Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Yesterday I hosted my first Thanksgiving, and I'm happy to report that nothing burned down, no glasses or dishes were dropped, and there was not even one drop of blood spilled (except for the turkey). In all, it was much more of a success than I could have imagined.

There are so many things to be thankful for and it would take pages for me to list them all. I have the most amazing friends, who keep me centered, sane and laughing. My family, even though they are far away, supports my every wacky adventure with love. And I have been granted the most humbling career opportunities - working on super interesting topics that I'm passionate about while seeing the world. And as I look forward to the next steps that will lead to being a foreign service officer, to me the ultimate adventure, I can hardly comprehend my good fortune in life. So yeah, I have a lot of reasons to give thanks.  

I was joined in my small basement apartment by friends from all parts of my life. We kept it traditional, with a simple roast turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, herbed sweet potatoes, ginger carrots, corn, and three kinds of stuffing (veggie, regular in the bird, regular out of the bird). I insisted on sitting down for dinner, which involved combining a spare desk with the rickety Ikea table surrounded by every kind of folding chair you can imagine. But some antique linens and a set of family dishes made it feel civilized and proper. 

The before. Unfortunately, the after picture never happened, but it was gorgeous.

The food all came out according to plan and we ate ourselves into food comas. We tried to burn off some of the food through competitive games of Scattagories and Catch Phrase, with some football in the background. It was a great day.

So who knows where I'll be next Thanksgiving. I assume that I'll still be in D.C., but then again, who knows? 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Memorial Inspiration

Last Sunday, before my big test, I took a bike ride down to the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. I was looking for peace, reflection, and inspiration, and the space provided all of these. There are many great things about living in DC, but being surrounded by the reminders of the achievements of my country and memorials to some our most amazing citizens is what keeps me committed to this whole public service adventure. Here are some pictures and quotes from the MLK memorial.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Foreign Service Oral (Part II: What comes Next)

So I've already covered the fact that I passed the final step in the foreign service officer (FSO) selection process - the notorious and much feared Oral Assessment. So what happens next? My score is a 5.5. out of 7, with scores above 5.25 passing. A score of 5.9 is considered very high and anything above 6 is almost unheard of, so I am in the middle/lower of passing scores. Many candidates also get additional points for Military Service and for difficult language skills, which you get to add on top of your passing score before you go on the "register."  I’ll get to the register in a moment, but first comes clearances. After passing you have to be medically cleared and receive a security clearance. I already have a current security clearance from my time at State, so that should go pretty smoothly, just some updating. And I’m not too worried about the medical tests. They have a Foreign Service Medical Unit two blocks from my work and I’ve already had every test known to mankind from both before and after my Peace Corps service. But all of this will take some time.

I’m estimating that it will be at least 2-3 months before I get put on the Register, which is the list of all candidates who pass the FSOA and are cleared to serve. There are actually five register lists, one for each of the five “cones” in which an FSO can serve. They are: Management, Consular, Economic, Political, and Public Diplomacy. I am in the Economic cone, which will allow me to work on trade, business, energy, and the environment. The way the registers work is that as candidates pass and are cleared, they get put on the list in order of their score. In you take the test in June and pass with a 5.6, and someone comes along in October with a 5.7 they will skip ahead of you on the list. You get to stay on the list for 18 months, and if you don't get called up, it's back to the beginning, do not pass Go and do not collect $200. 

Whether you get pulled off the list is largely dependent on the State Department budget, as well as the number of retirees and other attrition. For anyone with pulse, you should know that the budget situation is pretty scary right now, but even with that new officers will be hired. Every 2-3 months the State Departments sends out invites for a new class of FSOs. Known as A-100, this is when you are a real deal and are officially an FSO, passport and all. After a hiring spree in 2010, the numbers have dropped and each class is running around 80-100 officers spread out over the five cones. That means about 20-25 Economic officers would expect to get pulled off the top of the list (all my numbers are estimates here for demonstration sake). And if there are 40-50 people ahead of you, and more getting added as they pass, your odds of getting pulled off are not great. So I'm not counting on getting in on my score alone (though it could happen), but I was planning ahead when I decided to start getting some hard language skills under my belt. I'm a few months into studying Russian, and am already feeling pretty good about my progress. I can't exactly hold a conversation, but then again I wasn't really all that focused. Now I have the ultimate motivation. Russian is consider a Critical Needs Language (CNL), which means if you can demonstrate limited working oral proficiency (in a phone test), you get an additional .4 added to you score. This would bring me up to a 5.9 and would make it almost certain that I would get called off the register. 

