It’s been exhausting. What we started in February finally ended in July. Or, more accurately, it is all starting now. I passed my oral assessment for the foreign service last week with a solid score, and I’m optimistic about my chances of receiving an offer to join the foreign service. It is scary, for both of us, to not know where we will be in a year from now. We could be living in D.C. learning Arabic, in Manilla churning through hundreds of non-imigrant visa applications a day, helping to locate missing Americans in Thailand, or facilitating adoptions in China.
The one thing we are able to rely on is knowing the people we love support us. Less than 5% of applicants to the foreign service make it this far, yet Jen’s aunt told me months ago that she knew I would make it through. Each step I doubted myself, and each step my family believed in me. I already feel like I have grown so much in this process. I see the world differently. It seems bigger. I see America’s place and role in it, and I visualize myself living, in person, through the current events around the world. I’m so thankful for the support I’ve had. For the help and advice Gordon gave me (he also wants to be an FSO). He, more than anybody, helped guide me through the steps, and he, more than anybody else, is responsible for me making it this far.
I also owe a lot to the judge that I work for. He gave me time off to take the test. What kind of boss gives you time off to help you find a different job? Just 3 months after I started! He’s been supportive, given me great advice (in life, love, money, everything), and has helped hone a more baby appropriate sense of humor by telling me dumb jokes that I secretly love (he’s very fond of saying “let’s make like a cow pie and hit the trail”). All my coworkers have been amazing. I’ve been so lucky, I really have.
This all started with HGTV. Yes, really. In January, Jen and I were watching House Hunters International. We both wanted to have the chance to experience living overseas before we had kids, or at least while they were still young. I started looking for law jobs abroad, and I came across the foreign service. The perks seemed great: free rent, get to see the world, a new country every two years. The job seemed even better: helping Americans in distress, learning new languages, affecting the world and having the world affect me too.
The first step in applying is a test called the FSOT taken at a computer terminal. The next test was only two weeks away, so I signed up. The test is composed of four parts: knowledge, biography, English, and an essay. The knowledge portion was a lot of fun. It tests you on everything from the history of jazz to geography to sports to politics and math. I studied maps of the Middle East, capitals of countries, watched a History Channel documentary on every president, and taught myself how to do multiplication on paper again. The biography part is a test similar to online job applications. It asks questions like “How many events have you planned that were attended by more than 15 people in the last year? 0, 1-2, 3-5, 5-10, or 11+.” You select one and then have to name a few. There are a lot of these questions in only a little bit of time, so you’re forced to hurry. The English section is also multiple choice. You read an essay and then there are questions on how to improve the grammar. Lastly, the essay is an ACT-style essay where you are given a topic and 30 minutes to write about it. It is graded 1-12 and you need a 6 to pass.
I took the test but didn’t know how well I did. I wanted to think I did well, but you never know. Only 40% of people pass the FSOT. I passed. With flying colors. I needed a 155 on the FSOT to pass, and I got a 190. I needed a 6 on the essay. I got a 10. I was flattered and excited.
The second step was to submit Personal Narratives (PN). These were 6 essays asking about why I am qualified for the job. They asked about leadership, teamwork, communication, etc. This part is so hard to figure out. If you fail, you don’t get any feedback as to why. You don’t know how many people are going to pass. It has been as low as 5% and as high as 100% over the last 7 years. But I passed.
The last step is the Oral Assessment (FSOA). This is what I just passed. It has three parts:
Group Exercise: I was in a group of 5 applicants. We each were given a binder with a fake project. We had to act like we were working together in an embassy and present the unique project we were each given, then, as a team, make a unanimous recommendation on which projects were and were not worth pursuing.
Structured Interview: One on one interview. It has a section where you express your motivation for joining the foreign service, a section on what you’ve done in the past that makes you qualified, and a section where they ask you hypotheticals and see how you would respond (You are working in China and the embassy is on fire. What do you do? Now you find out it is terrorism. What do you do? There is a room with 5 Americans and another with 10 Chinese children. What do you do?”). It was tough.
Case Management: You are given another binder with a lot of pages. You have to read through it, summarize the fake problem you have been given, then make a recommendation all within 2 pages and 90 minutes. Hardly anybody passes this part.
