Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Best of Rosetta Stone


So, as I mentioned, I've been studying Turkish in hopes of getting my relatively minimal language skills up to a level that might garner me some additional points.  Owing to the complete nonexistence of Turkish classes, tutors, or even restaurants in Colorado, all of my study has been done online.  One of the only sizable programs available in Turkish is the Leviathan of the language-learning world -- Rosetta Stone.

Many (all?) of you are already familiar with Rosetta Stone, I'm sure.  For those few who are not, it's really quite simple: Rosetta Stone teaches you a foreign language without ever using your native language, mostly through use of pictures.  A picture of an apple is presented, say, followed by the word "elma".  This, they argue, is how children learn to speak.  It's also an awfully cheap way to make an international language program, I would wager.

There are two possible "hiccups" to this approach:
  1. You learn to say rather mundane things like "This is a cat", or "I eat bicycle" long before you learn potentially important things like "What city am I in?", and "Does this look infected?" 
  2. Rosetta requires an awful lot of pictures, especially when attempting to teach you concepts like word order, subject-verb agreement, and reflexive noun generation.  This, naturally, leads to some curious pictures.
I took it upon myself to collect and catalog a selection of these pictures for you, readers.  I give you, "The Best of Rosetta Stone".

Russians have a famously short fuse when it comes to street signals.  


Exposed insulation, burlap sacks laid over the floor, and a crippled dog who appears to be tied to something out of frame... I would consider this a missed opportunity to teach the phrase "May I please stay on the bus until the next stop?"

"When I'm not out touring with Eve 6, I prefer to lounge about menacingly at the Scottsdale IKEA"

"May the properly exposed half of my face help you?"

"I'll take 5 of them"

I am at a loss as to what red shoes ever did to her.

"Hey... little girl..."

"Two passes for the Jerry Springer Museum, please"



Hipster Fashion 2010 redux: flannel shirt, wellies, 700 pound dog.

"Well, this one certainly smells more pineapple-y"

I don't remember what this was supposed to teach me, but all I can think of now is "poisonous field".


He'd never learn to ride it without a little motivation

"This is all the cake I deserve"


"Might I interest you in some intensely creepy produce, or offputting eggs?"


"1973: Memphis.  Before Superhero Rights"
Kadınlar kullanmıyor.




And finally, I leave one for you.  Feel free to submit captions in the comments section below.

-- Submit Caption Below --


Thursday, December 23, 2010

An unscheduled leave of scheduled absence

So, I've been gone a little while.  I've thought about you all often, and faithfully read your delightful blogs, but I've been woodshedding (in the musical sense, not the punditry-prone sense).

You see, I've got a lot to do.  As astute readers will remember, back in July (when I last posted, with nary a mention of my unceremonious absence) I was sitting on the register, working everything else out.  Well I'm still on the register, but events are progressing nonetheless.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Seriously?

So, as I've mentioned here, Mrs. V and I have taken up running, as I can't imagine current me wearing a suit all day in the 145 degree 115% humidity that is D.C. and Mrs. V likes to encourage this behavior by yelling at me when I slow down.

When I run in the morning, however, I often encounter what must be a uniquely American phenomenon: the jogging stroller.


Usually, these are pushed by very physically fit young mothers, and loaded with what must be about 75 pounds of children.  They always encounter me winded, sweating, lumbering oafishly up some tiny hill, whereupon the occupants, who have all of 11 years between them, laugh wildly and point at me. 

I have headphones in, but I can be certain they're saying "Mom, why is that fat man going so slow?"

Mom of course doesn't know, because she's lapped me twice already, and is thinking about what she's going to cook for breakfast.

This is just one more of the startling paradoxes about America that convince me that a place, any place, is not nearly so easily understood as it might seem.  America is, statistically speaking, a country possessed of quite a few large folks.  It is starting to become a defining feature of this country, if British television is to be believed.  And yet here, right in front of me at 7:15 any given morning, is a svelte woman not only out for a run, but out for a run while pushing her family up a mountain.  It's simply amazing.  So I'm reminded, yet again, not to believe everything I read, and to give people the benefit of the doubt wherever possible.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Historic Foreign Service

So, I have a bit of an eBay habit.  Often, when I'm really interested in something, I'll look it up on eBay, just for fun.  Ebay results for "foreign service" usually include a bunch of lifted stamps from embassies, private letters, photographs, and unawarded medals.  While all of these are interesting in their own right, they're not the sort of things that can easily compel $11 from me.

