Saturday, May 26, 2012

What will I be doing part I: Consular

The Foreign Service has five career tracks, or "cones" as we call them: Management, Consular, Political, Economic, and Public Diplomacy. Officers spend the bulk of their career in jobs within their cone, but are by no means limited to these position and are in fact encouraged to gain experience outside of their specialty. And all FSOs spend at least 1 year during their first two tours working as consular officers due to the high importance placed on this work. If nearly all funding to the State Department ceased tomorrow, protecting and assisting U.S. citizens abroad and managing the issuance of visas to foreign visitors, the core of consular work, would no doubt remain intact.

While I chose to spend my career as an Economic Officer, I still believe consular work is extremely important and I'm looking forward to my turn working on the visa line and helping Americans overseas. And here in D.C., high-level politicians, including our president, have started to recognize the role of consular services not only to those overseas, but also to our economy here in the U.S. The recent PBS video below provides a great overview of this work. You'll even get a chance to see some shots of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) where I've been spending my days and hear from Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs, who I had a chance to hear from just yesterday in class.

Watch May 18, 2012 on PBS. See more from To The Contrary.

Watch May 18, 2012 on PBS. See more from To The Contrary.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A-100: Week 1

It's amazing how tiring just sitting and receiving an immense amount of information can be.  Before I started class, friends and family asked me what I would be learning during my 6-weeks of A-100, and I really didn't have a great answer for them. After 4 days, all I can say is, a little bit of everything. Rather than training, which comes after you receive your first country assignment, A-100 is considered orientation. You get the history and organization of the U.S. State Department,* an overview of the organization of D.C. offices and overseas posts, details on how to fill out paperwork, instruction and practice writing and public speaking, etc. etc. And it all happens fast!

The official line found on the is: 

New FS Generalists begin their careers with an orientation program (A-100 course). The focus of the orientation is on introducing new employees to the structure and function of the Department and its role in the development and implementation of U.S. foreign policy; developing an understanding of the terms of employment; and enhancing core skills needed by all Foreign Service Officers.

The A-100 course, based at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, is primarily a classroom experience. But it also includes trips to Capitol Hill and to other federal agencies, as well as an offsite at a nearby conference center. In addition to presentations by guest speakers and U.S. Department of State officials, A-100 also includes a series of practical exercises and case studies.

At the end of orientation, Foreign Service Generalists receive their first assignments, which will govern the type of specialized training that follows. That training may include public diplomacy training, consular training, political-economic tradecraft, or management training. Required language training can last for an additional six to nine months. Overall, newly hired Generalists can expect to spend from three months to one year in training before departure for their first overseas assignment.

I'm nearly done with my first week and am completely exhausted. One of the most difficult, but most enjoyable, tasks is getting to know my 93 classmates. It's amazing to hear about all the careers, education, languages, and overseas experiences that lead people to the Foreign Service. We have former military members, teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, business executives, published authors, and T.V. news reporters represented in our class. 

In the coming weeks we will be continuing to learn the ins and outs of our new jobs while working our way to a specific assignment. Already we are absorbing the possible countries where we might serve (also known as the bid list), doing our research and some self-reflection. We get to meet with Career Development Officers to discuss our preferences, while of course remaining open to serving anywhere. Lots to absorb, but all very exciting!

* Interesting fact, the first country to recognize the United States as a country was Morocco, so that we could address a nasty pirate problem using our ships docked in their ports. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Back to school. Back to school, to prove to Dad that I'm not a fool. I got my lunch packed up, my boots tied tight, I hope I don't get in a fight. Ohhhh, back to school. Back to school. Back to school. Well, here goes nothing." ~ Billy Madison

Thank you oh wise Billy Madison for best summing up what's going on in my head right now. Except for I'll be wearing heels instead of boots, my Dad doesn't think I'm a fool, and the chances of getting into a fight are pretty small. But still, I'm heading back to school at the ripe old age of 30. I probably won't be able to get much sleep tonight in anticipation of my first day as a Foreign Service Officer tomorrow, which is fine after 3 solid weeks of rest and relaxation.  I have my first day outfit all picked out (I'm going with brown "power suit") and I have my brand new (second hand) Tumi briefcase all packed with the required paperwork for in-processing.

