Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Big Day (and a bigger post!)

So the Big Day has come and gone. It was fun. Really. I had a good time. Of course it helps that I passed the Oral Assessment, but I'm convinced that I would say it was fun even had I not advanced past the OA.

I spent a few days in Washington, DC before my OA, scheduled for Monday September 28, 2009. I flew from the Twin Cities on Friday evening, and had a fine time in our nations capital. I've been to DC a few times before, and as this time I was traveling alone I was hoping to visit a few things my family wouldn't be as interested in and that I hadn't seen before.

I stayed near the campus of George Washington University, about ten minutes' walk to the State Department Annex 1 where I would attend the OA on Monday. The George Washington University Inn was very nice, comfortable, clean and quiet, and not unreasonable at about $100 per night, given its proximity to the Metro, to a variety of sites, and to where I needed to be.

By and large the weather cooperated, and I really enjoyed nice fall days walking to the White House (or rather, around it), and seeing the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum, the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the National Archives. I also enjoyed seeing the Lincoln Memorial again, and when I ran down the steps toward the reflecting pool yelling "Jeennnnyyy!" I really had the attention of all the tourists. OK no, I didn't really do that, but I was hoping someone would. If I had done that, they would have certainly locked me up and then I would have missed my Oral Assessment, and that would just not do.

My favorite shot of old Abe

I spent my evenings enjoying the pleasant weather and having a nice meal, and then would spend time doing some additional walking in the city, preparing for Monday's OA, polishing my Statement of Interest, and reviewing my files. I also cased the joint to make sure I knew exactly where I was to be on Monday morning. (I highly recommend both visiting the city in advance to relax a little, and scoping out the testing location to ensure avoiding getting lost.) I don't tend to be obsessive-compulsive about anything, but my latent OCD came out of hiding to help me on Sunday night as I walked and re-walked my route, looking for a coffee shop and making certain there were no bumps in the road for Monday morning.

The Oral Assessment

I had set the alarm for 515 am (not significantly different from my normal work day) in order to make sure I had plenty of time to get ready for the day. In reality, I woke some time around 330 or 400, and gave up on trying to fall back to sleep some time around 430. I got ready for my day and walked to a Starbucks located inside George Washington University Hospital. Had a cup 'o joe and a breakfast thing, then walked back to my hotel. I had way more time than I had planned for, so then I packed up my backpack and got myself ready to head out. If I had gone straight there, I would have been about 40 minutes early, so I walked around a bit, watched the sun rise and stopped in the middle of the intersection of 24th and E to look fondly at the Lincoln Memorial down the block. I finally arrived at Annex 1 at about 645 (OAers are required to be there by 700).

Annex 1 is not in any way clearly part of the State Department, but oddly all the surrounding apartment or office buildings have names like "Ambassador," "Consular" or "Diplomat." Maybe someone was trying to be clever. Upon entry into Annex 1 candidates are signed in and given a temporary ID badge, then bags are X-rayed. We weren't allowed to leave the building during the day, and everywhere we went (other than the bathroom and for about 25 minutes at lunch) we were escorted.

After waiting in the lobby for about 20 minutes, we were taken upstairs to the Assessment Office (or some such thing). There were eleven of us all told (there was one no show; maybe s/he got lost looking for the building. We were told by the young assistant that this isn't uncommon). I don't recall everyone or each of their stories, but there were two guys from Texas (a PhD high school special ed teacher and a transportation coordinator), an older fella from Colorado (retired airline executive), a newly minted college grad from the Philadelphia area, another special ed teacher from Boston, several young women and a younger guy from the DC area, a young woman from Hong Kong, and me (high school social studies teacher in Minnesota). Of the eleven, five passed, and all five were from my Group Exercise.

We filled out some paperwork for the first thirty minutes or so, and then waited in an anteroom (remarkably like a small waiting room at the doctor's office) until the start of the Group Exercise, which consists of three parts: The preparation phase, the presentation phase and the discussion phase. At this point, our large group was broken into two, one of six and mine of five. Each group was taken to a small room, where we were given instructions and a seat at a smallish round table, big enough for six. Each of us had one three-ring binder, a notepad and a pen and dry-erase marker for marking on the plastic cover sheets if we wished.