One day, however, I came across an enchanting little booklet that appears to have served as a recruiting pamphlet, commissioned by the New york Life Insurance Company.  It reads like an instructional film about washing vegetables from the 1950s, which only adds to its charm.  I knew immediately that this must be owned, $2.13 be damned.

So, without further ado, I give you: "Should YOU go into the FOREIGN SERVICE?"

Friday, July 2, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

FS gourmet

So, I've been on something of a cooking kick lately.  It all stems from the fact that I really quite enjoy food, and I tend to associate it with times, locations, and emotions.  When I last lived abroad, I spent the better part of a year craving bagels every day, and there are at least three online international groceries that have saved regular orders for me.

So, knowing this, I decided to prepare ahead of time for what would eventually be quite an extended time away from the united states.  Basically, I figured it would be a good idea to learn to make everything I enjoy from the barest possible ingredients.

So first, I started with cookies.  Easy enough, I know, but it's hard to find "your recipe", especially when you're baking at altitude.

Then I moved up a little: Pizza, soft pretzels, ice cream, and oreo cookies.  The ice cream turned out very well, if I do say so, both with and without egg yolks.  Here's a bit of my "hot cocoa with homemade marshmallows" batch:



Today marked my most auspicious "from scratch" experiment yet:  Mexican food.

Since I'm devoted to doing this all from scratch, I started with long grain rice, pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, a pork loin with a leaf of pork fat, some flour, and a block of cheese.  I'm looking into making the cheese from milk, but that's pretty involved.

So, in short, I learned a good deal.  I learned how to render lard, how to roll out tortillas from dough, how to cook legit Mexican (Spanish) rice, and how to beg the Hispanic ladies at my local taqueria  to share their secrets with me (cumin!).  It honestly turned out great, though every time I try a recipe I file away mental notes of how to improve it next go around.  First suggestion for next time? Open the windows when you render lard.  It is delicious stuff, and good for you, too, insofar as any fat can be good for you, but it's hard to get the "insides of a pig" smell out of your nose for a few hours afterward...
















The next step is homemade bagels, fritos, and tacos al pastor.  Hopefully I'm not being too optimistic in thinking I'll have the time, inclination, and available heavy cream overseas to keep this up.  In any case, this kind of exercise seems like its own reward.  I need something to keep my skill up before I attempt pomegranate caviar again, anyhow...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

THE STATE DEPARTMENT BLOG ROUNDUP! OMG!

So, friends, it's that time again.  Since A Daring Adventure handed the mantle of the weekly roundup over to the community, we've had a number of very talented folks take the wheel and pilot you all through the twisty, tumultuous world of State Department Blogging.  Alas, that run of good luck ends here.  But have no fear - you're not paying for this roundup, and the odds that you'll some day have to work with me are pretty slim.

So without further ado, let's begin!

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The blogging world was abuzz (like with bees) this week over the resignation of General McChrystal from his position, following a muckrakey article in Rolling Stone.  He is pictured above in a rare, tight-lipped pose.  The gist of the outrage appears to be threefold:

1) He was quoted as saying some disparaging things about The president shortly after his appointment (despite his personal political beliefs, allegedly)

2) The White House is of the opinion that he leaked his classified performance review.  The pentagon disagrees, but I could see how that would rankle someone.

3) He was pretty indignant and outspoken about civilian leadership (as in, you know, POTUS) in the Rolling Stone article.

Our trusty State bloggers weighed in as well, helpfully.  Patricia at Whirled View noted that "McChrystal was sowing the seeds of mutiny", and was very pleased with the civilian leadership's response. Slate.com agrees with her.


Other bloggers were not as pleased with the president's actions, though sometimes for different reasons...

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Also in world news this week, vuvuzelas!  or, as some people refer to it, the World Cup.  Being from America, I personally have limited interest in soccer, but my goodness does that apparently change once a man acquires a little culture! 


Many folks, like "The Uncommon Life", watched some games relevant to their country.  Apparently, all of FSI was pretty wrapped up in the triumphant USA vs. Algeria, and Digger was caught in the middle.


Apparently, this victory means that the USA won their group, or so Matt at "Mountainrunner" informs me.


