It has been six months since the last edition of Your Questions Answered, so in this post, I will share some questions recently asked and answered by the blog’s email box – as always, anonymously and without attribution. In this edition, we discuss the rewards of consular work, being single in the Foreign Service, what I know now that I wish I knew when I’d joined the Foreign Service, financial matters like savings and what expenses Foreign Service Officers should plan to budget for overseas, and the typical Foreign Service “car.” Enjoy!
Q: Consular work seems to be the most interesting cone. While there are probably a lot of rewarding moments, it seems like there are some heartbreaking moments sprinkled in. Aside from the big rewarding experiences, what would you say is the most satisfying part of daily operations in a consular section?
A: I feel like in American Citizens Services, some of the most rewarding consular work goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreaking part of the work, and the simple part of the work. I’m thinking of times when our team was able to collect and inventory the personal belongings of a U.S. citizen who was murdered in our consular district and work with our consulate’s mailroom to send those items back to a family. You can imagine how that would be simultaneously satisfying and heartbreaking – it is an activity that you could consider mundane and big at the same time, if that makes sense. It can be a big deal to someone else that we are in a position to provide that service.
For me, the most satisfying type of work is when we have a real, unexpected emergency and have to find a way to help. Preferably not on a Friday at 5pm, but that seems to be the way it goes in many cases. The other day my boss told me about a passport he issued to an applicant who could not sign his paperwork due to having fallen down inside a volcano. A lot of the work seems like figuring out what to do as we go, like when someone shows up in front of the consulate with a suitcase and no money and a small child. Can we offer them some water, encourage them to call their family, use our local knowledge and find them a shelter to sleep in?
But in terms of day-to-day, even the “routine” work is not routine when it comes to U.S. citizens. Seeing someone’s smile when one of our officers makes a citizenship determination and issues their child a U.S. passport – it is an amazing thing. Sending someone on their way with travel documents when all they want to do is continue their journey is something routine for us, but something the U.S. citizen will remember for a long time. And making that determination that someone is a U.S. citizen could have far-reaching effects down the road, allowing them to transmit citizenship to their child, for example.
Every time we help someone solve a problem, offer comfort and resources to someone in trouble, or ease for a family what might be some of the worst moments of their lives, we are doing our jobs. Dealing with U.S. citizens who make unfortunate decisions, have mental health issues, who are destitute or become victims of crime or bad luck in our region, or who just need help figuring out how to vote – it is all part of the job. Yes, a lot of U.S. citizens who live in the United States do not necessarily understand or appreciate what consular officers do for them overseas (let alone the incredible service of our locally employed colleagues around the world!). Some of them we encounter in circumstances where they are not having their best moments.
But I always feel satisfied by this work, even when an outcome is disappointing, because I am proud of the resiliency and efforts of our team, and our ability to overcome every challenge that is put to us. I know our consular colleagues who work with immigrant and nonimmigrant visas and fraud prevention have profound experiences in their everyday work too. There is no denying the impact of this work. Protecting and helping U.S. citizens overseas is our number one priority – that is why when there is a real emergency, every officer in an embassy or consulate pitches in, no matter their cone or assignment. There is a saying, “Every officer is a consular officer.”
Q: How common it is for a single person to be a Foreign Service Officer? Most of the blogs are based on family experience.
A: I do not have any statistics, but anecdotally it seems to me that a good number of officers are single. The “FS blogosphere” if there even is such a thing is certainly not indicative of any demographics, other than who feels like writing and can stick with publishing and attracting some readers!
One thing I have learned during my seven years in the Foreign Service so far is that many aspects of this lifestyle are challenging for different officers in different ways. On one hand, single officers do not have to consider the needs or wishes of their families when they bid on jobs, take a travel assignment, worry about the quality of schools, or wonder whether their spouse will be able to find a job.
On the other hand, single officers often spend more time alone at posts without the built-in support system of a family, and in some countries, can find it difficult to date in the local environment (especially for women). A lot of my single officer friends have expressed frustration to me about life in the fishbowl of the embassy environment trying to maintain a private life, or wondering why people are really interested in them – is it the draw of a potential life in the United States, or is it a real connection with someone?
