The Foreign Service Institute, a big part of our lives

FSI is 70*

When my spouse joined the Foreign Service (FS) in 2006 as a second career, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) became my new home.  I do not say this lightly; I used to spend more awake time at FSI than in my real home, haunting the campus for training or just for lunch to meet future colleagues.  I learned and benefited from FSI for 10 years as a spouse (technically an Eligible Family Member – EFM in our jargon) and now I have returned to FSI as a Civil Service employee.  Most EFMs only know the Transition Center (TC) at FSI; it actually regroups four other schools providing training in different aspects of a profession and in foreign languages.  I have been an eager learner of all five, and this is my tribute to FSI, turning 70 this year.

FSI70

As most EFMs, my first steps in this new life led me to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC, a division of TC), where I was able to browse through numerous documentation on all potential posts, watch videos, and register for many interesting classes: Realities of Foreign Service Life, Protocol, Explaining America, EFM Employment, Security Overseas, Logistics, etc. Even our children participated in a Security Overseas seminar where they were encouraged to kick and scream on top of their lungs if they were tentatively kidnapped – imagine us, the parents, in the adjacent room hearing the screams!  We paid it back when our kids produced a quality video on Dakar which won first prize. I am also grateful for TC to invite me regularly as a panel member to help other EFMs, sharing with them my candid experience on FS topics.

During one of the TC workshop, I learned that EFMs could join the Direct Hires (the spouse who has a permanent contract in the Foreign Service) in the professional studies curricula.  To increase my chances to get an EFM position in an embassy overseas, I immediately enrolled in the General Services Officer (GSO) class in the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS).  Once completed, I began the Consular training.  As a result of being so well informed and trained, I started at my first embassy in Dakar with a job waiting for me, well-armed to understand my surroundings and act appropriately. Actually, colleagues thought I was a Direct Hire!  Many years later, I attended the CLO training in Frankfurt where I met many neighboring colleagues. This allowed me to build inter-mission partnerships beneficial to our Commissary and share cultural and entertainment information.

The SPAS Pakistan Familiarization course became the key to our fantastic tour in a country reputed to be difficult.  I understood the generic “Islam” label covered many different faiths, learned about tribes and ethnicities, the political landscape shaped by a tumultuous history, and why it took ten months for my husband to get his visa … This allowed us to better understand and communicate with people of Pakistan, friendly strangers in stores, streets, and even children in the mountains.

In the Margalla Hills

Young Villagers in the Margalla Hills

After Dakar, we were assigned to Mexico City and the School of Language Studies (SLS) helped me brush up on my Spanish with distance learning classes followed by a mentor. This allowed me to fill a vacant position where a cleared American with a 3-3 level was sought – I was the only one qualified in the pool of 100+ EFMs! Before going to Pakistan, I took Urdu classes, which facilitated my integration with local colleagues at USAID and with our local implementers. I realized that learning to write the beautiful alphabet helped me learn faster because I could read signs around me and practice outside the classroom.

Between earthquakes in Mexico and a rather unstable situation in Pakistan, I became a natural student of the Leadership and Management School (LMS), learning about Crisis Management Overseas and the No FEAR Act.  While never subject to a real crisis – besides regular earthquakes in Mexico City, coups in all countries surrounding Senegal during our tour, and lock-down in Islamabad, I always felt more secure and less prone to panic knowing that I knew how to act during a dire situation.

In my previous career I have designed many websites but a technical person would eventually code and create them.  With the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), I learned SharePoint and was able to create a SharePoint site to advocate for environmental matters at Embassy Budapest.

After eight years overseas we are now back in the United States, and I became a Civil Service employee, starting my learning “series” again.  First, I learned to defend myself in perilous situations during a Basic Defense course (TC); then I participated in the Civil Service Orientation course (SPAS); and later in the Knowledge Management Foundations course (SAIT).

FSI just opened this year a new division: the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR), and with the general context, domestically and overseas, we sure do need a lot of resilience in the Foreign Service!  FSI also provides Distance Learning classes and SkillSoft classes that anyone from the foreign affairs agencies can follow from the comfort of their home, one hour at a time. I cannot encourage enough EFMs to look at the impressive catalog and take a class or two from home or join a class on campus.  FSI has made a permanent positive mark on the lives our entire family, preparing us well for this strange new adventure in the Foreign Service.

*The complete FSI history is available on Amazon: FSI at 70: Future Forward: A History of the Foreign Service Institute.

Advertisements

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part IV – Islamabad

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Parts I, II and III for a full picture.

After learning in Virginia, working for the Commercial Service in Dakar, the Department of State in Dakar and Mexico, Narcotics in Mexico, I joined USAID in Pakistan. For a curious person like me, avid to learn every day more and more, joining yet a different agency was thrilling.

When diplomats are deployed to sensitive countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, the family either cannot or doesn’t want to follow. If the children are young chances are that the remaining spouse will stay in the U.S. with them. Even without children some spouses just don’t want to move to certain countries. If the spouse does want to follow they have to work full time, this way they are protected inside the Embassy at least 40 hours instead of being in the streets.

