Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!

There are three things you’ll notice when you first step onto the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. First, it is hot. Very hot. Second, there is a constant buzz from the hundreds of motorbikes whizzing past in a flurry of horns and engines. Third, thanks to a strict country-wide response, you have entered a COVID-controlled world where restaurants and shops are open and where there have been less than 1,200 cases in a country of 95 million people. After 14 days of quarantine, I’ve been eager to get out and explore!

The city is a maze of back streets. A narrow alley that at first appears to hold nothing but several stories worth of air conditioning units will actually contain a twisted path of hidden shops and cafes. So far, I’ve found a chocolate factory complete with tasting classes, a delicate paper and ink shop designed for someone much shorter than I, and a contemporary art gallery founded by a Vietnamese refugee who relocated to the United States following the Vietnam War.

The food here is incredible. Every brunch, lunch, and dinner has included an interesting combination of flavors both new and old. So far, my favorite meal is from a little alley cafe a short walk from work. A small fleet of Vietnamese women cook the same, single dish every day: bún thịt nướng. Noodles, pickled cucumbers, and pork are topped with fish sauce that you ladle into your bowl from a plastic bucket on the table. After you’ve been brought your dish, you sit on a small metal stool, grab a pair of chopsticks out of another plastic bin, and contentedly slurp your noodles. The current exchange rate is 23,000 Vietnamese đồng to $1 USD, so even though paying for your lunch involves math with many zeroes, the meal usually ends up costing just a few dollars.

And of course I’ve already gone to tea. Two, in fact! The first was a decadent 1940s travel-themed tea at Hotel Des Artes where mini spring rolls are served in a leather-bound suitcase and passionfruit mousse is nestled in a three-tiered birdcage. The second tea was at the Villa Royale Team Room, an Australian-owned tearoom and antique shop, in which you sip your tea amongst elaborate clocks, overstuffed satin couches, and dramatic paintings of women in feathered hats.

Because of the required two-week quarantine upon entry into Vietnam, international travel is not currently an option. But that just means that now is the time to plan in-country adventures. My first trip was to Hồ Tràm, a beach town a few hours away from Ho Chi Minh City. Two friends and I decided to use a long weekend to check out one of the city’s lovely hotels and spend a few days lounging in pools and soaking up the sun. The beaches in Hồ Tràm border the South China Sea, or as it’s known in Vietnam, the Biển Đông or Eastern Sea. Dozens of ships dot the horizon; a stark comparison to the horizon in Cabo Verde, where only the ferry to Fogo would occasionally drift in and out of view.

So far, Vietnam has been wonderful. The people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the work is interesting. I’m excited for the next two years.

A Vietnamese Quarantine

Vietnam takes this pandemic incredibly seriously and has had remarkable success dealing with COVID-19. One reason for this success is that quarantine in Vietnam is no joke. I stepped into this room in the dead of night 12 days ago and will not step out of it again until my two-week quarantine is complete. It’s rumored that there is a COVID-controlled oasis on the other side of these walls, so I am more than happy to sit contentedly in my room and aid the effort.

I cannot go outside, nor can I step into the hallway. I have a menu in my room and leave a daily order form on a table outside my door. A hotel employee rings my doorbell when my meals arrive and although I run to the door to catch a glimpse of another human, they’ve always disappeared into thin air. I have a balcony from which I can watch the quick construction of a house next door and somewhere, there lives a rooster intent on waking me at 6am.

My figurative window to the rest of the world.

Quite honestly, quarantine is great. I’ve made excellent progress on my stack of books and Netflix queue. My mother, a talented quilter (Pleasant Street Quilts), always encourages me and my sister to have some hand-piecing projects to keep our hands busy, and I’ll have quite a few quilt blocks to show for my two weeks in quarantine. I workout. I nap. I Skype. And while I will be happy to start my tour in Ho Chi Minh City, I will be sad to once again set an alarm in the morning and wear real shoes.

A few batiks from my current Moroccan-inspired hand-piecing project.

Living that strenuous quarantine lifestyle.