All this is wonderful news, as it's certainly easier to follow a sport at which your country excels.  Check back come Olympics season, and I'll be full on rooting for us.  Until then, do bear with me, as I cautiously morph from someone who still says soccer to someone who says "Futbol" and "American Football" without a slightly shameful look upon my face.


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As the FS is constantly a life of transition, many of our compatriots are involved in moving in, moving out, and moving around.

Zoe at "Something Edited" discovered that she has finally reached the correct number of children for her UAB allowance, and has 520 pounds of joy soaring across the world for her.

EF'M and Dinoia are also packing out, with varying degrees of success.  Hang in there, everyone, I hear that those boats almost never sink with all your earthly posessions aboard!

 A few more FS hopefuls (like yours truly) are moving ever closer to their own packing joys and nightmares, as "Lawyer, Nurse, Diplomat?" got her security clearance, "Around the world and back again" passed the OA, and "the b files" made the CON register!  Congratulations to all of you, and may we meet each other sooner rather than later.  May we all be in the same position as "Adam and Jill", who received their Bid List this week! 

Rock Star in Dhaka is packing things as well, and bemoaning a lifestyle that hampers her shoe collection.  I wholly understand, even though all my shoes would definitely fit in a few freezer bags in an overstuffed suitcase.

And speaking of shoes, "A Daring Adventure's" wonderful husband James© got a gift he had evidently been anticipating eagerly:


Congratulations, James, and welcome to the club!  Mrs. V and I are proud members, and can almost fit our little toes into the slots in under 5 minutes now.

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Thankfully, part of going abroad is coming home again, and a number of our bloggers are in the process of doing just that.

Of course, moving back stateside comes with its own difficulties, which are often all the more troubling because some part of us continues to believe they shouldn't happen.  "Girl in the Rain" is experiencing just that, and admirably well.

The Perlman Update is back in California, and loving it.  Reports have her and her two adorable children at Disneyworld, which, by virtue of their inclusion of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, remains the happiest place on earth.  She neglected to mention their trip on said wild ride, but I'll chalk it up to excitement.





Email From The Embassy is also back home, and is additionally kind enough to guide us through some of the difficulties associated with flying your life entire life around.  Best of luck to you all during re-entry (or reverse culture shock, or whatever you prefer), and you are all in our thoughts as you come to terms with what would appear to be the passing of a truly beautiful dog.  If there is one constant in life, it is that nothing is better than a dog.

...even if that dog has to pretend to be something it's not... (Foreign Service Tails)

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Aside from the incontrovertible truth about pets, it would seem that FS life holds few constants, aside from "change" (ha ha).  Some bloggers, for instance, find themselves visiting the original Legoland (absentee voter).  Others, like "Avuncular American" find themselves starting new, amazing, awesome jobs in old, amazing awesome places. 





Others, like "A Slow Move East" can recount amazing tales of gender segregation abroad, and how it can be used to curious effect.

Some try new foods, as "Mobile Home" did.  Well, I guess some take pictures of more adventurous classmates trying new foods (for shame).  Others crave foods that were once new, but are now staples, and apparently risk ruining all of their clothes in the process (For Lack Of tacos).  Seriously, I had never even heard of Chinola, and I'm something of an omnivore, but now I want some SO. BAD.  Look at these things!


(okay, apparently they're also known as passion fruit.  still, passion fruit margaritas?  yummmmm)

And with all that new food comes new calories, which necessitates new workout regimes.  Digger runs a 5k every day or two now, apparently, and "Beau Geste, Mon Ami" thinks about doing same very hard.  Now "Destination Unknown" has assumed the responsibility of getting from the couch to the 5k, as it were (or p90'ing the x, or whatever the kids do these days), and applause are in order.  We'll see if Mrs. V and I's recent attempt to echo their successes... well... succeed.

Through all of it, though, the FS seems to inculcate in many of us a very extended sense of family.  For that reason, and many others, the entire internets breathed a collective sigh of relief this week as we found out the Schipanboords are alive and well and cancer free.  Amazing and wonderful, and I speak for everyone when I say that we could not be more thrilled.

Now go and explore, and do report back.

