At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I was burned out from the work I had been doing for 20 years and was anxious to get out. It was lucrative, convenient, I was good at it, and I met some incredibly nice and talented people over the years. But I WANTED OUT! Ever heard of “golden handcuffs”? That’s when you’re stuck doing work you don’t want to do, because the money is great. Well, that’s where I was at the mid-life point and I had no idea how to move on.
One night I was online trying to figure out my chances (mediocre) of getting hired by the new administration in Washington when up popped a website for the Foreign Service. My late uncle had been a Foreign Service Officer years ago, but I thought you had to be a graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service as he was, or a direct hire by the President. Wrong. If you are a graduate of UMass Boston, 50-ish, with an oversized dog, anxious to start fresh in a new career and have a desire to be a public servant, then YOU TOO, can be a FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER! Having a Master’s degree, a foreign language, and time spent living/studying overseas (Spain) would help my case I knew, but are not requirements! You just have to be under 60 years old.
The first of several hurdles is the Foreign Service Officer Test, or FSOT. This has a reputation as being the mother of all tests, because it covers every topic under the sun. I studied hard for 2 months, although there are no official study books for this test and I was sure I would not be one of the 20% of 25,000 applicants who would pass. But I figured I would give it a shot. As my late father always used to tell me: “If you throw enough stones, you’ll hit something.” So I signed up for the test scheduled for June 6th, 2017. Meanwhile, my mother and I would sit in various restaurants around the south shore of Massachusetts with flashcards, studying while we ate. At 84, she was a tremendous resource. Thanks, Mom.
Three weeks later I received an email telling me I had passed. I remember walking around my bedroom muttering, “Oh my God, Oh my God,…” over and over. Then I called my sister and woke her up around 6 am. She started screaming as I knew she would. That’s why I called her first. She’s always got my back.
Next come the Personal Narrative Questions, or “PNQs”. If you pass the test, you have 3 weeks to submit 220-word narrative responses to 6 questions about your life. Sounds easy, right? Here’s the kicker- you have to incorporate what are known as the 13 Dimensions of the State Department, as well as the 6 precepts., all having to do with leadership, communication skills, ability to work with foreigners, etc. This is how State weeds out the test passers who really are not foreign service officer material. Let’s face it – some people are brilliant test-takers, but lack presentation and commonsense skills. The narratives whittle it down to only those who are expected to be able to pass the oral assessments at the State Department in Arlington, VA.
I spent hours writing and re-writing, and then tasked my brother John with helping me to fine-tune them. Together, we went over them for several days until they sparkled. My brothers Matt and Jim were also helpful in providing their own insight as well as comic relief. As of now, I am enduring the nail-biter 7 week wait to find out if my narratives were accepted and I am invited to the next step, the oral assessment in Washington. Meanwhile, my 6-month old Newfoundland, “Jumbo”, keeps me sane. Stay tuned…