I’ve been in the Foreign Service for a few years now, and one defining characteristic of all diplomats is that we’re always on the move. Our belongings are often in transit or storage and we live out of suitcases for months at a time. I think it’s important to make every house – or quarantine room – a home, even if we’re only here for a few weeks. So despite having just two suitcases, both teetering dangerously on the brink of being overweight, I packed a few small things that remind me of home. They make all the difference!

Some of my favorite things! Pictures of friends and family, letters from Paul, my favorite tea, as well as lovely gifts from some of my favorite people.

Today is Day 12 of my 15-day quarantine. Later this week, I’ll fly to Ho Chi Minh City and see me and Paul’s new apartment for the first time. I will go to work and put my pens in a proper desk drawer. There will be people at restaurants and kids in school. I’m thrilled.

Welcome back!

Although I can’t be sure I’m in Vietnam from my quarantine view, there’s a hat in my room as proof!

Hello, everyone! So much has happened since I last wrote: I finished my tour in Cabo Verde and received my second assignment – Ho Chi Minh City! I returned to the States, where I spent ten months learning Vietnamese. I had movie nights with my little sister and took drizzly walks along the Mall. Then during a fall weekend in Shenandoah National Park, my boyfriend, Paul, asked me to marry him. I now have a brilliant fiancé, who is in the process of taking a sabbatical from the U.S. Navy to follow me to Vietnam. Both our departure plans and wedding plans were delayed by several months because of COVID. At times, it seemed as though the entire world was descending into chaos. However, the delay in my departure allowed me and my sister to return to our hometown and spend time with our parents, a rare and much-appreciated silver lining. Now after more than a year of transitions and suitcases, I’m on the brink of my next adventure.

I’ve returned to this site because of you. Even while I wasn’t writing, I received dozens of emails and questions from fellow diplomats, prospective applicants, and friends I’ve known in past lives. A few days ago, I logged onto this site for the first time in months and was shocked to see hundreds of visits to the site that I had all but abandoned. Very happily, it seems that I’m the only one who disappeared. Why did I stop writing? It’s partly because these posts take quite a bit of time to pull together. But I think it’s also partly because my tour in Cabo Verde was hard. The country itself was wonderful, but the work was hard, as was the isolation. That said, I’ve always intended to come back and continue sharing my adventures. So here I am.

Welcome bag, complete with chocolates.

And where exactly am I, do you ask? I’m currently sitting in a small hotel room in Hanoi on Day 8 of my 15-day quarantine. Next week, I’ll fly to Ho Chi Minh City, where I’ll start my two-year tour in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General.

Thank you for drawing me back. Let’s get started.

A Quest to Find a Hidden Cove

Day trips in Cabo Verde always seem to turn into fairly epic adventures. There are a few reasons for this:

  • First of all, Google hasn’t yet infiltrated Cabo Verde. Most businesses advertise only on Facebook or not at all, so it’s hard to track down directions to restaurants, stores, or even other towns. And because any sort of street sign is rare, you generally wander into a few homes before you find the hidden shop you’re looking for.
  • Second, Cabo Verdean buildings don’t have physical addresses. For example, anything delivered to my house goes to “the yellow embassy house with the barbed wire near the paint store in Palmarejo.”
  • Third, Cabo Verde has a no-stress island vibe, so you can call a restaurant to see if they’re open for lunch, only to find locked doors when you get there fifteen minutes later.

So one day, when two friends and I decided to find Aguas Bellas, a cove “somewhere on the western side of the island,” perhaps we should have known to bring more snacks.

We start off by driving to a town that was supposedly near the cove. Locals then point us down a precarious cliff-hanging road.

I took pictures to distract myself from thoughts of imminent doom.

We casually navigate around a few seemingly recent rockfalls.

After driving down a dry river bed and across a beach, the car gets stuck in mud that smells suspiciously of poo. It takes the three of us intrepid explorers plus a few neighbors to push the car out.

This process involved getting personally covered in poo. After a quick rinse in the ocean, we’re again on our way.

