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...