This morning I kicked off this new adventure by running a 10k with a couple of folks from my class (with thanks to one classmate in particular for pushing me to beat my goal time by 30 seconds). I finished the 6.2 miles in 56:26, definitely a new personal best for me! Then this afternoon we all met up for a welcome reception put on by our sponsoring class, the 165th A-100 (the class that started in January). Each A-100 class is sponsored by an earlier class to help answer all the many, many questions we have about the next 6-weeks and beyond. It also turns out we have a fairly large class of nearly 90, compared with 65 in the January class, so the 167th is big bunch. While it was great to meet new colleagues, it was especially amazing to hear about all the places where people were preparing to head to for their first post - Tajikistan, Italy, Niger, Ciudad Juarez, and even Belmopan. Spins my head a little to think about all the possibilities.

I'll post more details this week on bidding, etc, but right now I need to try and get some sleep. In 11 or so hours I get my first peak behind the curtain and I absolutely cannot wait!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A trip home

I'm currently relaxing in a very decent airport bar in Denver International having just wrapped up a trip back home to visit the family. And sitting here it's hitting me that I really don't know when my next trip back to WA state might be. I start A-100 in just 5 days, and once I'm in class I don't really have the flexibility to take vacations that require 10 hours of travel each way.

That sad thought aside, I had a wonderful, if too quick, trip home. It always feels like such of whirlwind of activity, but this trip kept me busy but still allowed for some quality bonding time with the niece and nephew. The morning after I landed we piled into my parents' motorhome to visit the "Inland Northwest's Premier Family Destination," Silverwood Theme Park in Northern Idaho. I love Silverwood and have since I was little. It's not big or fancy, but it has some very thrilling roller coasters and plenty of small rides to keep the kiddos entertained. And it was a beautiful sunny, 80 degree day with zero humidity, so that didn't hurt.

Timber Terror - a crazy fast wooden coaster. 
The warning for Tremors, a wooden coaster than dives underground. 
Looking up at Aftershock - the only coaster I've refused to go on twice. So scary!
Silverwood is Western themed, which includes a train ride through an old "ghost town"
The rest of my time at home was spent running errands in my parents' new "dingy," aka the car they will pull behind their motorhome. The 1980 convertible 5-speed Rabbit would have been my dream car in high school, though I am secretly trying to figure out how to kidnap it and ship it to wherever in the world I end up. I also got to relax a little with my mom and sister, including a trip out to a local winery tasting room (Eastern Washington beats Virginia hands down on good wines) and watching my niece's soccer practice. I even managed to complete all the necessary paperwork to prove that I am indeed domiciled in Washington State.* I won't go into all the crazy details of taxes while living overseas (because I mostly don't understand these details), but I wanted to make sure that once I'm sent overseas that it's clear that all of my personal ties and interests lie in back in WA State.

So Monday the staycation ends and the chaos begins. I'll update more frequently as things like bid lists and Flag Day come flying at me, but first stop is Main State for my badge. I can't wait!

I love this car!

*Domicile is a legal term that is separate from residence. I can be a resident of DC, but if my intent is to return to WA State and I have most of my personal interests there, and I can prove all of this, then while living overseas I would then use WA State for tax purposes. WA State, unlike DC and most of the rest of the country, does not have state income taxes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

At the museums

Did some good museum visiting today - Hirshhorn Modern Art, African Art, and a gelato/coffee break at the National Gallery of Art. Here are some pics.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Vacation from my staycation: Shenandoah

Week one of my staycation was amazing, if slightly less productive than I'd hoped. I did get a lot of documents scanned and organized, I put in a few really good runs, and I cleaned my apartment top to bottom. I even started inventorying my meager collection of possessions using a nifty app I found. It's called "Home Inventory" on the Apple app story and it downloads to your computer and lets you use your iphone as a camera/bar code scanner as you wander through your house - it completely rocks and I would recommend to all FSOs or frequent movers.