We are quite the curiosity.

We pass some wildlife on our continued trek up the riverbed. The car is rather smelly now.

We take a turn and start gaining altitude.

No sign of a cove yet.

We stop in a field for pictures.

Proof that I came too.

Post-rain Cabo Verde is so green!

The boys clear another impasse. I continue to document our adventure, for posterity’s sake.

The road ceases to exist, but determined, we lace up our hiking boots and continue on foot. Everyone is still rather poo-covered.

We pass a cactus farm.

Our new guide takes us as far as the nearest ledge.

We trek down hills. We trek up hills.

We trek through fields. We trek over rocks.

We find a cove! But alas, it is not the right cove.

Unfortunately, we also determine that this cove is a tad too dangerous for swimming.

So instead, we pause for a snack with a view.

We scramble up the hill over the cove to get a better vantage point. Don’t look down.

We’re several hours in and it’s getting quite hot now. We think we see a cove in the distance…

We find the cove! Unfortunately we are on top of the cove and not in the cove. We consider trying to climb down, but our water supply is dwindling. We think about how nice a swim would be as we turn back.

Things take a turn. We get lost. We find ourselves without water. It’s quickly approaching 100 degrees. The nearby cows refuse to offer any guidance. I stop taking pictures in order to conserve phone battery. We are cranky. We are thirsty. At one point, we pass a skeleton strongly resembling the below.

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A few hours later, we stumble past the cactus farm and into the village where we left the car. We buy bottles of water from a small bar and hide in the shade, nursing our new sunburns. The locals marvel over how long it took us to unsuccessfully find the cove. We climb back into the car, a little worse for wear, and head back to Praia reflecting on the day’s adventure.

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Not every country in the world is safe enough for such adventures. But not every country in the world is wild and untouched enough for such adventures either. Cabo Verde manages to maintain the perfect balance and for that, I am grateful. Cheers to the next adventure!

It’s raining!

I have never been so excited to see rain as I am now in Cabo Verde.

September 2018, Santiago Island

When I arrived in Cabo Verde, the country had already suffered through a full year of drought. The rain hadn’t come, leaving the islands barren, dry, and dusty. Small family farms no longer had an income and rural properties were abandoned as families moved in search of work. Emaciated cows and goats were let loose to wander the islands in search of food and to defend themselves against the starving street dogs. The number of students in schools dwindled as families couldn’t afford transportation. Cabo Verdeans walked further and further each day to carry back jugs of water from government distribution points. The supposedly “Green Cape” was only shades of brown. Even the cacti started to wilt.

February 2018, Santiago Island

March 2018, Santiago Island

The rainy season in Cabo Verde usually starts in July and lasts through September. Back home, we know this as hurricane season. The rain that starts here in the East Atlantic picks up speed on its way west, turning into massive tropical storms that pummel the Caribbean and southern states. In fact, the only time Cabo Verde is mentioned on American news seems to be in reference to these storms. And while everyone back home stocks up on canned food, flashlights, and conveniently bottled water, Cabo Verdeans hope and pray that they don’t have to watch the rain fall into the ocean a few miles off the coast.

March 2018, Santiago Island

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my living room couch pondering whether I had time for another Brooklyn 99 episode before bed, when I heard someone run across my roof. I immediately grabbed a flashlight in self-defense (naturally) and leapt from the couch. As I hid silently behind my bookcase (because I’m sneaky, you see) I also heard someone on the roof of my deck. A two-person heist! Stealthily craning my neck out of my hiding spot, I could just make out a darkened corner of my patio. I squinted. Was that rain?!

The rain was coming down fast and heavy and made such a racket that I assumed my fortress was under attack. I jumped out from behind my bookcase and threw open the back doors to my patio. There were puddles! And wind! And water falling from the sky! I proceeded to record a series of poorly-lit and shaky videos because the moment felt so momentous.

September 2018, Santiago Island

September 2018, Santiago Island

It’s rained several times over the past few weeks and the islands have suddenly turned green. Dusty abandoned construction lots now look like the rolling hills of Ireland. Goats munch on grass instead of garbage. For the first time in a year, the seasons seem to have changed.