Most of my single officer friends also tell me they hate unpacking their houses by themselves and find it difficult to work within an employment system that in many ways, in my opinion, still assumes a 1950s-style family setup where one spouse is available at home to deal with “housing” and “embassy” stuff like maintenance requests. It irritated me too when I went to post the first time four months before my husband arrived and experienced life as a “single” officer. (Who did the embassy expect to receive my household shipment at short notice while I was working?) Honestly, all this stuff bugs me even though I am not single.
It can be really difficult to “do” this lifestyle alone, but of course being in a family, being LGBTQ, or even having pets can pose different challenges to navigate. As a married officer without kids (although I have stepdaughters, they are grown up and do not live with us at post), I have also found challenges at times. I do not fit neatly into the “family” or “single” box, although of course my husband and I very much consider our family of two a “family.”
No matter what someone’s family situation is, there are upsides and downsides of any situation and everyone will have something about their family configuration that this life and career will complicate. We all have our own perspectives and have to work to make our experience the best it can be for our own circumstances. And by the way, single officers, write more blogs!?
Q: What do you know now, that you wished you knew in the beginning?
A: This is a really good question, and one I have thought of several times. I mentioned it briefly here (https://collectingpostcardsblog.com/2020/05/05/six-years-later-the-answer-is-still-yes/) but it is something I have been meaning to expand upon.
First, I wish I had known that joining the Foreign Service would not put an end to the never-ending questions I had during my candidacy. In fact, once I joined, I had even more questions and they just kept getting more complicated. I think that is typical of a lifestyle and profession with so many international moves and such complicated logistics. For us, information-gathering is a career-long process that gets easier, but never gets finished. I just had to get used to a lot of ambiguity and resist the urge to think I could someday, somehow, get it all figured out. I suppose it would not really be done until you retire.
Second, I did not realize how much of being a diplomat is simply being diplomatic with your own American colleagues. I think I always pictured diplomacy as playing nicely with our foreign counterparts and partners. And it is, in some cones and at some levels particularly more than others. But I have seen a surprising amount of FSOs who do not seem to realize or understand the importance of treating everyone with decency and respect, and not just those who outrank you or who you deem might be “useful.” It can be a frustrating aspect of this career, especially when working with people who know very well how to do this, and yet, it soon becomes apparent that they make an effort in strategic cases or when they are “angling” to make an impression rather than just being an all-around good colleague. But that also makes the professional and routine comportment of good, reliable, collegial officers who really get this stand head and shoulders above the others.
And third, I wish I would have understood earlier on who does what in a mission and where shared equities lie. I had very little understanding of this during my first assignment. It wasn’t until my second assignment when I was a reporting officer with a very cross-functional portfolio that needed inputs and clearance from around the interagency that I came to have a more sophisticated command of how to navigate who in the embassy does what, who knows what, who has which contacts and insights, and who are the stakeholders on a particular issue – not just from my section’s point of view, but from the front office’s point of view, and from Washington’s point of view.
For example, could a piece of reporting on synthetic drugs in Australia from the political section be made stronger not only by going and talking to Australian non-governmental organizations and government partners working on the issue, but also to U.S. law enforcement partners housed right inside the embassy? Of course! This is really important for advancing shared work, avoiding duplication of efforts, and staying intentionally within your own lane. This is the view your front office will have, and certainly the view you should be providing to Washington. What value do you really add being in the field if you cannot figure out what is going on right under your own nose? Policymakers in Washington cannot walk down the hall and have the conversation: that’s your job and that’s why you are out there. Knowing the resources within a mission also helps you respond to crises better, make decisions that consider the full breadth and depth of knowledge and visibility on a topic, and loop in others – which you are counting on being reciprocated when it really matters.
Q: What expenses are you responsible for and do you need to budget for at each post, such as utilities, wi-fi, and insurance?
A: In general, I think you can expect your housing will be paid and furnished (or you will receive a living quarters stipend, which is less common), and gas and electricity will be covered. At every post I have served at thus far, we have had to pay our own internet, cable, landline, and cell phones, either through the commissary or directly with the vendors. (Some officers, but not all, depending on their type of work and security conditions at the post, will receive a local cell phone, and it will not always necessarily be a smartphone.)