Thanks,
Valdysses

Friday, June 4, 2010

An Ethical Dilemma



Mrs. V and I have a biweekly ethical dilemma brewing, and I imagine it will always present itself in one form or another.  Friday, you see, is Bible Study Night.  Friday is also debauchery night, going way back.  Being the chaste man that I am, Bible Study Night usually wins out, but, alas, this week was never meant to be.

My thesis advisor (I know, right) invited me out to play at some charity poker tournament tonight, and I really want to take his money.  I billed it as a "networking opportunity" to Mrs. V, and she ate that up. So, instead of meeting with friends and discussing the discipline of solitude, I'll be meeting up with a room full of individuals who started the night caring about the poor, and will end the night poor themselves.



I have this mental picture of the foreign service, and this night plays into it perfectly.  In my head, weeknights as a PD officer will constantly be divided between two extravagant galas on either ends of an exotic, remote capital city.  I need to be present at both, but even my excellent driver (named Pagoda in my head) can not manage to get me to both places, so I have to choose.  Which event will I attend myself, and which will be privileged enough to have me represented by my beautiful wife?  I know from reading blogs that this is a hopelessly provincial and naive view of how things go, but little delusions like these keep me motivated, so don't you dare burst my bubble, comments section.

Oh yeah, hey, we also got our Med. clearance this morning.  One down, one to go!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Clearance...

So, as all of you faithful readers know by now (10 subscribers and counting!) I'm in a bit of a transition period.  It's the one every FSO goes through, immediately following a successful day at the oral exams in Washington, and immediately preceding hauling all those earthly belongings not in boxes in some family member's basement into the Oakwood apartments.  No, no, not sitting on the register... clearances.

I say 'immediately' because I possess a keen sense of optimism.  Truthfully, this thing may go on forever.

Currently, I'm awaiting both my Medical and security clearances, which require various degrees of intervention on my part.  Medical is basically my thing, entirely, which is why most of my medical appointments go like this...

(well-meaning-receptionist):  So you need me to bill.... the State Department?

(Valdysses): Yes, exactly.  You see, this sheet I gave you specifies exactly how to do that...

(receptionist): Hmmm....   This is going to be expensive, you know.


(Valdysses): Oh, I'm quite sure of it.  Please be sure you mention everything on this list, though.

(receptionist): It would be a lot cheaper if we didn't do the chest x-ray.  I see here you don't have insurance.

(Valdysses): I appreciate your concern, but thankfully I'm not paying this out of pocket.  You see here, where it asks you to bill the State Department?

(receptionist): So, we're going to bill you directly, and then they will reimburse you?

(Valdysses): Ah, no, you see, not only will I never get reimbursed, but they won't even accept tests I paid for.  Really, that solution won't fly.  Maybe you could bill them directly, like it says right here?

(receptionist): Oh, I remember, I did this for your wife yesterday.  Just one moment.


Act 2 continues in a similar vein when the nurse delivers the results of my chest X-ray as negative (yay!) and then wants to sit down with me to talk about why I felt I needed an x-ray... 

Same story with the blood test.

Thanks, I feel great, and I'm glad to have dedicated medical professionals, but we're up to 4 appointments thusfar, for both my wife and I, and this kind of personal, caring attention cannot be cheap.  Also, no, I won't write you a check just in case.  I'm confident enough for the both of us that the country won't dissolve before you get reimbursed.

But really, I complain far too much.  At least my medical clearance gives me a chance to be proactive AND give a lousy answer to the question "Where are you going?"(favorite answer so far?   "They won't tell me until they read my chest X-Ray").


The security clearance is certainly the more maddening of the two.  While medical is a bit of a procedure, I'm a 26 year old male in reasonably good condition.  My resting heart rate and diastolic BP combined are less than my XBox Gamerscore, and I would be pretty intensely surprised if some medical factor prevented either my wife or I from entering the service.   The maddening part is the security clearance, because after you meet with your investigator, the clock is ticking.  Of course, you can't see it, and you have no idea what time it stops, but you can hear it plenty well, all the time.

I was very deliberate when filling out my SF-86.  I even read the Security Clearance Handbook (with the waving flag on the cover) while doing so, and tried to be pretty deliberate with phone numbers, addresses, varied contacts, and clustered geographic areas.  Nonetheless, I still had surprises.

