Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why being a Diplomat in Norway is a big deal

After submitting my bid list a few weeks back I had spent a lot of energy and time trying not to get my head wrapped around one particular position. That position was Oslo. And while I was optimistic that this is where I would get sent, I had to be realistic that things could change or that I would be needed to serve elsewhere. After all, when I signed up, I agreed to serve anywhere and to remember that the needs of the service came first.

So I was beyond thrilled when that Norwegian flag finally came up (number 89 out of 93) and my name was announced. But I'm not just excited about Oslo because of the low crime and European amenities, though these are pretty nice. I'm excited about serving as a diplomat in Oslo because as long as I've known that Norway was a country I've wanted to live there, and for some reason life never quite allowed it. 

Like many Americans from the Pacific Northwest, I can trace my roots directly to Scandinavia. My mother even named me after my Norwegian great-grandmother, and because it is an usual name, I spent my childhood explaining to my friends that I had a Norwegian name. So when I arrived at college, a small school founded by Norwegian farmers, I was immediately drawn to learn more about this country that was my namesake. This curiosity was prodded along by the presence of 8 or so Norwegian students on my dorm floor, who found it amusing that Americans were so interested in connecting to their ancestral country. In an effort to impress these young men, my best friends and I took Norwegian language classes. I loved the language and learning about the quirky little country that decided not to join the EU, saves all it's oil money for it's people, and has an outsized involvement in world affairs. 

I continued on in these studies until my senior year. I wanted to study abroad in Norway, but the academic requirements for my double major didn't allow it, so I settled for some great stories from my best friend who did go to Norway (plus a quick trip to visit her). Instead I put my energy into an application for a Fulbright scholarship to Norway. The Fulbright didn't work out, but I was named an alternate, so I have the distinction of being one person away from winning the award. 

I went on to AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and grad school with little thought of Norway, other than during the holidays when the lefse would come out. Fast forward a few years, when I was asked to take on a portfolio at work that focused on the Arctic. All of a sudden my meager Norwegian skills came in handy during meetings, where I would shock/impress our Norwegian colleagues. I loved the job and the issues, and was excited that Norway was back in my life. This work and the issue started getting a lot of attention from the highest levels over the past year, which made my decision to join the foreign service a tough one. I wasn't quite ready to stop working on the Arctic. 

But, I did decide to accept my invitation, and hoped that at some point in my career I would put all that Arctic expertise to good use, maybe after a tour in Dhaka, Abuja, or Ciudad Juarez. Then the bid list came out and I couldn't contain a little shout of surprise when I saw not just a job in Oslo, but a job working on environment and science issues. This was my dream job, the one I would have designed for myself to do at some point in my career. How was it possible that it was there, on that list? The chance to finally, after all these years, live in Norway and work on issues that matter immensely to me. 

So that's the long story, and the reason why I couldn't contain a few tears when I grabbed that Norwegian flag and realize that everything had lined up so perfectly. 

A fuzzy picture from my first and only trip to Norway, 9.5 years ago. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Flag Day

A much longer post will follow, but for those in suspense, I'm heading to my #1 spot, Oslo, Norway!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conversations in Diplomacy

Over the past several weeks of orientation it hasn't escaped me how much a privilege it is to be in the Foreign Service. Impressive leaders within the Department congratulate us on our accomplishments before imparting their hard-earned wisdom. Current Foreign Service Officers notice our fresh faces in the FSI cafeteria, and warmly welcome us to their ranks. And just yesterday, our boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave us a little recognition during a televised discussion on foreign policy.

Our class was graciously invited to be in the audience for a Charlie Rose PBS series titled "Conversations in Diplomacy." The series brings the current Secretary of State together with a former Secretary to discuss and past and current foreign affairs issues. We were very very lucky to watch Secretary Clinton have a frank discussion with former Secretary James Baker, who served under Bush 42 during the Gulf War. After weeks of foreign policy immersion, it was fascinating to actually see how these issues are framed by our leaders. But what really made our night was when the talk turned to the current work being done by FSOs on the ground, and Secretary Clinton turned to Charlie Rose to point out that in the audience was a brand new class of Officers. That was us!! I can't even describe the immense patriotism and pride that I felt at the moment. The conversation can be watched online here, though sadly the Secretary's shout out to our class was edited out (for time purposes I'm going to assume).