A few weeks of rain won’t fix the damage caused by the recent drought. And as these droughts become more common, there will likely be more serious problems on Cabo Verde’s hazy horizon. But for now the islands are happy. It’s raining.

September 2018, Santiago Island

September 2018, Santiago Island

September 2018, Santiago Island

September 2018, Santiago Island

How to pass the QEP

PN Email

An official eagle seal!

After months of obsessive email checking, I knew the fateful day had arrived when I saw the subject line sitting in my inbox: “Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) Score Report Available Notification.” After crossing my fingers (because that’s what diplomats do), I opened the email, but through squinted eyes (which make bad news less painful) saw only a link to log into my online testing account. HURDLES. I incorrectly entered my password three times before finally seeing the spinning wheel of loading doom. I re-crossed my fingers, clicked into my score report, and felt a flood of adrenaline as I saw the word, “Congratulations!”

And congratulations, indeed! You’ve made it to the Personal Narrative hurdle of the Foreign Service application marathon. Well done.

The Personal Narratives are six short essay prompts in which you have 1,300 characters per essay to explain why you’re the bee’s knees. These essays are read by a group of diplomats known as the Qualifications Evaluations Panel, or the QEP. I can only assume that these poor people are sitting in a fluorescent lit, windowless cinder block basement, where they are required to finish reading hundreds of essays before they are allowed their government-sponsored bologna sandwich and milk carton lunch.

But in all seriousness, the QEP reads every applicant’s submissions and all applicants receive a decision within a matter of weeks. These people are reading a lot of essays very quickly. So much like in college applications, the name of the game in this round is to grab their attention. Below are my tips!

  • Answer the question they way they want you to. The Personal Narrative prompts are based off the Foreign Service’s Core Precepts (the rubric they use to determine promotions within the Foreign Service). And conveniently, this rubric is publicly accessible. Read this rubric, because the way the State Department defines “Innovation” and “Problem-Solving” may be different from the way you do.
  • Use State Department approved vocabulary. The QEP will compare your essays to the 13 Dimensions, (the list of character traits exemplified by a Foreign Service Officer) so work this vocabulary into your essays. This will make the QEP’s job easier, effectively getting them one step closer to their bologna sandwich, and you, one step closer to the Foreign Service.
  • Don’t be dull. The QEP panelists must be so. Incredibly. Bored. So do them a favor and make your essays interesting. I was very formal the first time I went through the Personal Narrative round and didn’t pass. So the second time, I dialed up the story-telling. Start each essay with a hook. Be clever. Be witty. Be yourself (but only if you are clever and witty).
  • Be multi-faceted. A Diplomat in Resident (side note: contact your Diplomat in Residence, they are very wise and useful people) told me that each of the responses should come from a different experience in your background. So don’t tell six stories that are all vaguely similar. If you can, tell only one story from each job, extracurricular, or study abroad experience.
  • Self-compliment like your career depends on it. Were these experiences a team effort? Probably. But the QEP doesn’t care what everyone else on your team did, they only care about what you did. Don’t waste valuable characters on other people. Use the STAR Method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to explain only the awe-inspiring things you accomplished.

Good luck, folks!

A Day in the Life

The never-ending mountain of applicant folders

A never-ending mountain of applicant folders

I’ve been living in Cabo Verde for six months! I’ve visited four of ten Cabo Verdean islands, adjudicated more than 1,200 visas, and submitted my bid list for my next post. Yikes. And now that I have a better understanding of what I do (it was a long learning curve), I thought I’d fill you all in as well. So below, I present: A Day in the Life of the American Vice Consul in Cabo Verde. Also known as, me.

7:40 AM

I nudge the curb and gear my car into park, proud of myself for once again surviving the seven hectic traffic circles between my house and the U.S. Embassy. I open the car door, letting myself adjust to the buzz of street noise before swinging out onto the cobblestones. I say hello to the group of women who sit on plastic buckets selling fresh tuna to pedestrians and walk through the sunny breeze while rummaging through my purse for my security badge. As I pass the line of visa applicants outside the embassy who certainly woke up much earlier than I, I wonder who decided that American embassies should open an hour earlier than any other American office on the planet.

