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

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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.

I passed my Portuguese test!

Passport Pic

Who’s got a diplomatic passport and Portuguese fluency? This one!

It’s official! I passed my Portuguese test! However, the enthusiasm of those two statements somewhat hides the sheer panic I felt following the test. Allow me to explain.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 12:00pm

I wait nervously in the testing center, surrounded by other fear-stricken diplomats. This two-hour performance will be the culmination of six months of studying and is just that – a performance that can either go well or not so well. The scoring rubric is strict and the expectations are high. Testers enter the waiting room like doctors, selecting their next victim, and my heart thumps as all my compatriots disappear shakily into individual testing rooms. Eventually, I see a friendly Portuguese face, and I’m led to my own bright blue exam room (the best recording background color). I wore red to avoid a floating head situation. Prepared, I tell ‘ya.

For the next two hours, every aspect of my Portuguese was tested, twisted, and tugged. Thanks to a pesky confidentiality contract I was forced to sign, I must keep secrets from you, but what I can say is that the test has four parts, each as grueling as the next. First is a biographical conversation in which you introduce yourself and are then grilled on your background and the current events of the day. In the second section, you have only a few minutes to prepare a presentation on a surprise foreign policy topic. In the third section, you must interview your tester about another surprise topic and then translate everything he or she says into English. The final section focuses on reading and determines how complicated a text you can read before having a complete mental breakdown.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 2:00pm

I stumble out of the testing center, relieved that the test is over and happy with my performance. I was told to expect my score via email within 24 hours. The wait begins.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 5:00pm

It’s been three whole hours since the test, which is close enough to 24 hours for me to start obsessively checking my emails. I try to distract myself with English TV (how I’ve missed it!), but I’ve now replayed every aspect of the test several hundred times, and I’m feeling less confident. Why didn’t I use subjunctive in that sentence? Did the testers smile or grimace at me as I left? Does that word I used even exist in Portuguese?

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 9:00pm

Still no email. I eat cheese for dinner. There’s a knot forming in my stomach, which is either stress or cheese-induced. Surely something has gone terribly wrong.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 11:30pm

Still no email.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 11:31pm

Still no email.

Thursday, August 17th, 2017 | 11:32pm

Still no email. BLARGH.

Friday, August 18th, 2017 | 6:00am

My brain decides to wake me up at 6am so I can get a jumpstart on my worrying. I wonder whether they misspelled my personal email address so I roll out of bed to try logging into my Department of State account. The server is down so I can’t log on. I begin pacing.

Friday, August 18th, 2017 | 10:00am

No one I know has had to wait this long for a weekday test score. Then, I notice on the news that the State Department’s global email system isn’t working. Maybe they’re not able to process the scores? There’s hope!

Friday, August 18th, 2017 | 12:00pm

It’s now officially been 24 hours since the start of my test and I realize that I will have to either call the Language Testing Unit, which I’m pretty sure is practically forbidden, or wait through the weekend for my score. Hmmm.

Friday, August 18th, 2017 | 2:04pm

It’s officially been 24 hours and four minutes since I finished my test. That’s fair game. I call the Language Testing Unit from the safety of my closet and they confirm that the systems are down and that I’m not the only one making frantic phone calls. I knew my compatriots were trustworthy. Finally, I get the good news. 3+/3!

Since I’ve officially passed Portuguese, it’s onto six weeks of Consular training. And now that I’ve had some time to destress, I can appreciate how lucky I am to have learned a language in so short a time and to be working with 13,000 colleagues who are all able and willing to do the same. This is a pretty cool career. And that, my friends, é o fim!

How to pass the FSOT

I’ve received several questions about the Foreign Service application process, so for the next few posts, I’ll outline how I approached each step. Up first? The FSOT.

The first hurdle in becoming a diplomat is passing the Foreign Service Officer Test, or the FSOT. This four-part computerized test is administered at testing centers around the U.S. (and abroad) and tests the “knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary to the work of a Foreign Service Officer.” Many will tell your that you can’t study for the FSOT because it’s too broad. Do not listen to these people. There are strategies to taking any test and below I’ve outlined the strategies I used to pass the FSOT. Woohoo! Studying! Fun!

The lofty plans of a diplomat wannabe, (who has better hole-punching skills than demonstrated here).

