Today marks the 53rd anniversary of Peace Corps in Ghana. Ghana was the first country to receive Volunteers. President Mahama shared some moving remarks about how Peace Corps impacted him:

When I think of the things I accomplished (and failed at) during my service, it pales in comparison to the impact the experience had on me.

It’s not about teaching, it’s about sharing

And a body to boot

Okay, it might be the corniest name, but the concept is solid. My colleague/friend/A-100 classmate/co-conspirator came up with a brilliant idea today while we were shopping in Georgetown. I refer to it as “and a body to boot” but I’m pretty sure it will just become the FSO fit challenge. The concept weaves together everything a good Foreign Service Officer possesses:

1. Competition
2. Drive
3. Goals
4. Extra weight
5. Never enough of something

In this case, we don’t have enough boots. In my case, I only have my cowboy boots. Winter is coming and all my boots are in storage. It costs less to buy new ones than to trek to the storage unit and pay to get them out.  My friend and I have been talking for a while about our need to get in shape. Training has made us into whimpy noodles who indulge in ethnic food too much. And you know what DC is great for just that. But I’m not about to waltz into winter with an extra 10 lbs hanging around my hips when I know full well cookies and pumpkin pie and soup are in my future. Plus I need to form good habits, I’ve been back in America long enough now, blah blah blah: lose weight you fatty! So the and a body to boot challenge was born! Full credit goes to my partner in crime and her devious ways to get me to do things I know I should do, but don’t wanna.

So what’s the scoop?

We both set fitness goals for the next month. We have a hard objective which we should accomplish in the next 30 days. For me I want to lose 7 lbs. I know a few of those pounds are just water, so I want to get back to my weight pre-A-100. Yes, I put on that much weight during 6 weeks. Gah, don’t remind me. It’s a realistic, but tough goal and I’m bound and determined to meet it. Why?

Because here’s the catch – if I reach my goal my friend will buy me new boots. If she reaches her goal, I buy her new boots. If she reaches her goal and I don’t, then I still need new boots and have to pay for hers. So there is not only a double incentive, but my pride is on the line! Plus, I just want new boots.

Doom and Gloom to It All Goes Boom!

Area Studies is over! Yay! In the end, I actually did learn something, but boy did I fight it.  The combination of doom and gloom, long lectures, and knowledge assumptions made it very difficult for me to learn. I think the people who got the most from this class already had most of the knowledge. A few of us thought there should have been an “Intro to the Intro” course. I survived, but not without a few mental scars.

I discovered something very interesting in this class though. This was my first time being in an interagency setting. We had folks from all over the alphabet soup of agencies ranging from DOD to DOA and lots more in between. Oddly enough, one of the DOD guys commented that State folks always call our coworkers colleagues. I didn’t realize that was a thing, but I say it all the time and hear it around every corner now. DOD always asked straight forward questions, while State would circle around a question and then finally just give a statement, instead of asking something. And most of us have only been at State for 8 weeks! Talk about really great indoctrination. So, let me preface the next part of this story with my own background. I’m half German and I grew up with Air Force parents. Time management is my thing. I dealt with it in Ghana, because that’s the culture. But here in the U.S. I expect things to be efficient and operate on a schedule. And when they don’t I fall back into my very German ways and get indignant.

For the past two weeks, our sessions have been going long and cutting into breaks or lunch. Today, our last day of class we found out that our lunch would be cut short by 15 minutes. Okay, fine, expectations managed. But don’t try cutting it down any further, mmmkay? This girl needs a mental break to process the information firehose. So before lunch we had 6 rounds of class debate about controversial topics in our region, which let me say coming up with the topics was not much of a struggle for the Near/Middle East. After the second formal debate, we got into the weeds pretty deep with a specific topic. A topic that we could talk about until we are blue in the face, but nothing we say or do is going to change the current situation. 30 minutes have been devoted to this topic out of a one hour session, and four groups still need to present and debate. My German side starts getting time anxiety. So I speak up and suggest we move on to the next topic since we are running short of time. And then something funny happened. Half my colleagues at State look at me like a traitor and everyone from DOD starts clapping for me. In my mind, I can see someone writing my yearly review and remarking ” needs improvement on undoing time management skills.” I remarked to one of my State colleagues that I’m looking forward to being a control officer (the person that herds VIPs when they come to post) and they just said “you’re going to get fired.” I just looked dumbfounded. But, but…I thought schedules were coveted! It was interesting to see the dynamic between the agencies play out and our own stereotypes rise to the surface. DOD loves their time and schedules, but State seems more willing to just talk about it. State needs to find the right words, with the least amount of negative connotations that will be politically correct and still get our point across. Some of the other agencies, were about direct communication or speaking in vague hypotheticals. We talked a lot about turf and equity in the interagency process during A-100, but we didn’t really touch on personalities. It was so fun to see them all come out during this class.