8:00 AM

I settle into my chair and flip on the desk lamp I brought to improve the office’s fluorescent lighting. As I pull a Tupperwared muffin out of my purse, I ponder if any of my houseplants could survive a move to my window-less desk. I log onto my computer and start typing out responses to last night’s emails.

By 9am, the Consular section’s local staff have gotten a head start on applicant intake and my boss and I are called to the windows to begin our interviews for the day. All Cabo Verdeans need a visa to visit, study, or work in the United States and must come to the U.S. Embassy for a visa interview. My boss and I will spend the next few hours interviewing applicants in Portuguese through bullet-proof glass to determine if they are eligible for visas to the United States. There are thousands of U.S. immigration laws, exceptions, and ineligibilities to consider. I often stare blankly at applicants as my mind spins through the rolodex of immigration rules that may apply to any one particular case. In the end, there is only time to speak to each applicant for about three minutes. This is also the most heartbreaking part of the job, as it often involves denying the visas of perfectly nice people who don’t qualify for the visas for which they applied. Parents argue. Children cry. Grandmas glare.

11:30 AM

I return all my checklists and guides to their blue folder, switch off my window’s microphone and return to my office, rethinking the morning’s cases. I check emails and hope I don’t see anyone that I denied at lunch.

1:30 PM

Following a sunny lunch at one of the outdoor cafes near the Embassy, I head back to the office to fight back the growing stack of applicant folders that have begun to pile up on my desk. This involves running name checks, checking fingerprint and facial recognition databases, requesting and sorting additional documentation, and looking up the finer details of immigration law in the State Department’s 800+ page guidance. I feel very academic and lawyerly. But usually at about three cases in, I remember why I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.

3:30 PM

Once I’ve sorted through all my applicant cases for the day, I have a few hours to work on some long-term projects. These projects include everything from revamping our applicant waiting room, to planning educational videos for the Facebook page, or organizing outreach trips to the other islands to answer Cabo Verdeans’ visa questions in person. The Consular section does data validation studies to determine if people are using their visas correctly. We write editorials to explain the finer points of immigration law to the Cabo Verdean public. We debate new U.S. immigration policy changes and research how these changes will affect our adjudications. At the end of the day, our goal is two-sided: to prevent illegal immigration and visa misuse, but to also encourage legitimate travel to the U.S.

5:30 PM

The U.S. Embassy in Praia is small, and unlike most embassies, we don’t have U.S. Marine guards for security. This means that one of us diplomats is responsible for kicking everyone out of their offices each night and making sure the embassy is secured until the next morning. So at 5:30pm, I usually find myself scrambling to answer one last email, making sure all the Consular safes are locked, and hitting the lights.

Until tomorrow – até amanhã!

First Impressions

You know how sometimes you feel like you’re in just the right place at just the right time? That’s how I’ve felt ever since stepping off the plane in Cabo Verde!

I am incredibly lucky to have been sent to Cabo Verde for my first post. The embassy is small, which means that my colleagues are incredibly close-knit. They’ve all gone out of their way to make sure I’m taken care of: I arrived to a fridge stocked with banana bread and a desk stocked with Post-Its. My boss graciously lets me pester him with 473 questions a day and the consular section’s local staff have invited me to perform with their singing group. Even the Ambassador himself took me on a day trip around the island to get my bearings. Getting hungry? Choose from three different dinner invites. Need an emergency pie plate? Take two and a kitchen scale. House run out of water? An emergency water truck shows up in 10 minutes. The community here is impressive, to say the least.