Test Basics

Most importantly, know the test. How many questions are in each section? How many minutes do you get for each section? How is each section scored? Know how to play the game by their rules. And just as importantly, know thyself. Which sections do you feel comfortable with? Which sections do you most need to prepare for?

Read through the official State Department Application Process and the information they’ve posted on the FSOT, specifically the official Selection Process Information Guide, which contains an explanation of each of the sections as well as practice questions. They also have a separate practice test and a mobile app with additional questions. I suggest taking the practice test in the Information Guide before you start studying, so you know where your strengths and weaknesses are. The suggested reading list is nothing but overwhelming, so click that link with caution (I read none of these books and did just fine). Speaking of which, do not panic. There is a lot of information in the world and you will not know it all. You don’t need to. Prioritize and make a customized study guide for yourself. The test is bizarrely random, so the name of the game is simply to feel prepared.

I’ve heard several people recommend the FSOT Yahoo Group (an unofficial State Department chat group) and it’s always a good idea to reach out to your Diplomat in Residence. Furthermore, peruse the news (I recommend the BBC app’s top daily stories) and read a few Foreign Service blogs. They a great resource for study tips.

Part 1: Job Knowledge

In my opinion, this is the hardest section because the questions are so wide-ranging. In the State Department’s own words, these multiple-choice questions cover, “a broad range of topics including, but not limited to, the structure and workings of the U.S. Government, U.S. and World History, U.S. Culture, Psychology, Technology, Management Theory, Finance and Economics, and World Affairs.” And you were worried there wouldn’t be a question on price elasticity and economic demand! Phew!

My background prepared me fairly well for the Management, Finance, and Economics sections. With “fairly” being the operative word. But I hadn’t taken a history or civics class since high school, so my knowledge of history and the inner workings of the U.S. government was quite lacking. So to study, I lined up the below outline for myself:

  • Watch “America, The Story of Us,” a 12-part History Channel series. This was a good way to quickly review American history and see all the major events on a single timeline.
  • Take a few free online Khan Academy courses. They have a million useful topics and are very well done. I reviewed the U.S. history, World History, and U.S. Civics courses.
  • Familiarize yourself with the results of a few landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases.
  • Memorize the ideals of a few major philosophers, such as Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant.
  • Review some key Public Relations and Economic vocabulary. What’s asymmetrical communication again?
  • Know how the U.S. government works. This is an important one. Know how bills become laws and the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate. Know the chain of command of the government. Know what all the U.S. Federal agencies do and about when they were founded.
  • Master the Sporcle global geography quiz. Know your countries. Also a useful skill on Flag Day.

Part 2: English Expression

This multiple-choice section simply tests your English grammar. In my opinion, it is very similar to the English Grammar section on the SATs and APs. If this is a tricky section for you, get yourself an SAT prep book and review the Grammar section.

Part 3: Biographic Questionnaire

For this section, know thyself and self-compliment effusively. The questions begin as multiple-choice. For example: How many times in the past year have you organized an event? Never? 1-2? 3-4? More than 4 times? Then the kicker: List these events in the box below, but surprise, a tiny character count! In my opinion, the hardest part about this section is the timing. There are a lot of questions and it flies by as you’re trying to condense all your accomplishments into a tiny text box. Finish the multiple-choice half of all of these questions, even if you don’t have a chance to fill in all the text boxes. For the text boxes, forget complete sentences and obscure event titles and try to give descriptions if you can fit them. So not: “Organized Paris Peace Treaties,” but “Negotiated end of WWII between nine warring superpowers.” And you know what else counts? Those weekly meetings you set up at work. And that study group you organized for your French class. And that charity run you volunteered at. So yes, you organized events like this more than four times in the past year. Self-complimenting. It’s an art.

Part 4: Written Essay

They’ve changed this section since I took the test. Currently, you get to choose one of three essay topics and have 25 minutes to write an eloquent and thought-provoking essay supporting your thoughts on the matter. The topics themselves aren’t overly difficult, but 25 minutes goes fast. So practice writing a few timed essays before you get to the test (especially if you haven’t written a proper essay since college). SAT essay prompts would be good practice here. Know what 25 minutes feels like and have a basic essay structure prepared that you can drop any topic into. Lastly, leave yourself time to re-read your paper. The computer will not have spell-check and typos will count against you.

Go get ’em, Tiger! Good luck!

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!

Portuguese Will Be the Death of Me

Being paid to learn a language is an incredibly cool part of this job. For diplomats, foreign language fluency is both a logistical necessity and a nod of respect to other cultures. As Nelson Mandela once so eloquently summarized, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

However. The joy I feel at someday being a bilingual representative of the United States does not prevent waves of terror from crashing through my very core. Because I have a total of 24 weeks to become fluent in Portuguese. A mere 168 days. I’m currently on my eighth week, which means that I have just 16 weeks left. This also means that I have my first formal evaluation next week, in which I must prove that I can speak/read at a 1+/1+ level.

[The audience hears a thud as the protagonist topples to the floor.]

The State Department uses the ILR Scale of Fluency, which ranks individuals on a 1-5 scale. At 8 weeks, I must speak/read at a 1+/1+ level. At 16 weeks, a 2+/2+, and at 24 weeks, a 3/3. If I miss any of these benchmarks, some lucky language teacher will call my future boss and tell them that I won’t get to post on time. Even more stress-inducing is the fact that I need fluency in at least one foreign language to receive tenure as a diplomat. The stakes are high.

[The audience hears the panicked crinkling of chocolate egg wrappers.]

The timing and required level of fluency vary based on the language you’re learning. If you’re learning Russian, you have 32 weeks to reach a 2/2. If you’re learning Mandarin, you have 36 weeks to reach a 2/1. But fear not. No matter what language you’re learning, the timing is short enough to give you crazed panic eyes. The mark of a true language-learning diplomat.

For reference, below are three videos, showing what an English learner sounds like at a 1+, 2+, and 3 speaking level. Now, please excuse me. I must go locate more chocolate.

ILR Speaking – Level 1+

ILR Level 1+

You got this, self.

ILR Speaking – Level 2+

ILR Level 2+

Dear heavens above.

ILR Speaking – Level 3

ILR Level 3

MAYDAY. MAYDAY. EVERYBODY PANIC.

So what exactly does a diplomat do?

Desk with Portuguese Homework

Português! O meo cérebro dói.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to talk about! We could talk about my Portuguese class (Exames! Pânico! Desastre iminente!), or the rumored hand-to-hand combat training I have to take in October, or how one goes about buying a car on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I promise to revisit these stories in future posts. But first, I’d like to finally answer a pressing question on everyone’s mind: so what exactly does a diplomat do?

American diplomats “represent and protect the interests of the United States abroad,” and I’d argue that this mission falls into two categories. Bear with me now. On one hand, American diplomats push information out. They explain U.S. import policies to Italian business owners, ensure that Nepalese radio stations are reporting correct information about the United States, and encourage Ethiopian students to study at American universities. They are master negotiators and effective communicators. On the other hand, American diplomats pull information in. They are the United States’ eyes and ears on the ground and report back to Washington on the political and economic environment in more than 190 countries around the world. They know whether clean water or new schoolbooks are needed in a rural community in Liberia, or which political party in India is most likely to win the next presidential election, or whether a country is deteriorating into civil war. Even more importantly, they know how each of these issues will impact the safety and prosperity of the United States.

“Thank heavens these issues don’t affect me,” you think. But they most certainly do! Because it is a diplomat who helps make it safe for you to travel abroad. It is a diplomat negotiating the treaty that prevents sending American troops to war. It is a diplomat who determines which foreign individuals will be granted visas to enter the United States. It is a diplomat who dissipates anger against the United States with careful communication. 

Despite having done vast amounts of research prior to joining the State Department, I’m still boggled by how many issues the State Department’s 13,980 diplomats manage to juggle. That being said, there are five types of diplomats who obtain, process, and communicate all this information. As described by the State Department, the five career cones are:

  • Consular: Consular Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, and combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking.
  • Economic: Economic Officers work with foreign governments and U.S. agencies on technology, science, economic, trade, energy, and environmental issues.
  • Management: Management Officers are resourceful, action-oriented leaders responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people to budget.
  • Political: Political Officers analyze host country political events and communicate effectively with all levels of foreign government officials.
  • Public Diplomacy: Public Diplomacy Officers engage, inform, and influence foreign societies in order to promote understanding and support of U.S. policies.

While I am officially a Public Diplomacy Officer, I will serve as a Consular Officer in Cabo Verde. Which means that in only a few months, I’ll be giving visa interviews in Portuguese. Gulp.