So my discovery? I need to be the GSO in Germany, that motor pool would run so efficiently, time would even tip its hat. Today’s incident made a few things clear to me:

1. My biggest pet peeve is beating a dead horse.
2. I love concise, except when it comes to writing blogs.
3. I’m going to be great at the interagency!

 

Ugh, argh, and sigh

Area Studies makes me feel like a complete and total failure, so that’s fun. But on the other hand, it helps me defend my decision to not go to grad school. It also makes me really love management issues even more. Can someone give me a logistics issue to handle? Anyone? Gah, what I wouldn’t do for a terrible customer service problem right about now. Area Studies just makes me realize that policy isn’t my strong point. It doesn’t help that I have absolutely no background whatsoever in this part of the world. It also doesn’t help when people associated with the class let me know that I have no background, because I didn’t already feel like an idiot. I am learning, but I feel like my curve is Mount Everest. But, you know what? Not everyone has to get to the top. I’m happy to just schlep around the bags down at basecamp. I’ll do the dirty work and let someone else tackle the summit. I really do want to learn, but my struggle is the least of anyone’s worries.

Why does this class do such a good job of exposing my insecurities? Some days I hold back tears because I’m so lost, I feel like I’ll never make it in this profession. I spend half the class trying to just understand the words the lecturers are using. At least once I start Arabic classes, I’ll know it is a foreign language.

And then while, Area Studies is beating me to pulp in the corner, I’ve got other crap going on. I’m in a holding pattern, which means I’m still waiting to get my diplomatic passport and visas. I need to extend my stay in DC, which means I need to contact someone, I think, but I still need to figure out who that is. I always feel like I’m forgetting something all the time. But at least I’m keeping up with my TSP!

And then there is the glaring issue of life. A-100 made me question a few of my fundamental beliefs about how I want to live my life. I’ve been clinging on to my self-sufficient, independent attitude for so long. I can’t tell anymore if it was a coping mechanism or if I actually believe it. I feel like a piece of clothing, tumbling in a dryer. I’m just spinning and spinning and I have no clue when I’ll stop spinning. And the more I think about my own internal upheaval, the more I cling to anything I can, perhaps another lost sock in the dryer. So many things in my life feel like they have all flipped upside down and I don’t know how to look at them anymore. Maybe I just need to work on my Ender’s Game attitude – there is no up or down, only a different perspective.

I guess I’m just a little lost in this whole new world. I’ll find my way soon enough, probably right after Area Studies is over.

A-100 Calorie Slice of Humble Pie

Today was our last full class of A-100. I honestly cannot believe it is already over. It feels like the longest and shortest 6 weeks of my life. Just like during my Peace Corps training, I’ve quickly made some wonderful friends. I’ve been so impressed with my new colleagues, it is hard to imagine going through this experience without them. I want to share with you a story from today.

This morning we had a discussion summing up everything we’ve learned in class and how we plan on applying it. Something that really struck me from these last six weeks was the focus on “me.” My employee review, my bid, my post, my future, my boss, my impact. While we touched on teamwork, especially during our offsite retreat, I felt like the emphasis was more on the individual and less on the team. And it makes sense, that’s what most interesting and sought after during a training. How does this affect me? That was my impression of the sessions. My takeaway from the class was just that though – teamwork. Yesterday and today, it really hit me that this isn’t about me. They’ve given me the tools and knowledge to be a better cog. But this is about the team. In the last two weeks, I’ve really felt the “me” mentality in class. I think that’s what made it all the more clear to me. Sometimes we learn by observing what’s missing and not what’s right in front of us. Today really allowed me to step back 10 steps and see the big picture. I am not a single Foreign Service Officer serving my country in a far off land. I am part of a team working to create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. We are a team. The 178th A-100 class is a team. The men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service are a team. Every employee of the Department of State is part of the team. We may all have different personal goals, career objectives, areas of expertise, and regional specialities, but we share one thing in common – our mission. Together we are stronger and make this world a better place.

Teamwork was my key takeaway from my A-100 experience, but I’d like to share just one more quick lesson learnt.

Before I joined the Foreign Service, I would label myself as an 11 on a scale of 1-10, 10 being insanely competitive. I knew coming into the Foreign Service that this trait often leads to poor morale and unnecessary comparisons. This was something I’ve been trying to work on for years. During my first week of A-100, I was served a giant slice of humble pie washed down with a big gulp of get over yourself. My colleagues were smarter, funnier, prettier, more experienced, and generally way cooler than me. I was no longer fighting to be taken seriously. Suddenly, I wasn’t Miss Perfect. I felt like I was the bottom of the barrel in our class. And you know what? It was so incredibly good for me to feel that way. Even though that first bite of humble pie was hard to swallow, as soon as I kept it down, the rest of the pie tasted so sweet. I needed to not be the best at something. I needed everyone to be better than me. I also found through this process an incredible group of people who supported me. I found that it is easier to climb out of the bottom of the barrel, when a few people reach their hands in and pull you back up. Because, this is all a team effort. My competitive streak has turned into but a half erased pencil marking. I can’t kill a bad habit in just six weeks, but I’ve found that my perspective has changed. I am no longer looking at myself and what I can do, I’m looking at everyone else and wondering how we can all work together.