In each binder was information about a fictional country. Background notes on the economy, basic history, principal players in the government, political structure and basic demographics were included. Also included was a proposal for some economic development project to be funded by the US Embassy, supporting documents in favor of and / or opposed to the project, and US country goals as well as the principal players from the US Embassy. The goal was to spend about 25 minutes preparing a six minute presentation for the others in the group, laying out the project, the advantages and disadvantages, supporters and any opposition, and then costs, both in terms of the actual cost and intangible costs like public relations or image of the US.

Once the 25 minutes was up, four (or more) stone-faced assessors enter, clipboards in hand, and took their places around the perimeter, ready to note everything said or done. Short instructions are given, and then the presentations are allowed to begin. Each group member takes his or her turn presenting their respective projects, all the while trying to display for the assessors all the qualities (called the 13 Dimensions) needed to be an FSO. It can really be quite intimidating, but I made up my mind I was going to pretend the assessors weren't there at all.

After all presentations were completed, some additional short instructions were given, such as how much the US Embassy had allotted for projects, and specifically that our team was to fully fund one project and partially fund at least one other project. Then a blank memo was dropped on the table, and we were to draft said memo explaining what our team had done.

The discussion phase for my group went very well. We all worked well together, and no one was domineering or abrasive. We were cordial and cooperative, and, using our time wisely and dividing up the responsibilities fairly, we concluded by fully funding one project and partially funding two, using up all the US taxpayer money available. We were told to leave all documents, including our notes, on the table, and return to the waiting room while the next stage of our day was prepared.

I was riding high at this point. I felt all morning long that I was going to do really well, that I would leave it all out on the table and be given a conditional offer at the end of the day. After the positive experience in the Group Exercise, I was still really stoked about how well it seemed to be going. Then came the first crash.

There are two other parts to this OA process: The Case Management and the Structured Interview, both done individually. After a break of about 30 or 45 minutes, some of my group of 11 were taken to a computer lab to do the 90 minute Case Management, and the rest would do the SI. I was in the CM group, and I came away from the experience depressed, dejected, and utterly defeated feeling I bombed the exercise and that I should just cut my losses and go home now, saving everyone time and frustration. OK, I exaggerate a little, but I knew this hadn't gone well.

In the CM, you are given a computer with Microsoft Word, a notepad and pen, and a larger three-ring binder than before, with quite a bit of information about a fictional country (in my case it was the same fictional country from earlier). In 90 minutes, I was to read through instructions from the Ambassador, along with many supporting documents such as emails, memorandum, work orders, budget spreadsheets and more, then create a two-page memo back to the Ambassador summarizing the basics about a conflict that existed between two or more subordinates that had developed shortly after I had arrived at the post. I was also to include recommendations and alternatives for solving this conflict. If I had another 30 minutes or so, I would have completed the CM and it might have been fine, maybe even good. However, I took too long researching and composing my summary, and was probably too wordy (shocker!). I had some basic bullet-pointed recommendations noted at the end which were going to be my finish with a flourish, but I ran out of time to make them into coherent sentences, and as a result they remained as grammatically stilted bullets that were going to puncture my dream.

I left the computer room pretty unhappy, and really not ready to socialize or eat lunch, which was up next. The only place to eat is a Subway shop in the basement, and we were escorted there to fill our bellies and wash down our sorrows with a cold soda and a chocolate chip cookie. My only solace was that, in all my research, it seemed the CM was the Achilles heal for just about everyone, and that it was possible to pass the day while still failing one of the three exercises. Now I knew I had to rock the SI if I had any chance of passing the overall day after my miserable performance in the CM.

We finished lunch and then I really hit the dumps as I had almost 90 minutes to sit in the waiting room with one other candidate until our turn at the SI came. I felt I could use the time to review my files and notes (which can be taken to the site, but must stay in a closet until the breaks) in order to prepare for the SI, but I couldn't stop thinking about the Case Management. Now I could see I was getting into my own head, and I needed to keep from psyching myself out. In the end, I simply decided to carefully reread the instructions for the SI given to us in our letter from the Board of Examiners, and then I would peruse a magazine, looking at the words and pictures but not actually reading anything at all. This strategy seemed to work out OK, as I calmed down and felt at least semi-prepared for the SI when my time came.

The Structured Interview has three parts, each 20 minutes in length. There are two assessors who directly interview candidates, give no verbal feedback, and provide virtually no non-verbal feedback, all the while taking copious notes.

In part one they ask about Experience and Motivation. Direct questions about your understanding of the job as an FSO, why you want the job, why you're qualified, et cetera. Not too hard if you've ever had a job interview of any kind in the past.

