Since our terrific socially-distanced trip to New Mexico six weeks ago for my birthday, V and I have been settling in to life in Ciudad Juárez together. It has been both great, and tedious, and prolonged, kind of like 2020.
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.
Today I mark 15 years of federal service.
It has been about a year and a half since my last YQA post, so I decided to share a selection of repeat questions the blog has received since then for wider distribution, along with my answers. I have edited both questions and answers for clarity and privacy wherever necessary. In this edition, I tackle questions about candidate experience and qualifications, travel, dual-citizenship, and mail.
These are unofficial opinions and my personal advice, which are worth roughly what you pay for them. (Wink!) These posts remain popular through the years, so I will try to do them more often if the questions keep rolling in.
Go ahead, ask a diplomat! You can email the blog a question at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I have written about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia (2002-2004) on this blog on quite a few occasions. In particular, I’ve written about departing for service, my own challenges with resiliency, how I initially struggled to learn the Macedonian language, excerpts from letters I sent home, the intense joys of getting a washing machine in my village, and even some things I was later grateful for about working at Peace Corps Headquarters (2010-2014). And of course, Peace Corps’ difficult and historic decision to evacuate all PCVs worldwide and suspend its operations earlier this month.
However, this post isn’t about any of those things. It’s about the heartbreak of losing your home when you finish your service unexpectedly, and the joy of one day getting it back. When a PCV says goodbye to their service, no matter the circumstances, it is a loss. But later you come to realize that the home you created during Peace Corps is never truly gone. It will welcome you with open arms for the rest of your life. So this post is in honor of the 7K+ evacuees tonight.
I was heartbroken to wake up yesterday morning and learn that for the first time in its 59-year history, Peace Corps would totally suspend its operations and evacuate thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The past week has been one of the strangest and most fluid in recent memory. We had a national emergency, a roller coaster stock market, travel restrictions, and the World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic. We even got in a full moon, time change, and a Friday the 13th for good measure. But it wasn’t just strange in an abstract way; witnessing panic-buying behavior and empty store shelves, coupled with news of school closures and rippling nationwide event cancellations drove the potential catastrophic impact uncomfortably close to home for many.
Three months ago, during the last week of July, my diplomatic posting to Australia was ending and my colleagues threw me a going-away lunch. Over Indian food, one colleague asked what I would miss about serving in Canberra and what I was looking forward to in the United States. Funny he should have asked, because at that time, what I was going to miss about Australia was a topic I had been thinking about a lot. I’d actually been sketching a blog post outline about it for several weeks!
However, life happened and I didn’t manage to finish writing and editing the post before I left, or even during the past several weeks since we returned to the U.S. I started thinking about it again when I saw the post sitting in my drafts folder, and during my recent Spanish evaluation, when I was asked to compare and contrast life in the U.S. with life in Australia.
So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, about what I miss (and don’t miss) about living in Australia.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
In early August, V and I spent the first part of our home leave in Hawaii. Home leave is Congressionally-mandated vacation in the U.S. or its territories (you can cost-construct against your Home of Record) after an overseas diplomatic posting. Home leave is designed to help you reacquaint yourself with the country you are serving. It starts the first business day after your travel day (the day you land in the U.S.), and should last a minimum of 20 business days before your onward training or posting starts. I had counted backwards from the first day of Spanish class this coming September to determine which day we should depart Australia and make sure we took at least the minimum home leave.
Although home leave is required, it isn’t paid for; officers and their families have to juggle expenses and decide whether to visit family, go to a new place, or some combination. Going on vacation in a first-world country for a month, usually with no car or house, can be really expensive! Compared to our first home leave in 2017, this time I prepared better and saved up. Since Honolulu falls roughly 2/3 of the way between Australia and California, and neither of us had ever been to Hawaii before, it seemed like a terrific stopover point to kick off our home leave. Honolulu and the island of Oahu did not disappoint! In case you are curious or planning a visit, here are the things we enjoyed most – in no particular order – during our five nights and six days there.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot (and feeling all the feels) about the issue of work-life balance: why does balance going sideways seem to happen to some people more often than others? And is getting the balance back really as simple as just “leaving work?” I can’t say that I have all the answers, but I’m getting closer to my own personal solutions.
Each year on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders hold a day of remembrance to honor their fallen service members. Anzac Day was originally meant to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) volunteer soldiers who landed at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25, 1915. The battle at Gallipoli, sometimes also called the Dardanelles Campaign, was the first time Australian and New Zealand troops fought together in World War I. More than 11,000 ANZAC soldiers were killed and a further 23,500 wounded at Gallipoli. In the decades that followed, the holiday broadened to honor the fighting Anzac spirit that is a large part of the national identity.
All over Australia, Australians mark Anzac Day with dawn services, marches, and remembrance ceremonies, and reflect on the lives of those who persevered and died protecting the freedoms and values we enjoy.
In early 2018, I got hooked on a Harvard Business Review podcast called “Dear HBR” that a former Peace Corps colleague and LinkedIn contact recommended.
During each episode, hosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn read three listeners’ letters on workplace dilemmas and talk out solutions with a relevant industry expert. Some of my favorite topics have focused on toxic workplaces, getting sidelined, job-hopping, hard conversations, dysfunctional teams, poor communicators, ineffective leaders, personal rebranding, performance reviews, annoying subordinates, lateral moves, career transition, and bad bosses. I’m always happy to see a new available episode of “Dear HBR.” A couple of weeks ago, the third letter on a new episode called Benefits and Perks got my attention. It was about managing the crush of work email upon returning from leave, and that topic is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
On Saturday, December 22, 2018, the United States government underwent a partial shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations, and V and I became two of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay. This was my fourth furlough in 13+ years of federal service, but this one felt like it could potentially go on a lot longer than the others. Five weeks later, the longest shutdown in our nation’s history came to a temporary end with the passage of a continuing resolution, days before we planned to miss our second paycheck and our dental and vision plan (paid for through payroll withholdings) was about to start direct-billing me.
As I have said many times, I do not publicly discuss politics or comment on U.S. policy in my personal capacity. That is not going to change. There are a million people out there already doing that, and some even with considerable acumen. However, there are some takeaways I would like to share on the shutdown from my overseas perspective.