Tag Archives: Foreign Service

Update from Post- La Frontera y la Canícula

I had originally decided to stop updating this blog for personal security reasons. Now that I have been in Mexico almost a year (wow!), I feel somewhat more comfortable about my life here at post. Adding an obvious disclaimer that these are purely my thoughts and do not represent the official opinion of the State Department 🙂

There is such little information out there about Nuevo Laredo and other border posts- I know when I was bidding and researching it was tough to find even basic details. Some surprises include ballet performances at the Centro Cultural, which is in the “restricted zone” but we are allowed to attend if we let the security office know. One major aspect of life at the border: the summer heat.

When I arrived in the winter, local staff told me about la canicula- the hottest time of the summer where it would be 108 degrees or higher. I’d say it generally lasts from June-August and we all try to just stay inside during the day! I think the best way of dealing with the heat is escaping on the weekend to the nearest beach- Mustang Island!

Related to work, I have had the opportunity to already work in 3 major areas of the consular section: non-immigrant visas, American citizen services, and the fraud prevention unit. I also got the chance to TDY (temporary duty) to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for 3 weeks which honestly deserves its own blog post. It was truly an island paradise and I’d serve there in a heartbeat.

It is a little crazy to think that in October I will have been here for one year. I am basically halfway through my first tour in the Foreign Service. It has been much more challenging than I expected- there have certainly been days where I’ve counted down the time left. The 25% hardship isn’t for nothing. Thankfully I have some incredible colleagues who I am so proud to call close friends for life.

Also, I now have my onward assignment- I found out in late April that my second tour will be in Riga, Latvia doing public diplomacy! It is truly a dream job and was my top bid. I’ll be back at FSI in fall 2018 to study Russian and PD tradecraft for about 9 months before moving to Latvia. Until then, I’ll be trying to visit places on my Mexico bucket list (Tulum!) and make the most of having my family and many friends close by in Texas.

Tres/Tres, or I Passed My Spanish Test!!

About two weeks ago, I found out that I passed my end of training Spanish test at FSI!!

Since then, I’ve been getting everything ready for my impending departure for la frontera, aka Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I am thrilled to be done with training and so ready to leave very soon! Here are a few of the cool things I have done recently in preparation for starting my dream job in Mexico:

-Talked to a group of interns at FSI about the Foreign Service application process while realizing how lucky I am to have this job

-Attended Crash Bang, the State Department’s counter terrorism training in which I ducked for cover and rammed cars in a simulated attack on an embassy

-Sent thank-you emails to everyone in the Spanish department I could think of for their part in my (surprising) success on the test

-Bought a real car and mentally prepared myself for all the driving I’ll be doing in two years

-Planned goodbye dinners with friends in DC 😦

It’s crazy exciting to me that after 9ish months of living here, I’m finally headed to post. I cannot wait to find out what my job will be like as a consular officer. While I’m comforted by a few things (there are 3 Chick-fil-a’s right across the border in Laredo!), I don’t really know what to expect about my new home. But I am sure excited to start my tour!

Reflection on Language Training

I am writing this from the gazebo on my lunch break at the Foreign Service Institute. One of the major things I’ll miss here is the absolutely amazing campus we have with trees, paths, places to escape the classroom.

I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for a while. TLDR: language training is hard. I am both amazed at how far I’ve come in Spanish and how much there is left to learn even after the 3/3.

I am 3 weeks out from my end of training exam and at times, have never felt so stressed in my life.
While I still completely love the fact that I get paid to learn Spanish, it is honestly much harder than I imagined. Sometimes I’ve found myself overly comparing myself with my colleagues and their results- even though I have met or surpassed our goal on every test.

Also, I wish someone had told me that language does end up taking over your entire social life. I’ve had to work harder than I thought to keep a balance between spending time with friends, exercising, and studying. And this is me as a young, single person without other responsibilities like a spouse or kids. I’ve honestly forgotten what life was like before I had homework and language studies all the time. 

I am deeply looking forward to later this year in Mexico when I can actually start doing consular work. It’s easy to lose track of why I’m really learning Spanish- not to argue over nuances of a political opinion article on Argentina’s “dirty war,” but to  adjudicate visas in a crucial part of the world and help Americans at the border. 

La Mitad del Mundo- Spanish Immersion in Ecuador

I recently got back from an awesome 2 weeks in Quito, Ecuador. Amazingly, the Foreign Service Institute sponsored my trip and I didn’t have to take leave! Two weeks of individual classes, field trips to cathedrals and museums in the historical center, and living with a host family. 

It was great to get away from the normal routine of studying Spanish at FSI. I already miss the opportunities to use my Spanish 24/7, even when I didn’t always want to. But this immersion just made me much more excited for moving to Mexico in 2 months!

