Sunday, October 16, 2011

Flag Day

Well, it's happened: I received my initial placement this past Friday here in Washington. If you haven't heard by now, we will depart the United States in September 2012 for Haiti, where I will be working in the embassy in Port-au-Prince.
Friday was an interesting day, to say the least. My mom and dad had driven from Milwaukee to be here, and Kate was able to get away for a few days as well, arriving amidst a late summer thunderstorm Thursday night. Unfortunately, Tommy and Sophie were unable to get away for Flag Day (as the somewhat informal ceremony is called), but Sophie will join Kate next week for the more formal swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 21.
There are 93 of us in our "class." Every American should know about these people. Most are younger than me (a few are even recent graduates of four-year schools, so they are about 23 or 24), but a few are older, like me taking on a second (or even third) career, this time in service to our country.
The median age is about 31. Their experiences are amazing, unbelievable even. Many have worked in embassies or consulates before, working as interns while in graduate school or in various other paid positions. Almost all of them speak at least one additional language (some as many as four or five!), some of them very difficult or obscure (ever heard of Hausa before?). Most have graduate training or degrees, often in international relations, international development, international affairs, international planning, international organizations, political science or the like. They have attended amazing schools like Georgetown, American University, Princeton, Columbia, the U.S. Military Academy, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Wellesley and Minnesota State University at Moorhead (two of my new colleagues went there!), among many others.
About 15 are former military, and about the same number are former Peace Corps volunteers. We have several who worked in education at various times in their pasts, at least four or five who have worked on Capitol Hill, two or three who have worked at the United Nations, a couple journalists, a couple from finance and IT, and we even have a few lawyers. I can say with certainty that these are highly qualified, highly motivated people who are about to do the work of the country overseas. I am proud to call these people my friends, and you should be proud that they are serving all of us at a very high level.
Similar groups of Americans go through this program six or seven times a year, and now staff US missions all over the world, yet few Americans have any idea who they are or what they do. Rest assured, these are good people doing difficult work in trying, even dangerous conditions. Not every post is comfy like London or Paris, and sometimes even those aren't always so comfy (think metro bombings in London back in 2005). More Americans should know about them.
Flag Day is highly unusual. Suffice it to say that few people ever find out the trajectory of their careers in a more surprising and public way than this. First a little background: There are 93 of us in our class, and on day three or so of orientation, we all received a "bid list" containing 93 different posts in which we might serve around the world. Each of us bids on all 93 posts, not by assigning them a number 1 to 93, but by categorizing them into three groups: high, medium or low. After we submit our bid lists, other experienced career foreign service officers (serving a D.C. tour in a position known as a career development officer) match the 93 of us with the 93 posts. (A sampling of possible posts included places like Tel Aviv, Israel; Accra, Ghana; several positions in Jakarta, Indonesia; Georgetown, Barbados; several positions across Mexico; New Dehli & Chennai, India; Nicosia, Cyprus; Geneva, Switzerland; London, England; Melbourne, Australia; several posts in Brazil; Kingston, Jamaica; Caracas, Venezuela; several posts in China; a few posts here in Washington, D.C. and Havana, Cuba, to name just a few.)
There are preferences taken into consideration -- for things like family makeup, languages already spoken, interest and desire to serve in particular places, stuff like that -- but largely we are matched with a position based on the needs of the United States Department of State. Then, this match is revealed - very publicly and quite surprisingly - near the end of orientation on Flag Day.
The 93 of us gathered this past Friday in a large conference room here at the George Schulz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Va. (This is where we do the bulk of our training in preparation for overseas posts.) Another 100 or so family and friends made up the balance of the audience to witness this spectacle. The ceremony is a little more informal, in that all of us had bingo cards to mark as we discovered where our new friends were going, there were lots of high-fives and hugs, even a few tears (some for joy, some not so much). The staff brings in a large supply of table-top-sized flags representing the various posts from our bid list, and after a few short remarks, the anxiety and tension ramps up to some pretty remarkable levels. An image of a flag is displayed on the big screen behind the speaker, and our class mentor (Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, most recently ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau) holds a little flag in her hand. The crowd shouts out the name of the nation to which the flag belongs (sometimes getting it wrong), and the presenter says: "I have a consular position in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, starting in June of 2012, for ...." Not until that very moment does anyone know where they are heading for the next few years. We have been researching posts and countries, working on the various tasks as part of this new career, waiting and dreaming about this moment for months - even years. There is more than a little adrenaline flowing at this point, and as you might imagine, some are a little more shocked than others with the results (certainly not always in a negative way). It is quite a scene to behold, not to mention in which to take part.
So another milestone of sorts has passed in this journey. I started this process in February 2009 when I took the foreign service officer written exam for the first time. More than two-and-a-half years later, after two trips to D.C. and another to Latvia and untold hours of study, practice and worry, our little family will be heading off to Port-au-Prince next year.
Yes, I took bonus points in the Russian language in order to get the job, and as such I have committed to serving in a Russian-speaking post at some point early on in this career, but there was only one Russian-speaking post (Moscow) on our bid list, and another person with more skill in the language won that post. A Russian-speaking post will come in the future, sometime after Haiti. Over the next 10 or so months I will be learning French and Haitian Creole (how cool is that?), learning the ins and outs of my new position as a consular officer (things like family-based immigrant visa processing that deal with adoption, HIV/AIDS issues, and waivers; adjudicating non-immigrant visa cases; providing passport services to a large community of Americans in-country; and dealing with a large variety of issues such as arrests, Medevacs, abandoned children and kidnappings (!), to name a few), taking basic first aid and personal safety courses, and generally preparing myself for this exciting new opportunity. Oh, and all the while working together with Kate to figure out what to do with the house, the dog, the kids, etc. Should be an interesting ride.

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