So here's my plan. I have a job that I really like and no plans of quitting and moving to Russia, that would be crazy. Instead, I'm going to continue going to Russian classes, probably twice a week starting in January (using both formal credit classes and informal free classes through the Global Language Network). I will also take advantage of any and all audio programs I can find (there are tons of free podcasts out there). I plan to devote at least 2 hours a day to studying on my own and start using online resources like Live Mocha more, where you can do online chatting to practice. I think I can get up to basic proficiency (a 1 or 1+) pretty quickly, but getting to 2 will require some immersion. I have a lot of annual leave, so this summer I will take a  month and study in Russia at a language school. I've found a couple out there with good recommendations. After returning I will take the phone test. If I pass, excellent. If not, I can take it again in 6 months. So if I get on the register in March and take the phone test in August, I still (theoretically) have over year left on the register and six months after my last try. The other plan would be to start the process all over again in June and see if I can make it all the way through and get a better score. You're allowed to do this while you wait (it doesn't kick you off the list). I might do this anyways, since there is no harm in it. 

So that's the plan, hope it works out. I've posted my timeline on the left, with a lot of question marks still left, but in all reality it will likely be a year or more before there are any significant changes in my life.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Foreign Service Oral (Part I: The Day)

On Monday I took the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), an all-day test of mental feats and psychological endurance designed to bring the most self-assured world-traveling foreign policy guru to his or her knees. And before I get too far I will save you the suspense and let you know that I passed, comfortably over the just-barely mark.

So, back to the test. There are three parts, a group exercise, an interview, and a memo writing portion. For legal and ethical reasons I can’t go into any specifics about these, but I can provide a general overview from my perspective. I arrived at about 6:40am to the testing center in D.C., and already there were a number of nervous looking candidates milling about the lobby. We were shortly escorted up the to the actual testing rooms, where we were left to get to know each other and stare at the walls while they prepared for our tests. It was immediately apparent that the candidates who make it this far represent the best of the best, and it was hard for me to fathom that at the end of the day the vast majority of these folks would be sent packing. There were 4 other Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs), all from my year (2009) and one of whom I had actually met during my orientation 2 years ago. There were a few lawyers, several people fluent in Mandarin or Arabic, and many candidates that had worked in Embassies already through details, internships, or through other programs. I tried to keep my confidence up as best I could.

Finally, around 8am we are given our instructions for the day, a schedule of where we were to be and when, and were split into two groups. My group of 6 was put in a nice corner office, with windows and everything, and we commenced our group exercise. The basic idea is that you are given a bunch of information about a fake country and projects that your embassy "task force" will be considering. Everyone has a different project and the goal at the end is to come to consensus on what will be funded and what will not, because of course money is tight. You have time to present individually (about 5 mins each) and then 20-30 mins to come to agreement on what to fund given your budget. Our group got along great, and our discussion was easy, logical, and organized. I felt I had done well on this, but no better than anyone else, even though in the end my project had the most support (maybe I’m a better negotiator than I give myself credit for J).  One down, two to go.

Part two was the writing exercise. You have an hour and a half to process a ton of information, provided to you in a binder, and respond in writing to a specific request, usually from the Ambassador or some other official. It’s designed to test your quantitative skills as well as your writing, so there are plenty of spreadsheets/numbers, and you have to make it all make sense. This is where I knew I would have the best chance to score really high, since my graduate program, thankfully, puts all students through a memo writing bootcamp and insists that we all know how to figure out a budget spreadsheet. Seriously, thank you Evans School Public Management courses! I completed the memo with a few minutes to spare, so I made some nice headings to make it an easier read (formatting is an under-appreciated art in my opinion).