Part two was tricky, and I couldn't wait for it to be over. It is called "Hypotheticals", and you are given a fairly complex scenario to read, after which they propose to you a twist in the story, and ask "How would you respond?" Each answer is followed by another follow-up, and another "How would you respond?" Fortunately, knowledge of the inner workings of an Embassy or the State Department are not necessary, for in fact you are being measured against the Holy Grail for FSOs, the 13 Dimensions. Really the assessors are looking for sound judgment, composure and ability to think on your feet, so if mistakes are made in the hierarchy of things, that doesn't appear to matter much. Still and all, the pictures they paint are tricky, and the ability to respond quickly and at least somewhat pragmatically is a bonus. I felt I kept repeating the same things over and over in my responses, but that didn't appear to drag me down.

In part three the focus is on Past Behavior. Five scenarios are stated, each focusing on one of the 13 Ds. Each scenario has two options, A or B. Candidates are given a few minutes to read over all the choices, and make selections of either A or B for each. Then the assessors ask for an explanation as to why each option was chosen, based on a past experience. I felt this went really well, and that I was calm, composed, thoughtful and clear. In addition, I felt my stories really hit the mark they were asking of us, and as a bonus they hit more than just the dimension being assessed. At the end of this last 20 minute section, candidates are asked if they have anything they'd like to add, and as I was prepared for this, I added what I felt was a strong statement reiterating my desire to join the FS and why.

My mood had recovered somewhat as a result of the SI, and while I wasn't back to my euphoric state of early in the morning (it was probably just lack of sleep, lots of coffee and adrenaline then), I felt better. No doubt some of this feeling was due to the fact that I was finished, and honestly, there was nothing more to do than wait until the assessors made their decisions.

All eleven of us returned to the waiting room for small talk and the chance to experience one more swing of the moods as we all had the recognition that there was nothing left for us to do, that it was out of our hands. Then the mood swing began again when we were all called back to the computer room collectively, and told what to expect in the next few minutes. An assessor would come in and call out a name, and that person was to follow the assessor into one of the small interview rooms for the final decision.

OK, this was it then. The decision was at hand, and I think we were all on pins and needles as we waited with nervous chit chat for the assessor to arrive. Finally, they began calling us out. We all waved goodbye, and said good luck as one person after another was led out. The joke going around among earlier candidates was that, if the answer was negative, a little trap door opened up in the floor and the candidate disappeared. My understanding was that, if your name was called early, this was a bad sign, and that only those remaining at the end would be those who passed. The caveat to this is that it's possible for all candidates to pass, just as it's possible all will fail. When my name was called, I was certain I had been called too early, and that as I left the room there were too many people remaining for me to have passed.

However, as I entered the little room, I immediately noticed that there were four assessors and another candidate present. I was completely confused, as I was convinced I had not passed and then was a little miffed that they would tell me this in front of another candidate. My consternation only increased when another candidate entered the room, and as I reached to close the door for the delivery of the bad news, I was told to leave the door open, there were more coming. Now I was really confused. Ultimately, they had decided to deliver the news to us together as a group, for we had - all five of us - passed. The assessor told us it was very unusual for an entire group to pass together (he may have said it never happens, but I can't be sure as I kinda stopped hearing what he was saying).

All five from the same group. I guess our cooperative behavior of earlier that morning paid off in ways none of us could have imagined. After a short debriefing, fingerprinting and submission of electronic security background forms, all five of us headed to Fifty-First State, a local watering hole for a few beers and collective pats on the back. As we parted ways (three lived in the area, and another had plans with friends in the area), I headed off to my hotel to drop off my gear and find a place for a good steak. I fairly glided to the Prime Rib on K Street for a nice filet and a couple glasses of Cabernet, finished off the evening with a really cheap cigar and coffee on the patio while I made the requisite phone calls home to family. I found that I could not stop smiling in wonderment that I had passed. This was what elation felt like, only experienced in the past on my wedding day and on the days my kids were born.

As I talked to my family one last time that pleasant fall evening, I looked through the wrought iron gates of the White House, bathed in the yellow glow of artificial lighting, and reflected on the past nine months of work and waiting.

Now the waiting would really begin, because I could do little as the medical and security clearance process can take a year or more, and then the final suitability review occurs before any actual work starts in this new adventure of mine. Hopefully it ends with an invitation to the A-100, the official start of training as a Foreign Service Officer.

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