ve learned two languages at FSI, worked on countless fascinating conferences and high-level visits, written cables, taken R&Rs, launched projects, worked on great teams, answered the duty phone in the middle of the night, flown and driven tens of thousands of miles around the world.
I’ve missed chances to preserve my health. I’ve said yes at times I should have said no, and vice versa. I have sacrificed, toiled far from home, been in some dangerous situations, and missed my family and friends. I’ve come in early, stayed late, stayed home. I’ve hit it out of the park, I’ve been misunderstood. I’ve been undiplomatic, and too diplomatic, and at my best everyone likes me and takes my calls. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve shaken hands and been on top of the world. I have wondered what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. I have run into people I’d rather never have met, and I have been the recipient of incredible kindness, guidance, and mentorship.
I’ve made lifelong friends. I’ve adjudicated many thousands of visas and been told all the lies about a person’s purported purpose of travel you can imagine, and some you can’t. I’ve influenced political thinking and policy, gotten tangled up in bureaucracy, thought creatively, developed layers of safeguards and Plan Bs. I’ve sat with representatives of other governments and have come to understandings about our respective positions. I know how it feels to sit at the table with the placard “United States of America” in front of me. So much more to say, and so much that can’t be said. I have been lucky, overall.
Six years later, considering the good, the bad and the ugly, I am still proud of serving and I would still say yes to “the call.” Our oath is to the Constitution. Irrespective of political administration, there will always be Americans overseas to assist, trade deals to negotiate, policy representations to make, American interests to represent. This career is not for everyone, for a lot of reasons. But if it’s for you, it’s a flag worth carrying and I hope you pursue it.
The statistics year after year show that the Collecting Postcards blog continues to become more popular and attract a bigger audience. Thank you for reading, and I hope you continue to find things of value here. With our upcoming tour to the U.S.-Mexico border, I know that the interesting stories are not going to dry up anytime soon (massive understatement). I do owe a few outstanding emails to readers, and I promise to respond very soon.
According to my Facebook memories, the day before I got the call to A-100, I posted the following quote from “All Woman and Springtime” by Brandon W. Jones:
If one has to be right, then one has to be wrong, in a polarized world. Yes and no. But between yes and no there is an infinite range of possibilities, a full spectrum of maybe. If you are stuck in either/or, then you are missing the infinite.
Little did I know.
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