  • Can you come up with 4 more contacts from the Denver area?  (not right on the spot, no)
  • Can you provide a contact for this one month period other than the two you provided who State wants to use elsewhere?  (the house where I lived in the attic for a month while I searched for a new apartment and never unpacked my things?  Naw, friends were short on the ground there, alas.)
  •  Can you tell me what your relationship is with this foreign national?  (former student)
  • Can you explain why this foreign national is the son of a member of parliament in a foreign government? (oh crap....)
And all the other standard malfeasance/drug use/malevolence questions one would expect. That was about two weeks ago, and in the 2 weeks since, I've gotten a number of calls from friends across the country telling me of their assurances to uniformed badasses that no, I did not want to overthrow the government, and yes, they would happily hire me if they were in a position to.  Fun stuff, and a nice reminder of all the people who care about you.  I need to finish sending them all cards, in fact...



So, in short, the wait continues, friends.  Since my former employer accidentally sold many of its assets as scrap metal then discovered that 25% of its annual budget did not exist and was, in fact, a double-entry error, I have given free reign to write and read blogs full time, along with studying Turkish and finishing my thesis.  So here we are, reunited! 

Friday, April 16, 2010

A visit to the rural outskirts

To date, most of my PD work *at post* has been in the more rural communities surrounding Denver.  In fact, my day job usually begins in Kiowa, Colorado -- a lovely town with two car washes, two gas stations, two restaurants, and 500 people.  With some help from the Elbert County Enterprise Authority (the agency I founded), Kiowa has been making great strides in transforming itself from a dying husk of a glorified railroad station to a dying husk of a modern town.  And that's good news for me, because it means that one of these businesses might some day accept credit cards, and I could get a burger once in awhile.

Now, with that established, let me introduce you to the sight I encountered on my way out of town yesterday...


Apparently this trash was not a natural formation, but it may as well have been.  Before I got my vaunted position in economic development, I answered phones for Elbert County planning, where I would routinely inform citizens that it was not OK to bury their cars, there was a limit of 8 dogs per property, and that they did need to ask their neighbors before they opened a rifle range in their back yard.  Pan slightly to the right, then...


Evidently, the town of Kiowa was unwilling to invest in a "Welcome to Kiowa, the Gateway to the Plains" sign at the town entrance.  I suppose this will do just as well.

not to give you all too unfavorable an impression of the place, I will note that there's plenty of awfully nice-looking parts, and plenty of very quality people, but it would never be mistaken for Manhattan, or even Omaha.

Well... maybe Omaha...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Staycation

So here's a thought.

I'm not in the foreign service yet.  Rather, I'm sitting at home, looking at the little bruise on my right forearm that's mysteriously testing me for TB as I sleep, and wishing I was already somewhere exotic.  Of course, exotic is just, like, a frame of mind, man.

How many of you have ever been posted to Castle Rock, CO?  Not a one of you.  So, banal as it might seem to me, it's right up there with the wilds of Papua New Guinea and volcanic sea vents for all of you, dear readers.

So, in preparation for what will no doubt be a lifetime of dramatizing the routine and maintaining a healthy otherness to my surroundings, I've elected to treat Castle Rock, CO as if it were some strange new post.  And what do you always get with strange new posts?  Pictures.


Found this odd old machine after driving down the one and only North/South interstate coming home from an electronics store this afternoon.  I had to illegally park in an urgent care parking lot (empty) and climb trough some barbed-wire fence, but I think it was well worth it (largely because I suffered no repercussions).

Inspired by my find, I drove around and took some other pictures.  Having a car is terribly freeing.


Here's an odd abandoned building, very nearby.  Apparently it's currently run by the "Zootown Rasta Crew", who, Simba-like, rule all of the Savannah distantly visible in the background.  Presumably, their territory does not extend all the way to Wyoming, but no USGS maps of Zootown were at hand to verify.


With no tagging, I couldn't tell which crew laid claim to this section of the Rocky Mountains.  Every time I find myself at enough of an altitude to see more than just the Front Range, I'm reminded of what it must have felt like to arrive at these things in a Conestoga wagon laden with 800 pounds of bullets, 8 oxen, and a couple of "tongues" needed for repair. (Oregon Trail, anyone?).  It must have felt like "Oh Holy Hell.  Anyone feel like this right here is pretty good?"  Much as I love every Mormon I have ever met, I cannot even begin to understand what would compel someone to cross all of these mountains and then stop.  At the first available lake inhabited solely by gnats.

