It has been almost five months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so I thought I’d share some recent Q&A from the blog’s inbox, edited for length and clarity. In this edition, I’ll address how embassies decide which officers get language training (and how much), length of service vs. number of tours, whether officers serving on the U.S.-Mexico border can live on the U.S. side, and what consular officers do as they advance in their careers.
And as always, please remember these are my unofficial answers derived from my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.
Q: Your first posting was in Uzbekistan, but your language training was in Russian. I know that Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic, but is Russian still the most useful language for Uzbekistan? Just wondering how the powers-that-be decide what sort of language training to require.
A: Essentially, positions within an embassy or consulate are either language-designated or they aren’t. Not every position at a post is language-designated; I suppose a case could be made that consular officers interviewing visa applicants all day need language training more than say, a human resources officer or someone who works primarily on facilities infrastructure with English-speaking local staff.
However, not having language skills in the host country can make many aspects of life difficult, including professional ones, in any type of job. I feel like language training for all officers is a worthy investment, but there are instances where it does not work out, due to designations, timing, funding, etc.
During my tour in Tashkent, I think there were two consular officer positions language-designated Uzbek and two language-designated Russian. These designations are based on what a post thinks it needs and can vary from time to time as positions are cut or added, recommendations that are normally accepted by and in consultation with Washington in order to fund the requisite training for those incoming officers. As officers rotate out, they will likely be replaced by someone who did the same training so that the post can maintain the balance of skill sets, unless needs have been recalibrated in the meantime.
I once met an officer proficient in Mandarin who went to work in the Dominican Republic; his position there was officially language-designated Mandarin rather than Spanish due to the number of Chinese visa applicants that post was seeing. While they already had plenty of Spanish speakers, they really needed one with a different skill set. This is a little unusual, but it is an example that does happen.
We were lucky enough that our two Uzbek-speaking officers in Tashkent had previous experience in Russian too, but the formal training they’d received prior to arrival was in Uzbek. It was great for them to be handle either language while interviewing on the line. When I was interviewing and someone could not speak Russian with me, my Russian was insufficient for the complexity of the interview, or we got the rare Tajik applicant, I would just call for a local staff translator to assist me. If anyone came speaking a language other than Russian, Uzbek, or English (for example, Farsi), usually to avoid longer appointment wait times in their own consular district, we would unfortunately often have to turn them away due to their inability to communicate with us in the interview.
Q: How well do you feel someone with a 2 speaking proficiency is able to communicate in a new language? I watched a few videos of examples of a 1 speaker, 2 speaker, etc., and my perception was that a 2 speaker is still very modest in their ability.
A: I know what you mean. A lot of officers are professionally facile in the language of their post, but with a focus particularly towards the job they are doing. It isn’t whether or not we “speak” the language, but to what extent and how effectively. One jaded way to look at it is how much money does the federal government – in its unending wisdom – wish to spend to get an officer up to the minimum required amount of language to perform his or her position.
In Russian, I could often interrogate the heck out of someone on their travel history, and parrot all the FSI Russian conversations about the environment and politics, but barely navigate regular social situations. I think some of it depends on the language training structure and then how much you keep going with it once you get to your assignment and settle in to a routine. Fortunately, most posts do have a Post Language Program (PLP) where officers can continue fine-tuning their language skills and acquiring additional language in a local context.
I did many meetings as a political officer in Australia that made me thank my lucky stars it was all in my mother tongue. Asking someone questions in a visa interview is one thing; delivering high-level policy demarches and using your language skills to subtly persuade, mend fences, or explain complicated U.S. foreign policy positions without being clumsy is quite another.
FWIW, the average American speaks at about a level 3 in daily life, so go figure. When you are asking the same 15-20 consular interview questions every day, and have local staff with amazing English, in my opinion, some of us can get a bit complacent with learning to speak better.
Q: I see that you are now in Ciudad Juarez. Do FSOs at this posting live in El Paso, or do you live full-time on the Mexican side of the border?
A: FSOs posted to Ciudad Juárez are technically supposed to live in their assigned housing in Juárez for a minimum of five nights per week. However, this requirement does not extend to an officer’s family.
Many officers with spouses and children have traditionally chosen to have their families live separately on the El Paso side, for reasons of schooling, security, convenience, or personal preference. I think this was especially common several years ago when murders in Juárez were at a historic high. Some spouses without children (or with grown children) also maintain an apartment or house on the other side as an investment property, or to make the spouses’s weekday commute to a Texas job easier.
The Department makes available some Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA) funds as an employment benefit to defray some of the costs of maintaining two households, but I haven’t done that before, so I’m not sure how much it actually covers. Also, being over in Texas is considered away from your duty station, and if an officer stays over there for more than 24 hours on regular working days, they lose post differential pay, which lowers their paycheck. So close, and yet, so far away – it is another country after all, and we don’t get extra pay for living in Mexico if we… don’t live in Mexico.