When my husband received his orders for Pakistan, the kids decided that they wanted to go to boarding school and I would try to follow my husband. I immediately applied for jobs, got interviewed and was offered a very interesting position as Grants Administrator for small grants and ambassador’s grants within USAID. Small meant $70,000 to $250,000 as opposed to my colleagues working on million-dollar deals in Energy or Health. Big deals can take years to see the light and a normal tour here is one year. With my ‘small’ grants I could see, feel and touch the projects. I could meet the impacted people, and it was deeply moving.

We approved projects to build a classroom or renovate a school, to build and furnish a library, to bring water to villages, electricity to homes, to teach women how to make preserves to become bread-winners, to install composting devices, to operate poor women from blindness to full sight. In Pakistan 85% of blind persons can see again with a surgery that costs less than $100! This is mind blowing.

My first boss took me on a trip to Karachi within my first two months. I immediately met the people managing the grants and the people benefiting from them. It tremendously helped me understand the impact of my job when I got back to my daily routine.

The difference was striking between what we read in the press about the ‘bad Americans and their forbidden drones’ and the spontaneous and generous welcome we received in the villages. Women used to walk everyday six miles – one way – to fetch water for their families and could only carry a gallon or two at best. We helped divert a clean river stream to bring water to the village. In another village there was no electricity which meant less time to work (sew, knit, or make baskets for example) or study, or worse: getting bitten by snakes when they went outside the perimeter of the huts and houses to do their bodily needs in the evening. I saw how they lived. Even the ‘rich’ ones with a concrete house rather than a wooden hut only had one single room to share. Less than 200 f2 for a family of 7 to 10. Mattresses were piled up high during the day and laid out at night. Life happened mostly outside the house. One old toothless lady called me her daughter and kept caressing my hand.

I was very touched when I was asked to plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID I was treated like royalty. Another teary moment was when I entered a class room and they activated the fan where they had laid rose petals on the blades.

In this job I was also involved with a Gender Equity Program and you can only imagine how busy this kind of activity is in Pakistan where fathers and brothers kill their daughters and sisters to ‘wash’ their honor…when husband throw acid at their wives’ face…

Chopped heads in Mexico were far from me; misery in Pakistan was awfully close. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in Islamabad and met great Pakistani colleagues and vendors. We had more fun than we could have ever imagined. I’ll tell you later!

Next on EFM Employment: My jobs in Hungary (CLO and EPAP Green Coordinator).

My Jobs in the Foreign Service – Part I

My husband joined the Foreign Service as a second career. I followed, reinventing myself in each country. This post might help people who think about the Foreign Service to determine whether it is for them or not, depending on aspirations of their better half.

First of all the following spouse needs to be at peace with their own career. In most cases your past career as a lawyer or a dentist or an engineer will just have to stop. If you were a contracts writer you might be able to become a teleworker. If you were a teacher, there are usually openings at the international schools. If your past career in the U.S. was stay-at-home parent, it will not change much but will still require some adaptation. Note that I didn’t say ‘stay-at-home mom’. There is a ratio of 80% female and 20% male spouse following the diplomat spouse. The male number is growing slowly but steadily.

There was a time (40 years ago?) when the following spouse just followed. Nowadays the spouse wants to work whether this wish is driven by the need of a second income or the need to fill an entire day outside the house, and socialize. So the Family Liaison Office (FLO) was created. “FLO’s mission is to improve the quality of life of all demographics we serve by identifying issues and advocating for programs and solutions, providing a variety of client services, and extending services to overseas communities through the management of the worldwide Community Liaison Office (CLO) program.” About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say.

I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics and let you know that it is possible to work as long as you do not expect to either match your past salary if you were an executive or use as much brain since the majority of jobs offered to following spouses are clerical in nature. Actually following spouses and children have an acronym: EFM for Eligible Family Member. Eligible to be on the Diplomat’s order, get a plane ticket, medical clearances and eventually eligible to get a job in an Embassy.

I’ll make a difference between the official jobs where I had a paycheck and the other jobs that were just as demanding or more but did not receive a monetary compensation.

Official Jobs

  • Commercial Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs). Serving West Africa from Dakar, Senegal.
  • Community Liaison Officer in Dakar, Senegal
  • Procurement agent for the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) in Mexico City
  • Staff Aide for the Minister Counselor of Consular Affairs for Mexico
  • Fraud Prevention Unit investigator in Mexico City
  • Grants administrator for USAID in Pakistan
  • Community Liaison Office Assistant and Newsletter Editor in Budapest
  • Green Team Leader – EPAP* – in Budapest

Ad-Hoc Jobs – in between Official Jobs or also overlapping

  • Packing and move coordinator (do not underestimate this very important role)
  • “Declutterer”: organizing yard sales and advertising through Craig list and FreeCycle
  • French teacher
  • Volunteer: docent, financial adviser, working women’s group coordinator, newsletter editor for the Diplomatic Spouses Association in Mexico (ACD), parent delegate at school, demolisher-constructor for Habitat for Humanity, …
  • Social agenda organizer
  • Travel and Holiday Guru

I will go in more details about them in a future post.
*EPAP: Expanded Professional Associate Program, in layman’s term the best job an EFM can get (about 186 in the world in 2015).