I grabbed another one of the tractor thing, for grins.  Since I always get raked over the coals by photo purists for the HDR pictures, I toned this one down.  So, welcome to Castle Rock, Colorado everyone.  Here's hoping this is a short post.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The perpetual problem of language

While I'm hardly the seasoned veteran posting on long-term trends in the Foreign Service, I've noticed a fairly significant amount of criticism directed at State recently pertaining to language training and fluency, or lack thereof.

Starting, perhaps, with the Government Accountability Office's report, and more recently John Negroponte's public criticism, there's been a good deal of talk lately about how well and how widely this job is performed.  Specifically, Amb. Negroponte spoke recently at the AFSA, and stated:

"There is no substitute for recruiting, training, deploying, retaining and retraining," officers in languages and geography so they "develop the contacts, the knowledge, the insight, the local and area expertise" needed to help develop America's foreign policy.


FSOWannabe posed a question related to this in a recent post, asking if the criticism was valid and what needed to be done about it.  I started posting a monster of a comment on his entry, and decided it might be better served by some additional space.  So, FSOWannabe, here's what i have for you.  This is what you get for posting in my comments section :)

The recently posted FY2011 A-100 schedule shows that State will be training another 800 officers this year, which should at least start making a dent in that 70% persistent staffing shortfall that Digger mentions.

That being said, Negroponte's point can be taken one of three ways.  The FS is either deficient in:

A) Hiring trained speakers of phenomenally difficult mega-languages like Arabic, Mandarin, and Hindi.

B) Training existing employees to fluency in very difficult languages

OR

C) Training employees to proficiency in any of the myriad spoken languages that the FSI does not currently train in, namely smaller ethnic and tribal languages in regions cohabited by speakers of more common languages. 

Meeting problem "A" might require a major policy shift, as any SCNL or CNL speaker who passes the OA is virtually guaranteed a spot in the service.  Getting more native speakers might necessitate relaxing the entrance requirements further for existing speakers, or creating some sort of position to dedicate an employee to a region.  I've no idea how that would look, but it's interesting.


Problem "B" is one of resources.  800 officers per year stretches FSI to capacity, so additional facilities and programs are necessary, as are codified career benefits to extensive language training.  That all means money, but not nearly so much money as is already invested in foreign infrastructure, which is woefully underutilized even today.  There are so few problems that benefit from simply having money thrown at them, but this surely is one.  I'm not certain who or what lobbies for State's interests at a congressional budget level, but I would hope that this is foremost on their minds.

Problem "C", like "B", is one of resources, but furthermore it's one of priorities.  India alone speaks more languages than the FSI instructs in for the whole world.  How many of these should be covered?  How many dialects?  Surely, more is always better to anyone underserved, but there is undoubtedly a point of diminishing return.  I am in no position to analyze where that point is, but I'm also in no position to say that is correct where it currently stands.  This one's tricksy, in short.

So there you go, FSOwannabe, how's that for an answer three times as long as the original post? 

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Mysterious QEP

As part of my separation anxiety from a sudden cessation of near-daily studying for the FSOT process, I'm following up my first post regarding good resources for the written portion of the test.  For the purposes of this post, we will assume that you, reader, have gotten your first life-changing email from the Department of State, informing you of your passing score.  Congratulations!  Now you are eligible for the next section, wherein you submit your PNQ answers to the QEP... Again with the acronyms. 

The PNQ are the five Personal Narrative Questions to which you will be asked to provide a written answer. This answer is provided to the Quality Evaluation Panel, or QEP. Moreso than any other section of the process, this section is surrounded in mystery. Insofar as I can, I hope to demystify it for you all.


A letter submitted by a spurned and disgruntled FSOA applicant to AFSA (American Foreign Service Association) is often trotted out around the same time as PNQ deadlines that seemingly demonstrates the futility of the whole thing. If you're so inclined, you can read the letter here. As a relatively young candidate, I felt awfully threatened by this when I first read it. I didn't have that guy's professional experience, his language credentials, or his contacts within the system. Furthermore, if his letter was an indicative sample, I wasn't certain that I was a radically better interlocutor than he. What chance did I have at passing the QEP, if he was found wanting?

A good enough chance, evidently. And so, possibly, do you.