Here are a few of my favorite moments from the trip:

View from la basilica in Quito, after climbing up several scary staircases 

Me in La Ronda, fun street for eating, drinking, and dancing

Ceviche Peruvian style 

Street art in Quito’s historical center

Plaza de la Independencia in the historical center

View from atop the teferico (cable car)

Flag Day Jitters

Tomorrow, I will know my first post as a Foreign Service Officer. That thought to me right now is still very unreal. My whole family is visiting, which means we’ll all find out together whether I’m headed to a border post, somewhere in SE Asia, China, or even potentially somewhere unanticipated! I’ve already prepped my parents for the idea that I’m going somewhere likely more dangerous than Texas..

Week 4 and 5 have been probably the busiest yet. Speeches, a field trip to West Virginia, and composure under fire practice were all included. I love being busy, so I was in heaven! My favorite days are those where we’re challenged in a huge variety of ways- speaking, problem solving, important lectures by high level diplomats.

I really don’t want A-100 to end, as excited as I am to get to post. I remember back at Rice University thinking that Orientation Week (O-Week) went by too quickly. Something in me just likes everything to stay new and exciting! But most of my fond memories from college are the amazingly cool stuff I did as an upperclassman. Like visiting Doha and the US Embassy senior year, or studying abroad all junior year. Once I’m at post, I’ll start having those experiences to look back on.

For tonight, I’m enjoying just imagining all the ways my life is about to change. Flag Day, bring it on!!

A Snow Day-Filled Week Three

Looking back on week 3 of Foreign Service orientation- all I can think of is the massive amount of snow that surrounded DC during #Snowzilla. This week we had (at least I had) a 5 day weekend- normally a good thing, but leaving me bored and unable to leave my apartment much due to the snow!! I was thrilled when classes resumed, but worried we had missed important material.

Here’s what I learned this week:

I prefer warmer countries to somewhere like Mongolia or Russia. Heat and humidity wouldn’t bother me, but being freezing and immobile due to snow is no fun at all. It’s no surprise that most of my high ranks on our bidlist were Latin America and Southeast Asia 🙂 I will be a happy woman indeed if a Mexican flag with my name is called out on Flag Day!

Our class remains incredibly close- several of us in my building got together at the height of the blizzard on the weekend to play board games and eat. We also basically decided our class nickname should be the Blizzard 185th, due to the crazy winter weather.

We started what I refer to in my head as diplomat skills training- public speaking and composure under fire (aka answering hard questions!) I loved both of these sessions as a PD officer. Few things are more important than developing strong public speaking and speechwriting skills, or dealing with hostile questions.

A-100 has gone by so quickly. 6 weeks sounds long, but once you get halfway through it’s over before you know it. Writing this from week 5, I’ve already started wondering about what kind of training lies ahead of me next…and where I’m headed of course!

A-100 Week 2 in Review

A-100 sure seems like it’s flying by. Thus, I’ve decided to post after each week to reflect on major milestones in my new career as a diplomat. It’s every bit as exciting and challenging as I’d hoped!

1. I’m off language probation!!

All new US diplomats come in as entry-level officers who must get tenure to continue on in the Foreign Service. One of the requirements for tenure is knowing a language generally at a 3/3 proficiency (exceptions for super hard languages like Arabic/Chinese). My first week at FSI I took the full German test and I just recently found out that I achieved the 3/3! I thought I did fairly well on the test, but I always get really unnecessarily nervous about language testing. I won’t be using German for at least 2 years, but it’s nice to know that I’m off language probation and can start learning a new language like Spanish.

2. Being a consular officer for my first tour is going to rock.

All of us in the 185th are going to be doing Consular coned tours at first. This makes sense given the huge rise in demand for visas and other consular services abroad. Although I’m Public Diplomacy coned, I came close to choosing Consular just because of how meaningful the work is. I really look forward to helping Americans abroad and seeing such issues as immigration firsthand- especially why I’m bidding Mexico/Latin America very high!

3. #Snowmaggedon2016 hit DC and we had another 3 day weekend!

I’ve never seen this much snow in my life, y’all. It’s been really cold here! Looking at pictures of 70 degree Fahrenheit Texas right now is making me miss the heat. And potentially influencing my bidding strategy to choose warmer countries…

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First Week as a Diplomat in A-100

To say this week was packed would be a huge understatement! I learned so many new things about the Foreign Service, met (most of) my huge class of colleagues, took the full FSI German test, and more. It’s probably not a surprise that I am already in love with my new career in the Foreign Service. The fact that I get to choose from a list of countries where I’ll be a US diplomat for my first tour is just ridiculously cool. I thought I’d share a few reasons why and reflect on my first week!

  • The Foreign Service is a family. Much of what we’ve learned this week has been about resiliency and support for each other at post. Also, I am actually going to keep a running count of how many high-ranking FSOs come talk to us and tell us that they’ve worked for 30+ years in the State Department and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I would love to be able to say that someday!
  • It’s not a disadvantage to be the youngest/most inexperienced in the class. I really love looking around the A-100 room and thinking how diverse our class is, not just in ethnicity and gender, but age and experience level. I’ve only known them for a week, but I feel extremely close to our entire class and know our connection will be lasting.
  • We got the bidlist of potential first tours on Wednesday. It is the most amazing bidlist I have probably ever seen and way better than I had even expected! I’m really hoping to go somewhere Spanish speaking. Mexico would be a dream, as would anywhere in Latin America or Southeast Asia. “Flag Day” is in about a month!!
  • This is the coolest job ever and I still find myself thinking how lucky I am to get paid for this. I will get paid to learn/improve a language, learn about consular work, and explore different facets of another country for 2 years. Even if that country isn’t one of my “high” bids, I feel extremely grateful to even get this chance.