There are plenty of things here in Cabo Verde to be thankful for (and since I still have a leftover Thanksgiving pie in the freezer, I’m allowed to make a list). For example, the awesome water pressure in my new shower. Or the Orca store, which is a cross between a NYC bodega and an American Target, and which is currently a winter wonderland with impressively decked halls. I’m thankful that Amazon can deliver throw pillows to an island in the middle of the Atlantic within two weeks. I’m thankful that I have a car and friends who are willing to repeatedly put their lives at risk as I drive them through the lawless-ish streets of Cabo Verde. I’m thankful for people who understand technology and know how to sync my computer to my TV and can make phones work internationally. I’m thankful for my Portuguese training, because I️ would quite literally be lost and hungry and bad at my job without it. I’m thankful for the movie theater that plays new release American movies in English with Portuguese subtitles and will mix the sweet and salty popcorns for you. I’m thankful for the guards who watch my fortress of a house all night and I’m thankful for the local plant fair that helped me make my fortress of a house feel more like home.

So thank you to Cabo Verde, for welcoming me with open arms. And thank you to the United States, for hiring me to do this awesome job!

Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

Lunch views in Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

Palm frond ceilings

Woven palm frond ceilings, complete with fish

Cidade Velha, Cabo Verde

It looks like Jurassic Park here!

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That’ll do.

Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Spotted in Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Tarrafal, Cabo Verde

Those lunch views just keep on comin’…

Mindelo, Cabo Verde

Spotted in Mindelo, Cabo Verde

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Entirely unposed… me in Cabo Verde!

Until Next Time!

Today is the day! In just a few hours, I’ll be off on one heck of a big adventure.

My apartment is as empty as it was when I first walked through the door. My little sister, who graced me with her presence here in DC, has left me to start an awesome new job at National Geographic. My patriotic Flag Day decorations have finally been taken down. And the veritable mountain of sunscreen in the corner of my living room has been whisked off to West Africa.

I’ve been in DC for ten months and have learned a lot. I speak Portuguese now and can ram a car through a barricade. I’ve finally mastered submitting a travel claim through the State Department’s online system and know which vending machines at FSI accept credit cards. I’ve single-handedly fixed three State Department printers, can [maybe] detect a fraudulent passport, and can [somewhat] patch up a bullet wound. I’m now able to eyeball when a pile of my belongings weighs about 200 lbs and discuss U.S. visa ineligibilities at length. I can issue both U.S. passports and visas and am a pro at getting vaccinations. Most importantly, I can finally go through the diplomats line at JFK.

I’ve spent the past few weeks seeing family and friends, both old and new. I’ve shopped and sorted and packed and repacked yet again. I’ve taken long walks that smell of fall and have found a home for all my house plants. I’ve annoyed my cats and squeezed in one last movie night with my family. I even managed to sneak in a New York City bagel.

It’s bittersweet to be leaving so many people and places behind, but as a wise bear once said, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I must be even luckier than Pooh, because I don’t plan on saying goodbye at all. Rather… until next time!

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Love you all!

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A few of my favorite people!

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More of my favorite people! (Who are all better at squatting than me…)

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A diplomat once told me it’s important to document your Foreign Service homes and the memories they hold. So here ’tis: me and my sister’s lovely little home in Washington, DC.

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A diplomat once told me it’s important to document your Foreign Service homes and the memories they hold. So here ’tis: me and my sister’s lovely little home in Washington, DC.

A Timeline: My Pursuit of the Foreign Service

It’s been another busy month here in the nation’s drizzly capitol! I received the required 1+/1+ on my first language exam and now have just three weeks to get to a 2+/2+. Ha. Ha. GULP. Portuguese continues to test the elasticity of my frazzled brain, but my English is definitely faltering so let’s hope that means that my Portuguese is improving. I also received my official Senate confirmation, which I assume passed with much gavel-pounding and hip hip hooraying. And I’ve had a lovely string of visitors, including my sister, who is gracing me with her presence while she job-hunts in Washington, D.C. Most importantly, she and I started watching The Great British Baking Show and have decided to become master bakers in our spare time. Attempt #1 was a success. Mary Berry would be proud.

In just nine hours, you too can create a Swedish Prinsesstårta!