If you have a yard, you are expected to take care of it at your own expense and return it in the same condition. We chose to pay for pest control once a year in Australia, because, Australia. It really does depend – some people do not have a gardener and do things themselves, and other people have full-time live-in nannies, cooks, cleaners, drivers, etc. Some of it depends on the post and some people are just more likely than others to hire staff wherever they are. If you have a car, you need to pay for all the expenses that go along with that like gas and maintenance, with the extra fun of international insurance, third party liability insurance requirements of the host country, and any local diplomatic registration.
Many of my consular officer friends tell me I need to get professional liability insurance, stat. Sigh. I’m sure they’re right. I’m all over our property insurance though.
Q: Would you recommend having a certain amount of savings before joining the Foreign Service?
A: In my 2014 A-100, one of my classmates expressed frustration that she did not have enough credit history to get the mandatory government travel credit card, and was wondering what to do. As someone in my mid-30s at that time with almost a decade of federal service under my belt, it was a good reminder for some of us that not all our colleagues come from established family, financial, or professional backgrounds. Had I joined the Foreign Service several years earlier when I was drowning in student loan and credit card payments, I would have been up a similar creek. I don’t think government travel cards are mandatory any longer in the Department, but I remember it being an issue at that time.
There are a lot of times I have had to front money for work-related expenses until I could voucher them out for reimbursement – Permanent Change of Station (PCS) travel, control officer duties, an unexpected TDY, and my husband’s emergency medevac all come to mind. Mandatory home leave of 20 business days between foreign assignments also runs into the five figures for just about everyone. At both my previous assignments, my husband was out of work for some period, which had a serious financial impact on me, especially as a non-custodial stepmother as we considered health insurance and other financial obligations in our family. Another situation that comes to mind is the government shutdown of late 2018/early 2019 in which most FSOs were not paid for about a month, something that caused a lot of heartburn in particular to less well-established officers or those who may have been juggling competing or unexpected financial demands at that time.
A lot of newer officers do not realize they can borrow up to six pay periods of salary interest-free within (I believe) 45 days of a PCS move and spread the repayment over 18 pay periods, without justifying it to anyone. It can be a much better option than racking up credit card debt or tapping savings to fund that massive consumables run or buy another vehicle before heading to an overseas assignment. Even if you don’t need this money, you can still take the Advance of Pay and park it in an interest-bearing account where you could access it as an option if the need arose. I did something like this once and I felt pretty good about it!
Everyone’s comfort level on savings and debt varies, and advice about money invariably contains assumptions or judgments that make me a little uncomfortable. There is some argument that the culture of the Department is to assume that officers could or should be able to absorb some of these short-term losses, which I have many thoughts on relating to our ability to recruit, hire, and retain a diverse workforce. But be that as it may, I would say to save as much as makes you feel comfortable, to meet your family’s needs for a period of some months beyond what you expect, understanding that unless you are part of a tandem officer couple or your spouse is retired/independently wealthy, the Foreign Service lifestyle does not always make for the most stable income picture. And if someone can’t do this, I would still say to go for it, because we all have so much to offer.
Q: Do most FSOs bring their own vehicle? If so, what is the best/most versatile vehicle to bring?
A: I talked about this extensively in my post called “Foreign Service Cars: Buyer Beware,” but I would say there is not any right answer when it comes to cars. Some officers ship a car from the U.S. to post, some buy a car at post on the economy or from a departing officer, some buy and ship from a third location, some at border points or PCSing to a nearby country drive the same car they already have, and some officers don’t have a car at all.
And some officers do all or any of these depending on the timing and post environment. A lot of people I know recommend Toyota or Honda as brands that have parts available in most areas of the world, but I wouldn’t plan to buy any particular car until being paneled into an assignment and learning more about where you are going. Many countries place age limits on imported vehicles (that vary and change from time to time), and diplomats can’t import, for example, an American-spec car into a country where people drive on the left. Your Volkswagen Jetta that might be perfect for the narrow streets of a post in Italy might be a terrible choice to bring to Uganda. It really just depends. In the past two years, I have sold two SUVs, brought one out of storage, and purchased another, and that is a fact that five years ago would have surprised me very much!
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to me! I am happy to answer your questions individually via a direct email (although please understand it does sometimes take me several weeks to respond), and I may also feature it anonymously in an upcoming YQA post (edited for length and clarity).