Each of the three parts above are graded 1-7 by 2-4 observers who work for the foreign service. They then average them. The average has to be 5.25 or higher to pass. Because of this, you can fail one or two sections but pass overall if your average is high enough. It didn’t matter. I passed all three sections and my average was a 5.6.
So now what? Now I have to be cleared for “top secret” security clearance and pass a medical exam. Jen has to pass each of those too if she hopes to come with me. She won’t pass the second part while pregnant, but it shouldn’t be a problem afterwards.
After I pass my clearances, I’ll be put on “the register.” This is a list ranking everybody in my cone (consular) from best to worst using their score from the OA. You can have points added if you speak a foreign language well or if you are a veteran. I qualify for neither of those, so I will be placed with a 5.6. This puts me roughly in the top 10-15%, and I strongly expect an offer fairly soon after being added to the list.
I know there are still questions about everything, so here are my answers.
What is a foreign service officer?
A foreign service officer (FSO) is the name for American diplomats working in embassies and consulates around the world.
What do FSOs do?
There are five career tracks that each FSO specializes in: consular, economic, political, public diplomacy, and management. However, even though we each have a specialty, we also have to be flexible. Throughout my career, I can expect to work in more fields than just my own.
I chose the consular career track. Consular Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, and combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking. Consular Officers touch people’s lives in important ways, often reassuring families in crisis. I will do anything from approving non-immigrant visas to visiting Americans in foreign prisons or helping to locate a missing child.
Why? Why why why why why? Why are you joining?
I have had a lot of time to think about this. I had to explain it at the OA. I want to help. I want to be the one to comfort an American in a Chinese prison. I want to be the one who explains to a government official in Mexico why the United States holds a political viewpoint that it does. I want to serve my country, the only country that I will ever love, because of what it has given me.
We take our opportunities for granted. On the Fourth of July, we sang the Star Spangled Banner at church. I looked around and realized that there are a lot of places on earth where I would not have the right to be at a church I choose worshiping the God that I choose in the manner that I choose. Every day when I go to work, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to get an education. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but that didn’t stop education from being a huge priority. I always have food and safety. I have rights and freedoms that are laid out and protected by our laws. It is a privilege to live in America, and I’m enthusiastic to serve the people who make it that way, especially the people that Jen and I both love.
So where will you go?
I don’t know yet. I won’t know for a while. First, I’ll get an official offer. I’ll go to training. Half way through, I’ll be given a list of places with openings. I’ll rank them low, medium, or high interest. They could range from Mexico to Djibouti, Canada, Finland, Argentina, Japan, Nepal, Nigeria, basically anywhere that we have a diplomatic presence. Then, at the flag day ceremony (graduation), they will have on the stage a giant array of flags. They pluck them out, one at a time, and announce the city/country then the person who will be working there for the next 2 years. “Helsinki, Finland. Scott Ficklin.” Maybe. “Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.” Just as likely.
I’ll serve two posts in this way. After that, I will have more control over where I go and the time spent there changes to 1-4 years.
Does your whole family get to go? Can I visit?
Yes, usually. There are dangerous places where I can’t have my spouse or kids. Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen. There are some where Jen can come but not kids. Now that Jen is pregnant, those posts would surely mean that Jen would not come either.
Yes, you can come visit. A big motivation for me applying to the foreign service is to give my friends and family the opportunity to experience the world with me. We would love visitors. We would need visitors.
I think that covers most of the questions I have been getting. If you have more, comment or shoot me a message on Facebook. We are both really excited, slightly terrified, and, most of all, anxious.
We know we will miss a lot. I’ll miss seeing Porter, Byron, Gordon, and all my future nieces and nephews grow up. I’ll miss birthdays, Christmases, funerals, Aggie football games, and it makes me wonder if this will be worth it. But I strongly believe my family will benefit from it all. I’m excited for my kids to grow up learning foreign languages, experiencing new cultures, and growing with us. Jen and I won’t be the same people we are now after all of this is done. It makes it hard knowing that because I love Jen exactly how she is, but I know the changes that will come will make us grow closer. Using her words, we will mourn the life we had planned for ourselves. I know the one that will unfold for us will be just as strong as any we could have designed.
Thank you again for all of your support.