I’d also like to thank those of you that have reached out recently with questions about the application process. While I was applying to be a diplomat (a painstakingly slow process that took well over two years), I read several Foreign Service blogs that were incredibly helpful in explaining the process. So for the next few posts, I’d like to add my two cents and delve into my pursuit of the Foreign Service. I hope you find these posts useful!

First up: the timeline.

June 19, 2014: ‘Twas a quiet summer morning in New York City. Birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and my study notes were flapping in the wind as I frantically debated whether or not I needed to understand the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. I rushed through the three-hour Foreign Service Officer Test because, as luck would have it, I had to report to jury duty that same day. At the same time. I skidded into jury duty an hour late and then promptly fell asleep in a waiting room chair. A month later, I found out that I passed the FSOT (yay!) but a few months later discovered that I hadn’t passed the following QEP essay round (how dare they!). I vowed to right this injustice and returned to my studying.

June 12, 2015: The State Department allows applicants to test only once per year, so I waited several months to take the test again. During the test, I plodded through hundreds of questions, but while I was supposed to be recalling obscure facts on everything from world history to economics to math, I was instead distracted by the giant computer font size and the provided ear plugs: does anyone actually use them? I stumbled out into the light a few hours later. I ate a bagel. A month later, I find out I again passed the exam.

July 2015: I have three weeks to write, obsessively edit, and submit six 220-word personal narrative essays. I struggle to summarize my many inspiring accomplishments in a mere 1,320 words. I attempt to add more pizzazz to my narratives in the hopes of impressing the QEP review panel, although I’m irked at them for not recognizing my brilliance the previous year. Luckily, pizzazz works! I receive an email three weeks later inviting me to the Oral Examination in Washington, D.C.

February 4, 2016: I spend the fall of 2015 in a perpetual state of panic. I annoy my friends with constant in-depth explanations of the three part, all-day Oral Examination, which involves a timed group negotiation challenge, a situational one-on-one interview, and a written case study. Evaluators watch silently throughout the day, and even the lunch break feels like a test. At the end of the day, as our heads bob from exhaustion, we nerve-wracked interviewees are led into individual rooms where we are told whether we pass or fail. Those that fail are literally escorted out of the building. Luckily, I pass! I take a celebratory nap.

February 2016: I spend the rest of February filling out giant stacks of paperwork in the form of medical and security clearance applications. Not only must I list every trip I’ve taken out of the country in the last 10 years but the name and contact information of almost everyone I’ve ever met. One day at work, a security officer interrogates me for three hours and then meets with all my nearest and dearest friends in a variety of deserted office lobbies and lonely park benches. My security officer is pleased that I’ve never done anything scandalous enough to warrant decent gossip. I received my medical clearance later that month, which means that I’m healthy enough to be sent to a country without doctors: must not fall off any ladders.

July 15, 2016: After months of obsessive email-checking, I officially receive my security clearance and am put on the Foreign Service Register, a list of super-qualified diplomat-wannabes. We are ranked only by our Oral Examination scores, so many people will make it this far and still never receive a job offer. We can wait on the Register for 18 months before we’re dropped from the list and have to start the application process over from the beginning. Eek.

September 26, 2016: I officially receive an offer to join the January 9, 2017 189th A-100 class! I spend a good part of the morning bouncing around a conference room at work and send dozens of ALL CAPS TEXTS to everyone I know.

January 9, 2017: I spend a few months wrapping up my current job, seeing my friends and family, and let’s not forget: packing. I arrive in D.C. the afternoon before I’m scheduled to start and neatly hang my first-day-of-work outfit in the closet. The next morning, I nervously approach the highly guarded entrance to the State Department. My heart nearly stops as the security guard scans his list of new employees and I breath a sigh of relief when he lets me through the gate. Let the fun begin!

Only about 40% of applicants pass the Foreign Service Officer Test, and then only 40% of the remaining applicants pass the QEP essay round and are invited to the Oral Examinations. 20% of the interviewees pass the Oral Examination, which is only 3% of the original applicants. Most diplomats went through this process more than once, as did I. So to those of you interested in applying, stick with it!