Stories Help Sell the Foreign Service Exam

Posted by Paul Mayer
October 21, 2009
U.S. Consulate: Montreal, Canada

About the Author: Paul Mayer serves as the Consular Section Chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Montréal, Canada.

In the end, it was the stories that they liked the best.

In mid-September, when my colleague Tracy and I walked over to McGill University to talk with American students about the Foreign Service Exam and life as a Foreign Service Officer, we weren’t sure what we would find. We knew that American students who were brave enough to “study abroad” (the Academy maintains that Canada is, in fact, a foreign country… ref. poutine, curling, and Celine Dion) would probably already be thinking of America’s role in an increasingly complex world. We also knew that students at one of North America’s most prestigious universities would come prepared with good questions. Fortunately, no one asked me to explain the Kyoto Protocol.

We arrived at McGill and walked by a crowded classroom, not wanting to disturb the lecturer, only to find that the students were actually waiting for us. Cha-ching! After we introduced ourselves and discussed the mechanics of registering for and taking the Foreign Service Exam, Tracy and I gave a brief summary of our job experiences and started sharing some reflections on Foreign Service life. Neither of us could recall sipping sherry and exchanging witty bon mots with Cabinet ministers. Rather, as a Human Rights officer in a poor, sub-Saharan African country, Tracy had seen and heard some truly ghastly stories. Less than two years after joining the State Department, she was the person who was writing them up for inclusion in the annual Human Rights Report.

For me, ten years after having been a first-responder consular officer at a horrible plane crash in Southeast Asia, it didn’t take much to remember or articulate the sense of obligation I felt toward the American citizens who had been killed, and to the families they left behind. It will take much for me to forget the scenes or feelings or smells of that day, though. To be fair, I also remember clearly another heavy burden placed on my shoulders when I agreed to be a judge at a national beauty pageant in a Scandinavian country. Foreign Service Officers serve their country in many different ways.

Neither of these stories are classic feel-good recruiting tales, but I’m pretty sure that the 60-70 McGill students packed into the room would have been suspicious if they thought they were being sold a bill of goods. When Tracy and I were asked to share more stories from our diplomatic assignments, we both smiled and thought, “Where do we begin?” I suppose you could say we were successful, because after 90 minutes, at least two-thirds of these busy, multi-tasking, iPhone wielding students were still in the room.

Montréal is one of the sites for the written Foreign Service Exam, and before we started the outreach program, organized by our Public Diplomacy Section, every one of our limited testing slots was already filled up. Following our meeting at McGill, and a second one at neighboring Concordia University, we opened up more testing slots, and we were pleased to see that they filled up, too. We can’t be sure if there was a direct correlation with our visits and the stories we’d shared, but we’d like to believe there was. The only definitive proof may come when a future FSO candidate expresses a desire to specialize in beauty pageant judging...

Comments

Comments

Toby
|
District Of Columbia, USA
October 21, 2009

Toby in Washington, DC writes:

Interesting story. I wonder if you can directly ask some of the students if that was the correlation. Otherwise, it might simply be because you were talking to Americans living abroad and this group might think of themselves as pseudo diplomats already.

Joel
|
Sweden
October 21, 2009

Joel in Sweden writes:

Foreign Service Exam isn't the only game in town. We are also be recruiting actively for specialist positions in DS, IRM, Facilities, etc.

In my 10 years as an IT specialist overseas I've monitored elections, managed crises, entertained CEO's, shook hands with cabinet level officials and enjoyed other professional experiences that my private sector colleagues can't match.

Being on the front lines of diplomacy is an experience with which few private sector organizations can compete.

E C.
|
California, USA
October 25, 2009

E in New Mexico writes:

Hope I passed the exam..Should be hearing back soon although I understand the chance of passing that exam on the 1st shot is 30%..It must be nice to be that 30%!

Birgitta
|
Sweden
October 25, 2009

Birgitta in Sweden writes

Mr. Mayer: Can it be true? You judged the pagent that I was a contestant in years ago! How unique that I read this blog today! I'm overcome with joy to hear you are still a diplomat and that you are doing fine work in Canada. What else do you do in your job? I remember you told the group of us contestants about your work at the American Embassy in Stockholm, and I especially remember your big committment to your work.

I wish you the very best in your future goals. My son (who's name is also Paul!) and I wish you the very best and hope you will come back to Sweden again!

Justin
|
Missouri, USA
October 25, 2009

Justin in Columbia writes:

As an American living and working in Medellin Colombia I have seen first hand the positive results brought on my State Department programs like Plan Colombia. The Colombian people thank U.S. public servants and I hope more people take this exam.

Joel
|
New Mexico, USA
October 25, 2009

Joel in New Mexico writes:

How would you explain to a prospective candidate the politicization of the Foreign Service? This is most evident in the appointment of ambassadors, many of whom are qualified primarily by their prowess at presidential fundraising, but ever since the 1980s the lower ranks have also been politicized. Hopefully this reached its nadir in the last administration, which stringently vetted people in a number of Departments according to the "correctness" of their political views.

With regard to politicization of State, I am thinking particularly of Lewis Amselem, who is serving as the American representative to the OAS despite his open belligerence and hostility toward the elected president of Honduras as well as toward the Nicaraguan ambassador. Indeed, Amselem has a darker past, having been implicated in the attempt to cover up the massacre in Guatemala during the 1980s by slandering Sister Diana Ortiz, my fellow New Mexican, who had been kidnapped by the death squads and tortured. In her memoirs, it is stated that according to ABC News Amselem was the source of vile accusations against her, including the claim that she had faked the over 100 cigarette burns on her back to cover up an affair and the baseless statement that she was a lesbian. (see www.webdelsol.com/AGNI/asp98-jl.htm)

It seems obvious to me that the decision to retain and to deploy a person like Lewis Amselem in diplomacy is fundamentally a political decision. Certainly anyone entering the service should be aware that there's more to a career in the State Department than comforting bereaved families and judging beauty contests. There is politics, often of a notably ugly variety.

James
|
Pennsylvania, USA
October 25, 2009

James in Pennsylvania writes:

The word 'story' works well...

"Being on the front lines of diplomacy is an experience with which few private sector organizations can compete."

Perhaps that is because it is, in reality, a Third Front, to change: Defense first, Economic-Corporate secondary, political third...or Corporate first, Defense second...

IT: Then you know that over 70% of intelligence comes from news sources outside the U.S. The truth in agreements is as far from honesty as it can be, is it not?

The truth comes from those who are the pawns that actually get their hands dirty....

DipNote
|
District Of Columbia, USA
October 25, 2009

DipNote Blogger Paul Mayer writes:

@ Toby in Washington, DC: The group at McGill did not strike me as a group of pseudo-diplomats at all. Rather, they were the kind of curious, engaged and intelligent students that you’d see at top universities anywhere. People weren’t asking us about the famous people we’d met or the glamorous places that FSO’s live. They were much more interested in the work that we really did.

Patrick G.
|
Canada
October 26, 2009

Patrick in Canada writes:

Sounds like it was a great talk at McGill. You should consider giving a talk at the University of Waterloo (http://uwaterloo.ca/) .

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