After spending a week enjoying my solitary time in the apartment, Saturday we headed for the hills for a quick mini-vacation at Shenandoah National Park. Just a couple hours from DC, Shenandoah NP is a little slice of heaven. Skyline Drive stretches the length of the park and lets you view both east and west from a solid 3,000 foot vantage point, no hiking required. However, if hiking is your thing (and it's totally my thing), the park has some really amazing hikes through dense green forests and across craggy summits.

Before getting to the park, we got distracted by several of the many wineries that dot the valleys of Virginia. Drawn in by clever names on roadside signs, we discovered two solid wineries and spent a few hours sampling their products, chatting with the owners, and enjoying the sunny day wandering through the vineyards, playing bocce ball, and relaxing by a stream in a hammock.

Life at a Virginia Winery
Once we got to Shenandoah, we checked into one of two historic lodges located directly on Skyline Drive and the only one open this time of year. Skyland Resort dates from 1888 and offers a 1950s family vacation vibe, with a large dining hall and accommodations spread among dozens of cabins and small lodges. According to the website, "If you are looking for 4 diamond, luxury accommodations with all the amenities, Skyland is not the place for you.  The absence of in-room phones and WIFI only enhances the quietness of the surroundings.  Skyland lets you leave the hi-tech world behind so you can immerse yourself in the tranquility of nature." Yup, that about sums it up. 

On Sunday, after a relaxing breakfast on our porch overlooking what must have been a gorgeous view (we couldn't tell since the clouds/fog were so thick we couldn't see the cabin 40 feet away), we picked a couple of nearby hikes to try. The first took us up a short and easy trail to the second highest spot in Shenandoah, Stoney Man peak. The view came and went as the clouds swirled around.

Shenandoah Valley below the clouds.

The second hike was a 6 mile steep trek through a misty, dreamy forest of streams and ferns. The destination was White Oak Canyon Falls, 3 miles down from Skyline Drive. The walk was gorgeous through the mist, though after several hours of hiking, the clouded view of the falls made the uphill 3 mile return a little less rewarding. That being said, the grey weather kept the usual crowds away, so for most of the day Shenandoah felt as isolated as the North Cascades or the lesser known trails of the Olympics. Coming back to DC, back down out of the clouds as it were, was a bit sad after such a nice break from reality. 

Rock formation in White Oak Canyon
Spring flowers in the mist
A misty view of the falls

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Staycation List

So now that I've said a sad farewell to my job, I have three weeks (now less) of down-time to relax. I know that once I start classes I won't be able to take any leave for at least the 6 weeks of A-100, and probably much longer once I start my mystery language/skills training, so I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to use up a good chunk of my vacation time to see and do all those DC things I hadn't yet done. The following should be a good start.

  • Visit some of the Smithsonian and other museums that I haven't gotten around to yet, including the Hirshhorn Modern Art Museum, the African Art Museum, and the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens and Museum. 
  • Get a look inside the National Cathedral through the recently re-started Gargoyle Tours (they had been on hold for the past year due to damage caused by last year's earthquake). 
  • Spend a an afternoon at the National Archives doing some family history research.
  • Restock my cupboards of all the things that I'd generally keep on hand back in Seattle - kaffir lime leaves, curry powder, rice paper wrappers, wontons, soba noodles - at some of the ethnic food markets that hide out in the DC suburbs. 
  • Thanks to a well-timed Living Social deal, head out to Virginia suburbs and try my aim at a local gun range.  
  • Do some running so I can beat my personal best at my third Capitol Hill 10k on May 20th (I think I'll need to come in under 59 mins). 
  • As a reward for all my hard work, have a spa day with a massage and facial. 

In addition to getting out of my apartment, I've also been embarking on a great document purge. I bought a scanner and have been digitizing everything I can put my hands on: receipts, medical info, business cards, pictures, etc. It's tedious work, but with a full day to fill, it's oddly relaxing and the reward of getting to shred or recycle piles of old paper is amazing.

Finally, to top off all of this seeing, doing, relaxing, and organizing, I'll make a quick trip back to the other Washington to spend some much needed time with the family.