The event took place in the Benjamin Franklin Dining Room on the 8th Floor of the State Department headquarters. These rooms are gorgeous, and wandering through them during the reception grounded our work in the context of a long history of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. Gifts from world leaders, the desk of Thomas Jefferson (our first Secretary of State), and the original Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, were scattered among stately reception rooms. The rooms are actually open for public tours that can be scheduled ahead of time.

Secretaries Clinton and Baker in discussion

The Treaty of Paris

The view from the 8th floor of Main State. 


Thursday, June 14, 2012

things I did in the middle of Virginia

The last week was concentrated around back to back trips deep into the Commonwealth of Virginia, first with friends and second with my classmates. I actually travel every weekday to Virginia for training/work, but heading south of the beltway is a rare occasion.

First was a camping excursion with a group of my closest friends from college and Americorps. We've been planning this adventure for months now, as is required to properly coordinate the schedules of 8 busy professionals, but we pulled it off! Two nights at Sherando Lake in the valley below the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was one of the nicest campgrounds I've ever stayed at, with level, nicely graveled sites, huge tables, fire pits, and a hook for your lantern. It definitely wasn't the pull off the Forest Service road in the middle of nowhere camping that I was raised on, but still amazingly serene and fun. The lake itself was tiny, again, very different from the huge glacial lakes of Northern Idaho, but still lovely.  We roasted marshmallows and sausages (including of the tofu variety), did some hiking, and then took a break from camping to visit a local brewery. I know, roughing it. Despite sleeping on the ground in a tiny tent with a friend and her dog, I slept more soundly that I had in months, and returned to DC feeling refreshed and grateful for my vacation from A-100.

Once back in DC, I had a quick turnaround before heading back down into Virginia for an overnight retreat somewhere near Richmond. Our class participated in every kind of group bonding and team building activity you can imagine, and I think gained quite a bit from the experience. With such a huge class, it's been hard to get to know people individually, so I personally appreciated the chance to get to some people a lot better. No pictures to share from that event, but if you can picture the inside of a hotel/conference center, then you get it.

Now I have just 1 week until Flag Day! Trying not to obsess too much, but it's hard knowing that my country is floating out there somewhere and I have no idea where it is. I'm also excited to be able to plan my life past June 29th.

Sherando Lake from Above

Sherando Lake from the Shore

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Sampling Beer

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Managing Expectations

The past week of orientation has largely been focused on managing expectations. Expectations about working for a large bureaucracy (money, vacation, paperwork) and expectations about that mystery location where we will serve our first 2 years as diplomats. No matter where they have served along the way, long time FSOs often reflect vividly on their first tour and talk about how much it shaped their entire career. And we've also heard from very senior officials that their own first tours were almost always amazing and positive, even if they were sent to one of their lower picks. 

So with my bid list due next week, I've been spending the weekend doing my research and managing my own expectations. I didn't think this process would be so difficult. After all, I joined the Foreign Service very much willing to go anywhere and do anything. But what I didn't expect was for there to be one position on our list that fits my skills, experience, and passions perfectly. If I could have designed a dream position, this would have been it. While I may stand a decent shot at being assigned to this position, there are a lot of moving pieces in the assignments blackbox, and I also have to prepare to go just about anywhere. 

Outside of class, I've been trying hard to balance my personal life. A-100 is full of lunches, happy hours, and other bonding activities but I also need time with my friends and loved ones here in D.C. I'm still trying to figure out to do everything and see everyone while allowing some "me" time, which has made these last two weeks particularly full, but exhausting. And things are not slowing down in the coming weeks, with more classes, a camping trip with friends, and waiting until Flag Day. I really need to just chill out like my friend at the Baltimore Zoo, below. 

Polar Bear at the Baltimore Zoo being much more chill than I am right now.