Getting “The Call” for the Foreign Service!

Screenshot 2015-12-01 22.05.24

Or rather “the email”! I am so excited to finally share that I accepted an offer to join the Foreign Service!! A week ago from today, I got the email that is about to drastically change my life.

I will be a Public Diplomacy Officer in the 185th A-100 orientation class. On January 11, 2016, I start my first day as a Foreign Service Officer in Washington, DC! This still feels incredibly unreal. I feel like I waited so long for the State Department to finally hire me, and yet I know many people on the Yahoo groups have been waiting much, much longer. Still, it is a huge relief to know my future at last!

The way I found out is pretty hilarious in hindsight. I currently live and work as a teacher in Thailand, which is 12 hours exactly ahead of DC. Thus, when offers for several cones went out on Tuesday night (DC morning), I chose to stay up until 3AM here to see if PD offers would be extended..

Surprisingly they were not until the next day. This meant I planned to stay up until the wee morning hours again Wednesday night to await my fate! This time I couldn’t sleep from happiness though- at 9:30 pm here, I saw a PD offer for the January class in my inbox. I have honestly never been so happy in my entire life. I called my parents on FaceTime immediately to share the good news. The Foreign Service has been my dream for so long- since I discovered I love to travel, that I’m good at languages and history, and am passionate about helping Americans and sharing our diverse and rich culture.

Returning to DC will be all the more meaningful because last time I was there, it was as an intern. I worked during summer 2014 at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training located at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). This time when I head to FSI for training every day, it will be as a US diplomat. (!!!) I am so honored. My former supervisors from ADST and the US Embassy in Vienna currently work in DC, so I’ll be able to personally thank them for their support and mentorship when I start training.

I don’t really think it’ll hit me until the first day of training. Fingers crossed there will be a lot of formal oaths and inspiring speeches in A-100. I suspect I will be holding back tears often that this dream I had when I was 15 is finally real.

On Teaching and Trains

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now. Having been here for a month, I feel a lot more settled in the Land of Smiles. Reading the blogs of fellow teachers in Thailand has made me super interested in how other teachers go about their daily routines. Here’s a snapshot of mine:

7:00 (approximately..) wake up to alarm, surf Facebook/email/Foreign Service forums for 5 minutes. Heat up some instant coffee and eat a very sugary breakfast plus maybe some yogurt if I’m feeling healthier that day

7:45 head out the door of my on-campus apartment, remembering to turn off the air conditioning or “they’ll never come and fix it!” (quote from school coordinators)

8:00 daily school assembly begins, aka 30 minutes of the Thai national anthem, school song, and long speeches in Thai that I understand none of.

11-12:40 pick an hour for a lunch break, the cafeteria food is ridiculously good and a mix of very authentic Thai/attempted Western food. 4/5 days this is followed by a trip to the best coffee shop in town right next to the school. Thais love their coffee strong and very sweet, so I’m in heaven!

8:30-4:30 are our official school working hours. I teach 20 classes of 50 minutes a week, though they are often way shorter due to “Thai time” and students arriving 10-15 minutes late. Each day I have 4 classes of English ranging from very beginner rowdy 9th graders to some intermediate-mid 12th graders who I love. This means I have in total over 900 students, who I see only once a week. (!!) They are much better at remembering my name “Teacher Becky!” and treating me like a celebrity whenever I walk on campus. We have several breaks throughout the day, during which I obsess over anything related to the Foreign Service and 2016 A-100 orientation classes.

4:30 wander back to my apartment, usually take a nap! Finding dinner is challenging as we are the only people who walk anywhere in our town, and there aren’t really nearby restaurants. Night markets are an option, but a scary walk across multiple streets without traffic lights. I bought a microwave which has been a great investment so far!

Things I love so far about Thailand: trains! Anyone who knows me gets that I’m a huge fan of public transport. Which we have very little of in Texas. The trains in Thailand are awesome and I have already taken them most weekends here. This weekend I’m visiting a beach (about time!!) only 2hrs away by train. Stations are clearly marked and visible, someone will speak English, people walk down the aisles to sell you cheap and plentiful food or drinks- none of this is available in a minivan or bus. Trains are definitely my preferred mode of transportation here. Check it out for yourself!

Things I don’t love: the language barrier and lack of time to really dedicate myself to learning more than survival Thai, being placed far from my friends at orientation, the very low English level of most of my students. Considering these alongside the positives of living here though, I don’t have much to complain about. Other teachers might have better locations in Thailand (mountains!), or higher level students, but no one’s placement seems perfect. Teaching overall has been incredibly meaningful for the students who do care. I am starting to really enjoy life in Thailand and the holidays are coming up, which should give me more of a chance to explore some of its most scenic sights!