I was given a short lunch break where I tried to eat something (yeah right) and returned back for the last part, my interview. It’s only an hour, but you have to get through a lot of information, including responding to hypothetical situations. Overall, I thought I did alright on this, but I wasn’t as organized as I’d hoped and ended up stumbling a couple of times. I came out feeling okay, but figured this might be the section that brings my score down a little.

Then comes the worst part, the waiting. My schedule had my longest break in the afternoon, so after the interview I had about 2 hours before they would start doing exit interviews. I wandered over the Museum of the American Indian, tried to drink some water, and called my mom. I was exhausted, but at least I was done. Once I killed as much time as I could, I went back to the center to join the other nervous candidates in the lobby. We joked about how it was possible that we could all pass, each knowing that only 2 or 3 at most would get a win. Finally, they put us in the computer lab where we had taken our writing exercise and then the torture began. One by one they opened the door and called people out. I kept imagining Top Chef's "stew kitchen", because that is exactly what it felt like. 

Based on reading blogs and online forums, it seems that the last ones standing are the winners, so each time that door opened I was praying that it wasn’t me to be called. Slowly, the room thinned out, and finally there were just three of us for quite a while. Then two. And then just me. For the longest 10 minutes of my life. I assumed this was good, but maybe they had changed it up? Maybe they read the blogs too and didn’t want us knowing the pattern? Maybe they forgot about me? At last the door opened and one of my interviewers called me back to the room where I had started the day in my group exercise. There were 4 other assessors standing there, and before I could put my stuff down, they read me my letter of congratulations. I had no control over my emotions at that point, so I very undiplomatically burst into tears. I pulled it together pretty quickly, shook hands with everyone and sat down to get my first briefing as a conditionally accepted Foreign Service Officer (FSO). 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

October recap

Here in Washington D.C. fall ticks on. We had a freak showing of snow last weekend, but this weekend the sun is back shining and the remaining leaves are still clinging colorfully to increasingly bare branches. I've been busy during these past 5 weeks of not getting on an airplane to anywhere, doing some hiking, getting out on the bike, schmoozing away at work, mentally preparing myself to take on the oral part of the foreign service exam in about a week, and partaking in some general silliness to fill in the gaps.

Getting outside of the "beltway" is a must for sanity and clarity at all times of the year, but the colors and rolling Virginia hills are particularly soothing to the soul in the fall. I ended up on a path less travel in the Shenendoah Valley, a rare event indeed, and was able to enjoy some truly spectacular views with only a handful of other exiles.

Work has also been busy, fun, challenging, and everything I hoped for when I came to DC to work on environmental policy. I was part of a group that received a major Conservation Award, complete with a reception at the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB for those West Wing buffs out there) and a very official cake. A few weeks after that I was involved in the planning and hosting of a big, fancy international meeting. The highlight was a reception on one of the big wig balconies overlooking the National Mall. Sorry, no pictures, DC paranoia prevents me from putting anything that combines wine and political appointees on a website. 

I was also able to tick off one item on my 30 for 30 list by attending the Baltimore City Roller Girls a couple weeks back (#9). It was interesting, but not the heart-pounding thrill a minute that I was hoping to experience. And I don't think I'll be signing up to be a roller girl anytime soon, in case any friends and family out there were worrying about me going through some sort of 30 crisis. A month in I've only crossed off one item, so I'm really going to have to focus to make this one happen. 

And no DC pre-halloween festivities are complete without the running of the high drag race, celebrating it's 25th anniversary this year. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Dupont to cheer on their favorite topically dressed drag queen. My personal favorites were the Royal Wedding Party, seen below, and the Pan Am Stewardesses who gave the crowd a pre-flight demonstration that topped anything I've ever had on United. 

So I think that wraps up October pretty well. November will center around my foreign service exam, which for good or for bad will be over by next Tuesday. I'm really quite chill about it, being that I have a great job, amazing friends, and pretty busy/crazy/silly life. Until next time. 

A lesson in chilling - thanks Ruby!