Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's Been A Long Year in DC

So I've gone and become a small cog in a great big machine.  One of the biggest machines in the world, as a matter of fact.   According to the Office of Personnel Management, I am now one in just over 4.4 million federal government workers (figure includes uniformed US military, all three branches of the federal government, and the temporary workers from the decennial census in 2010).   Even more rare than being “one-in-a-million,” although it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily.
A-100 is the name for the Orientation program given by the State Department to newly minted Foreign Service Officers.  Historically, this orientation was held in a basement room (number A-100) in one of the many State Department buildings here in the greater Washington, DC area.  I think there are about 219 of these State Department annexes in DC, and so I have no idea where this building was.  It may actually still exist.
At various times in the recent past, A-100 has lasted seven weeks, and occurred six or seven times every year, although after the hiring surge created by Secretaries Powell, Rice & Clinton, the number of classes each year was increased and the length for each class was reduced to five weeks.  That surge now is over, and my A-100 – the 163rd “class” – was six weeks in length.  Classes of new officers once consisted of somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-70 people.  Mine was the last of those classes occurring as a result of the hiring surge, and had 93 people in it.  Of course in the not-so-recent past, those people were all white males from blue-blood families who had coveted Ivy League diplomas under their baby platypus skin Ralph Lauren belts.
But times change.  The service is much more representative of the country now, which can only be a good thing.  Of the 93 Americans in my class, we had a pretty diverse group in virtually every respect, based on geography, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, religion and ethnicity; they spoke a remarkable number of languages, had widely varied educational and work experiences (including about 15 or so military veterans and another 15 or so returned Peace Corps volunteers), and just about everything else you can imagine.  The old days of only white men in “striped pants pushing cookies” are long gone.  Today it’s even possible to become a Foreign Service Officer with an undergraduate education from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (me), or UW-Eau Claire (a colleague), or really from anywhere.  Quite remarkable, if you ask me.
A-100 has a reputation for being one of the more extensive and thorough orientation programs anywhere (within government or business), and it was unlike anything I’ve been through before.  The vast majority of our time was spent in a smallish lecture hall, although if our class was smaller in number the room wouldn’t have felt so cramped.  At 93 in a room meant for far fewer people, we were packed in like sardines.  Speaker after speaker gave us “briefings,” really small lectures or presentations on a wide range of policies, procedures, the structure of the State Department, what each area of State does, how State interacts with other parts of government in carrying out its duties, stuff like that.  We really built a strong esprit de corps within our group, at least in my opinion.  The end result is that today, I feel any one of them would gladly have my back.
Day one is spent at the mother ship in Washington (Main State or the Harry S Truman building, the ‘headquarters’ of the US Department of State), filling out paperwork for insurance, hearing person after person congratulate us on getting into the Foreign Service (that never gets old), signing up for federal benefit programs, and listening to more people congratulate us.  Not much exciting there, other than the point when we all stood, raised our right hands and, in unison, said

"I, David Todd Panetti, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God."

Ok, wow.  That was just so cool, and this was only a couple hours into our first day!
My Presidential commission
Later that night, some of my new friends and I went out for Chinese food.  My fortune cookie at the end of the meal read “Explore your own world by working together with your new friends.”  Maybe this was the universe trying to tell me something, I don’t know, but talk about a crazy coincidence!
Day two put a rather fine point on this new adventure however, and gave that oath we had just taken a bit more perspective.  As we were walking into the building on the campus of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (more commonly known as the Foreign Service Institute, or just simply FSI) in Arlington, VA, the televisions broadcasting the news were showing live reports from Kabul, Afghanistan where the US Embassy was under attack by armed men, occurring in real time.  From the heady stuff of the Constitution to the dizzying realization that some of us are going to be in real danger, all within less than 24 hours.  On our first two days.  This was something.  We weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Of course, those fears were months away at least, for almost all of us.  We had to finish training first, and we hadn’t really even started yet.  Talk about a ‘solemn’ oath.

America’s First Diplomat at the Foreign Service Institute
Six weeks may seem a bit much to accomplish that, but remember – this is a big, complex machine.  State’s mission is to “Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.”  This isn’t making cheese.  While no orientation program can do everything one might like it to do, this was something pretty darn cool.  I think the best part was getting to know my new colleagues from all over the country.  Most times I felt a bit like the fish out of water, what with being one of just a few with a state school education, my previous career teaching high school for almost 20 years, and of course my relatively advanced age (ok, there were a couple people older than me in my class, but only three or four; I think the median age of our group was about 30).  In general, I would say our class coalesced a bit like a piece of furniture from Ikea – you assemble it easily, the pieces all go where they are supposed to, it fits well together and holds reasonably well, but it isn’t meant to be a permanent piece of fine furniture.  After six rather intense weeks, including the tension-filled culmination of A-100 called Flag Day, we began the slow, year-long process of training, and then dispersing.  Four of us immediately went to work at Main State, and the rest of us started language training or other functional training for our new jobs at FSI.
The 163rd A-100 class of the United States Foreign Service
Humility thy name is language training
Our formal orientation program, A-100, officially ended in late October 2011.  The first person from our A-100 to leave for post departed just after Thanksgiving that year.  We are almost at Christmas of the next year, and I am the last of our 93 to remain.  Call me the last man standing, say they saved the best for last, pick your favorite idiom to describe this situation, but the fact remains that I struggled learning French over the past year, and as a result spent 54 weeks in a program designed to last about 30.  On the other hand, I can now speak and read and understand French.  Maybe not in the pure, unadulterated literary sense, but nonetheless I can do it.  That, too, is pretty darn cool.
A big test
The end-of-training in the language school occurs with an actual speaking and reading exam, and a really hard one.  (I’m sure all my former students will enjoy knowing that.)  The federal government uses a six-point scale to determine ones language ability (from 0-5), and gives both speaking and reading their own scores.  One who knows a language at the 5/5 level can speak, read & understand it like a well-educated native.  One who knows a language at just above the 0/0 level might be able to say hello & goodbye, and not much else beyond a few standard phrases.  Hard languages (like Russian, Hindi or Thai) require a 2/2 to “pass,” and superhard languages (like Arabic, Japanese, Chinese & Korean) require a 2/1 or a 2/0.  To “pass” French and many other languages, a 3/3 is required.  I had to take that darn end-of-training exam several times in order to get there, and it was no fun at all, let me tell you.
The language programs at FSI are just one part of the overall purpose of the Institute, but what a part they play.  At any one time, I can walk the halls of this former college campus and hear Lithuanian, Hebrew, Swedish, Arabic, German, Spanish, French or any number of almost 60 some languages taught there.  Some are pretty common and well known languages, of course, but some are called “boutique” languages, like Farsi, Latvian or Finnish, spoken in only one or two places.  As difficult as I found French, I can’t imagine trying to learn a superhard language like Mandarin or Vietnamese.
Moldova, Here We Come
On the other hand, I did manage to take and pass a (rather brief and elementary) telephone test in Russian in order to get this job, so I suppose that’s nothing to sneeze at.  Taking bonus points for passing that test means I will need to spend at least one tour early in my career in a Russian-speaking country, and then a second tour in another later in my career.  As my first tour in Haiti doesn’t qualify, back in January of 2011 I had the odd obligation of bidding on my second tour before I had even left for my first tour.  The rules were to make the second tour fit timing-wise with the end of my tour in Haiti, and that it had to be in a Russian-speaking country.  I had about 15 – 20 to choose from, and bid very high places like Latvia, Ukraine and Estonia.  The timing wasn’t perfect for these posts, because I do need to return to FSI after Haiti to brush up on my Russian (a bit of an understatement; basically I’ll be starting again from scratch), so the best post to fit my schedule was the tiny Republic of Moldova.
So, there you have it:  I’ll be leaving Haiti in January of 2015, when I will return to Washington to study Russian, and then in the fall of that year I will be heading to Chisinau, Moldova until the fall of 2017.  After that, who knows!  This sure is going to be an interesting, challenging five years, that’s certain.
So this year has been quite a ride so far, but it hasn’t been all fun and games, either.  While it’s some pretty heady stuff to go to work some days contemplating that your boss (albeit quite far removed from the likes of me) is the Secretary of State, and that her boss is the President of the United States, most days it’s a bit like grad school all over again, but with a few costs I hadn’t adequately anticipated.
I was – and generally remain – very excited to be able to be here, preparing for this new career of mine, but I totally underestimated how much I would miss my family, who remained behind in Minnesota until just recently.  We managed to see one another about every four to six weeks for a weekend at a time, but although intellectually I knew it would be difficult, I wasn’t prepared for how difficult.  Essentially I missed my daughter’s senior year of high school and my son’s freshman year of college.  I missed football marching band performances, plays and college swim meets.  I missed the daily routine of life, of eating together as a family, of taking an active role in the lives of my kids.  I also missed Minnesota dearly, and all the great friends I had made over the twenty some years I had lived there.  Not only those big things, but also all the little things that make up a life had changed, and the realization that I had chosen this path didn’t do much to salve my occasional unhappiness.  Couple that with my struggles in the language, and there were a few months where I just couldn’t fathom why I went and upset the apple cart like this.
And now here we are, 15 months into an adventure that so far has allowed me to live in our nation’s capital, to learn a foreign language, to become friends with some incredible people, and to add several hundred thousand frequent flyer miles to my account after having flown more often than at any time in my previous life.  Now my wife and daughter are here with me, and while there are understandable struggles, the most important thing is that we are together.  My daughter has managed to get two internships for the time she’s here with me (one with US Senator Amy Klobuchar), and before we all head to post both my wife and daughter are taking  Haitian Creole classes at FSI, too.  At last we are on the final leg of the domestic part of our journey, on the cusp of departure for Port-au-Prince (we leave in mid-January).
In the meantime, I am still in training at FSI, now learning the ins and outs of the day-to-day job as a Consular Officer.  Currently I am being trained in passport rules & regulations, along with the rules for determining US citizenship; immigrant and non-immigrant visa rules & regulations, along with interviewing techniques, fraud detection and national security issues; many complex computer applications for tracking it all; and American Citizen Services, where I will learn how to make prison visits to incarcerated US citizens, make that call to family back home with a death notification, help Americans who have been victims of crime, and generally provide essential and emergency assistance for Americans when they are abroad.  Of course my training isn’t nearly complete, as most of what I’ve learned so far is only just the ‘big picture,’ and will likely be very different on the ground at post.  And I have to remember that I’ve only just started.  Can’t wait for the new year!
Merry Christmas to you all, and may 2013 provide you as much fun, challenge and adventure as I anticipate ours will.

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