Flag Day

What’s not to love about a ceremony involving tiny flags, years of anticipation, and deliberately built up anxiety? Flag Day is a time honored tradition for A-100 classes. We find out our assignments in the most intense way possible. I’m hoarse from screaming in excitement for my colleagues. So here’s how it all works for my friends and family who don’t know, don’t worry my full story of the Flag Day bonanza is below.

We receive a list of posts for our group. Each person ranks the posts on the list: high, medium, low. You can add comments if you choose. Then after the fifth week of training, they tell us where we are going in an elaborate ceremony that’s really just bottled diplomat anxiety.

 

I wasn’t feeling any emotion towards Flag Day until about an hour before it started. And then suddenly, the gravity of the situation hit me like a space station flying at 17,500 miles an hour. I might have had a mild panic attack. I wasn’t nervous about any of the posts on our list, I think I was just overcome with a multitude of emotions. First, I couldn’t believe this was actually real. Second, my life was about to change, I think it is okay to freak out a bit. Third, it was incredibly hot and muggy. Fourth, I knew that everyone else had the same nervous energy as me, it was feeding off each other. Fifth, I was just plain excited. These factors and emotions almost knocked me out. I came pretty close to passing out at one point before the ceremony started. Luckily, my wonderful colleagues all started fanning me and getting me some air. The energy was so indescribable. The only way I can try to explain it is this: imagine dreaming of something for 10 years, knowing that it is about to happen in a matter of moments, and that crazy jittery feeling you have when you drink too much caffeine. That’s how I felt.

Finally the ceremony started and quickly I realized I really don’t know flags. Okay, let’s step back for a second and I’ll give you some details. Of the posts, I ranked 25% low, 29% high, and 46% medium. My lows were mainly Russian speaking posts. My highs were all over the place. And my mediums were primarily non-consular posts and a smattering of “eh” places. When I met with my Career Development Officer to explain my preferences, I told her “surprise me.” And she did!

So I completely forgot how I ranked any of my posts prior to the ceremony. Once the ceremony began, I noticed that quickly many of my lows were disappearing. When my absolute low was called and someone seemed happy to get it, I was so relieved, I actually remembered to breathe again. One of my friend’s high posts was called, but she didn’t get it. But there were two posts, so there was hope she’d get the next one. I really wanted her to go there. My friend sitting to my left was on the edge of her seat every time an India came up. She’s dreamed of India for over a decade. But they kept calling different posts. Suddenly the Egyptian flag appears on screen and it felt like forever. I turned to my friend on my right, who wanted Egypt and said something to the effect of “you got this.” And then they called my name. And I was shocked. I remember standing up and walking towards the flag having no idea what was going on and then a few seconds later – emotion! Crazy, excited emotion! I started jumping up and down and throwing my hands in the air. Egypt was one of my highs. As I let all the nervous energy drain out of me, I sat down and immediately burst into tears. Tears of pure joy and excitement. I don’t think ecstatic is a strong enough word to describe how I was reacting. Weeks of suppressed caring and distancing myself from any attachment led to an utter breakdown in social norms. Tears were streaming down my face and I just couldn’t stop them. Of course my friend to the left starts crying with me, while still waiting to hear her name. Then suddenly another Near East post comes up and my friend on the right gets excited. This is a good post too and another one of her highs. They call her name and she much more gracefully than me goes and collects her flag. We are going to be neighbors, sort of. Well region neighbors. My friend on the left is still waiting, and they haven’t called any of her India dream posts. She’s in a full state of freaking out all while I’m sitting there trying to hold it together. One of my colleagues told me during my public speaking exercise that behind a podium I look like I’m trying to burst out of a jar. That’s how I felt sitting in my chair.

Suddenly, an India flag flashes on the screen and her dream post is called, followed by her name. Commence screaming. Two of my other friends got their absolute #1 posts as well. Dreams for everyone! I’m so happy with the people who are also in my region. But let’s rewind again. Why was I so excited to get Egypt? Many of my friends and family are concerned about the current state of affairs in the region. Well, back in the day, elementary school to be exact, I wanted to do a few different jobs. I wanted to be an architect and cruise ship captain. But I also wanted to be an Egyptologist. I’ve been fascinated with the culture and history since at least first grade. I even gave a report in front of the entire school in a Cleopatra costume. That’s elementary school dedication there. Ever since, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Egypt. It is the sole place on my bucket list that is a requirement. It was where I originally wanted to go on a post Peace Corps trip, but couldn’t at the time. I almost bought a book to learn hieroglyphics at one point. I’m so excited for this challenge. I guess I need to actually look up post information about Egypt. I’m going to have plenty of time though, as I will now be learning Arabic.

What an adventure! And now for a quick way to wrap up my life: