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.

Swearing In

It’s official!

On a sunny Friday in February, my foreign service colleagues and I escorted our families through the halls of the Harry S. Truman State Department Building, attempting to show off our newfound insider knowledge, but instead getting lost in the maze of white hallways. We gathered in one of the formal auditoriums and listened as Under Secretary Tom Shannon welcomed us to, “lives of significance and consequence.” We then stood, raised our right hands, and took the above oath of office.

Pretty powerful stuff. We’ve been reminded many times throughout our training that our lives are no longer ours; we serve a greater purpose and must put the needs of American public ahead of our own. Nothing makes that mission resonate more than pledging your commitment alongside 100 of the brightest people you’ll ever meet.

Even the oath itself has historical importance. The oath was originally created by George Washington and the Founding Fathers, who were explicit that U.S. government officials not swear allegiance to an individual (as had been done in Great Britain to the king), but to the Constitution. This oath was later amended by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, when officers had to swear that they in no way supported the Confederacy. Following the Civil War, this oath was again amended by Congress, who developed the wording that is used today. And now this is the same oath that the Vice President takes!

Congratulations to the United States’ newest diplomats!

My family: the best cheerleaders in the house!

Flag Day!

Flag Day has come and gone and my classmates and I have all survived! The energy of the room was electric as nervous parents fretted over color-coded bid lists and State Department employees lined the walls, reliving the excitement of Flag Days past. My friends readied their cameras and specially-made Flag Day bingo cards, ready to provide emotional support should I happen to trip on my way to the front of the room.

I was one of the last people called, so I sat with my stomach in knots as the number of remaining flags dwindled. What countries were left? Should I exit my row to the right or left? Was the panic making my curls frazzled? Suddenly, I heard my name called from afar and found myself shaking the ambassador’s hand.

So where will I be going? Cabo Verde!

“Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over. Don’t tip over.”

One of my highs! Cabo Verde is a chain of ten islands off the coast of West Africa. Combined, the islands (including three volcanos – gulp) are about as big as Rhode Island, but what Cabo Verde lacks in land mass, it makes up for in exuberance. The country is known for its music, beaches, and people, yet more Cabo Verdeans actually live abroad than in the country, which boasts a population of just 500,000. Cabo Verde has a higher standard of living than any other West African nation and gained independence from Portugal in 1975. As a result, the country’s official language is Portuguese, although many citizens also speak Crioulo, an African/Creole/Portuguese mix. Perhaps most importantly, there is one goat for every two people in Cabo Verde. Goats mean cheese.

My new home!

Let’s zoom in a tad…

There it is!

I’ve listened to other people’s Flag Day stories for years, but being in my own was surreal. The Foreign Service is now tangible. The job exists. I can mentally picture the next two years of my life. And I can’t wait to get started. I will spend the next few months in intensive Portuguese and Consular training and will depart for post in October. Time to get to work!

The Bid List

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Darn right I will.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. A downright whirl of wind. I’ve spent my days in A-100, State Department speak for basic training. And I’ve spent my nights bouncing between happy hours with my new 189th A-100 classmates. My pool game is improving.

I will delve into A-100 training in a future post, but for now I want to focus on The Bid List. The Bid List is the list of job openings for us newbies. Aka, a single piece of paper that determines the direction of our entire lives. Exaggeration? I think not. Somewhere on this piece of paper is the name of the city in which I’ll spend the next two years. The city that will determine what language I’ll learn, how long I’ll be in DC, and whether I’ll have guaranteed access to scones in the near future. The city that will impact the trajectory of my entire State Department career. How’s that for epic? You’d think such a document would arrive embossed and stamped with a wax seal. Or at least laminated. But alas, on an otherwise normal Wednesday afternoon, a single piece of plain paper was dropped on our desks. My subsequent thoughts:

Bureau: SCA (“South and Central Asia! I know where that is!”)
Post: Tashkent (“Wait. Where is Tashkent?”)*
Cone: CONS (“Behold my visa-processing future!”)
Language: TB 3/3 (“Tajiki. That’s fun!”)

*I get hollered at if I divulge state secrets. This is not a real bid list post. Please don’t fire me.

That’s all the information we get. Listed for each post is the region, a city name (no countries, that’s too easy), the cone (U.S. diplomats are hired to work within one of five cones: Public Diplomacy, Consular, Management, Political, or Economic – all newbies are required to do at least one Consular tour), and the required language level (based on the 1-5 ILR fluency scale – a 3/3 designating fluency in Speaking/Reading). We have two weeks to research and rank each post as a high, medium, or low based on our personal preferences. We then turn our completed lists over to our Career Development Officers, who compare the lists of us chipper hopefuls, cross-reference our preferences with the needs of the service, and assign us our first posts as U.S. diplomats. My internal dialogue for the past few weeks went something like this:

How cold is cold? Do they have Internet? How big are the bugs I’ll find in my shower? Will I have a shower? Will I have to drive on the other side of the road? Do they have cheese? Do I have to bleach all my vegetables? How concerned am I with air pollution? Do I want danger pay incentive? What do they mean when they say the air smells like fish? Can people come visit? Is learning Tajiki useful? Should I spend a year learning Mandarin instead? Why did I agree to be worldwide available? Do my preferences really even matter? Am I too manic for island life? Thank heavens I don’t have any pets. Or worse, children. Land mines? I need to be worried about land mines?!

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A list of languages taught by the State Department. Kinyarwanda, anyone?

Having ranked and re-ranked the posts hundreds of times, I have officially submitted The Bid List. My future is no longer in my hands. And it is absolutely thrilling. In less than a week, I’ll be sitting anxiously in an auditorium among my shaky peers as we clutch highlighters and copies of our lists. The name of each post will be called out randomly to an audience of 500 family and friends. And then through the suspense hanging in the air we’ll hear the name of one of our classmates. When my name is called, I’ll walk shakily to the stage, where I’ll accept the flag of my new host country, pause for an official picture, and try to remember to address the flag-hander-outer as Mr. Ambassador. Wish me luck.

Inauguration Day

 

“We the people of the United States…”


Today is a fascinating day to be in Washington, DC. The city is resplendent in red, white, and blue and people from all walks of life are seeing our nation’s capitol for the first time. A president who served this country and its people for eight years is stepping down and another is assuming his responsibility. Our nation is in the midst of change.

It is also a fascinating time to be working for the State Department. Many offices contain nothing but cardboard boxes as the former occupants find themselves looking for new employment. Career ambassadors who have served their country for 30 years have left their posts, their jobs suddenly back up for grabs. Last week, we were briefed on the State Department’s structure, with the caveat that in just a few days, entire bureaus may no longer exist. Meanwhile, hallway upon hallway of transition team staff work furiously to figure it all out. And even though I’ve spent the past two weeks being briefed by everyone from ambassadors to security staff to resilience counselors, I’ve not heard a single person complain.

The reason? Because there’s still work to be done. No matter what’s happening here at home, other countries in this world still depend on the help and example of the United States of America. And as rocky as the past year has been for this nation, millions of people in the world are far from enjoying our many privileges. There are still people in this world without access to food or medicine or education. There are people in this world whose homes have been turned into war zones. In very few countries do people have the freedom to attend their president’s inauguration one day and then protest peacefully in support of issues they care about the next. And in very few countries can an ordinary citizen not only share their political opinions, but openly affect change in their country. We are lucky to have been born in the United States of America.

Last week, my class was briefed on the mission of the U.S. Department of State: To shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world, and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere. The striking thing about this mission is that it is built upon the idea that our freedom depends on others being free. Our prosperity depends on others being prosperous. And our security depends on others being secure. The best way to help ourselves is by helping others and that is a mission I am proud to represent. We are all we the people.

Today, I Quit My Job

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Just one month ago, I was sitting contentedly at my desk in a New York City-based accounting firm, writing tweets about tax law. Today, I’m packing my color-coordinated highlighters and walking out the lobby doors for the last time. I have just three weeks to see all my nearest and dearest friends, pack my 1,923.5 pounds of belongings into a variety of shipping crates, and move myself and my teacups to Washington, DC.

So begins my life as a United States diplomat.

Having spent the past two years studying for mind-boggling tests, worrying about all-day interviews, and debating how much eye contact to make with my security clearance agent, this day never seemed real. But real it is. I’m leaving the comfort of a job I understand and that I’m good at. A job that allowed me the freedom to try new projects and grow as a professional. A job that let me keep a fleet of flying sharks hovering above my desk (a story for another time).

Nevertheless, I’m excited to be representing the United States when good representation is needed more than ever. And as a marketer, I can imagine no greater challenge than marketing the brand that is the United States of America. This country stands for freedom and compassion and its citizens better the world with a boldness and innovativeness that has made this country great. I hope to reinforce that reputation.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And as I switch off my desk lamp for the last time, I encourage each of you to push for the progress you want to see in your job, in your community, and in the world. So here’s to change. And more importantly, here’s to not causing any international diplomatic incidents…