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.

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Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.