Because of the nature of my work, I know I have to be here, and I feel like being four miles from the border is close enough for me. I do go frequently to El Paso (albeit less often right now due to the pandemic). It is good to know there is some flexibility about living situations though, particularly for families with school-age children.
Q: I am interested in joining the State Department for 14-18 years and then leaving to start another job. Is it possible to serve 7-8 tours during this period?
A: I’m curious why 7-8 tours is an important number, or are you just trying to imagine how many tours you could hypothetically do, if you were accepted, before going into another career you may also be planning for?
Some of us are “lifers,” but of course not everyone who joins the Foreign Service stays for the rest of their career. Many people do a few tours and move on, or some people stay well beyond the point they could have retired (we are eligible for retirement at age 50 with 20 years of service, with mandatory retirement at 65). Out of my A-100 class of 100 diplomats, I think about 12 have either resigned or transferred to the Civil Service, academia, politics, or the private sector, and we have “only” been in since June 2014.
Like with any job, it is possible to resign if you find another job or want to change directions. How many tours you can serve in a given time period depends on a lot of factors, like length of tour, and required training.
Tours are different lengths; your entry-level tours are two years each, and danger tours in Special Incentive Posts (or SIPs, formerly called Priority Staffing Posts, or PSPs) like Kabul and Baghdad are one year. Tours at the mid-level are generally three years (and some officers may extend for a fourth year), with the exception of high-stress Washington tours, which are often just a year or two. You might go to Australia like I did, where no language training is required, or to China, where language training before a tour even starts is up to two years.
So I guess the answer is really: it depends. One thing to keep in mind is that if you go to an overseas post and then quit the Department within a certain time period (it might be a year, but you’d have to check), you will likely be responsible for the costs the government incurred for shipping your belongings overseas. But how many tours an officer has served is more of a personal stat than anything that has any bearing on benefits, retirement, etc.
Q: I get the impression that everyone starts out doing consular work – is that mostly correct? What kind of responsibilities do you have after a few years of reviewing visas? I’m just interested to know what else consular officers do, especially as their career continues to advance.
A: You are right that most FSO generalists do a tour or two in consular work irrespective of cone. This is mainly because the global workload demands it, and because one year of consular work is required for tenure, but there is also a more important reason. In times of emergency, the whole embassy or consulate will “be” consular officers. The all-hands approach to mass repatriations of U.S. citizens from all over the world at the start of this year’s coronavirus pandemic as commercial flight options dwindled made that very clear.
Protecting U.S. citizens abroad is among the very highest priority work the Department does. Although it can be frustrating for an officer in a different cone who just wants to get to the work s/he joined the FS to do, understanding how consular work functions is elemental and will serve you well throughout your career in a U.S. mission setting. In addition, first and second tour (FAST) officers, particularly in small consular posts, often have quite a few opportunities to do things outside just their regular job duties, in addition to a wide variety of things within the consular cone. I talked about this in 2016 at this link.
As you might know, a consular section is made up of several units. There are immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, but there is also American Citizen Services and Fraud Prevention. There is quite a diversity of work within each unit. A tour or rotation in visas could have you working on adoptions, asylee and refugee cases, Interview Waiver Program, Special Immigrant Visas, Diversity Visas (“green card lottery”), and a lot more. Time in ACS – where I work now – could have you doing not only routine services like notarials, passport renewals, and citizenship determinations, but also visiting prisoners, working on welfare/whereabouts and death cases, or helping manage a post’s crisis management teams and flyaway kits.
As you become more senior, you will have the opportunity to be a line manager, deputy chief, or chief leading a consular unit or section, keeping track of our accountable items (like blank visas, visa fees, and passport books, for example), participating in broader initiatives within the mission including sitting on country team, assisting adjudicating officers in making very complex decisions about citizenship or emergency cases, and working with our law enforcement and interagency partners on kidnappings and other very unique cases with cross-cutting equities.
Very senior consular officers serve as Regional Consular Officers (RCOs), roving between posts to provide leadership and best practices. Other work in large missions, coordinating efforts between an embassy and several constituent consulates and passport agencies. Others spend a few tours in Washington, working in policy, press relations, or various offices within the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Consular is obviously the best cone! But seriously, it is a very cool cone with lots of leadership and management opportunities, particularly if you like working with process, people, and/or policy. I’d recommend you also Google “Diplomat in Residence” and see where the closest DIR to your location is – DIRs are U.S.-based, usually near universities, and could talk with you 1:1 and share more about consular work as well.
If you have a question you’d like me to answer, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will personally respond… eventually, and may feature your question (anonymously) in an upcoming edition of YQA.