You see, back in the day, there was no such thing as the QEP. You took the written exam, and if you passed you moved straight on to the Orals. Evidently, the problem was that too many people were passing the written test, and too few were passing the oral. Unlike standardized tests, which change over time with the population they are testing, the foreign service officer exam is supposed to draw a line in the sand. If you pass, you are considered good enough to represent the country abroad. The number of people who are actually employed in this endeavor depends on the funding authorized for this purpose by Congress, and on “The Needs Of The Service”, not on how many people actually apply. The QEP was instituted in 2007 (***) to more effectively identify qualified candidates for the oral exams given the finite resources of the BEX (Board of Examiners) and ACT(ummm...).

The numbers I've seen associated with this section seem to imply that a maddening 40% of applicants are deemed worthy by the QEP, and are allowed the privilege of booking passage to our nation's capitol. A scant few, to say the least. A number of very well spoken and gifted candidates are stymied every year by the QEP, and they understandably find it difficult to get much in the way of substantive answers as to why they should be stopped when others are not. Alas, there are no answers to be had from official channels – the process is designed to be no easier for an experienced applicant on their 4th candidacy than a rank amateur, and part of that is a spartan lack of feedback about why one passed or failed. For my part, I can only remark that preparation is never a bad idea, and that short, pithy stories are always the best. If you can say the same thing better in half as many words, try to get it down to 25% as many, and you're halfway there.

RESOURCES

These are short on the ground. Since the QEP is relatively new and relatively vague, there are no real practice prompts. However, the PNQs themselves and their answers are not currently under any sort of NDA, so I can share them with you here.

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1)Intellectual Skills: In the Foreign Service you may confront challenging situations that require creative use of your intellect to achieve a goal. Describe briefly how you have dealt with such a situation in your experience using your skills of critical thinking, resourcefulness and/or judgment. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the difficulty? What was the result?) 

One of many challenges I’ve dealt with was the arrest of six men from Lackawanna, New York on suspicion of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell. The arrest came after the bulk of the newsroom staff had already left. We had to get reporter and photographer crews to several locations, get information from the FBI, do live reports in studio and from the scene. It was necessary to handle the situation with delicacy and tact while handling difficult logistical problems and reporting the facts accurately. I was able to get staff members to the scene quickly by having them drive themselves there and meet up with each other instead of coming into the station and then leaving for the scene. I solved their video, and editing issues by having our live truck operators bring all the necessary equipment with them to the scene. By keeping a positive working relationship with the President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, I was able to get information about the suspects and reaction from the community as a great number of the people we wanted to interview did not speak English. As a news organization we were able to get exclusive firsthand accounts of exactly what happened when FBI agents made their arrests. The video and interviews we got were broadcast across the world.

2) Interpersonal Skills: In the Foreign Service, you will be called upon to interact with people from different ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, economic and other backgrounds. Describe a significant experience you have had with another culture, either abroad or in the United States. (What was the experience? What did you do? What was the result?)
On the 1 year anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I put together and produced a televised town hall meeting about the cause and effect of the attacks. The guests I choose were members of the local community from different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, who held a broad range of differing opinions about the role of U.S policy in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa and its relation to the attacks and aftermath. I thought it very important for our viewers to be able to understand the complexities of the issue, within my given time, while still being sensitive to the cultural differences between the mix of panel members. The discussion was heated at times, as the group had extremely different opinions on the problem and the solution. During the commercial breaks, it was necessary for me to calm the guests, host, and staff. I found myself playing diplomat by relocating agitated guests, comforting upset panel members, and using patience and empathy to facilitate an open and candid discussion which did not digress into petty arguments, name calling, and guests storming out. The show was difficult. But I believe it cleared up some common misconceptions about religion and ethnicity at a time when there was a great deal of fear and confusion in the minds of our viewers

3) Communication Skills: Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to further an aim or achieve a goal. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the situation? What was the result?)
During my cousins wedding, to a man of Sri Lankan decent, I acted as hostess between the two families. One of the most formidable members of his family was his grandmother. My cousin was quite nervous meeting her. One of the great hurtles to overcome was the fact that ‘Pati’ spoke little English. Upon our meeting, I greeted her with a big smile and gave up my seat for her. She seemed happy to have a place to sit, but since I no longer did, I sat on the floor. My casual air helped diffuse the tense awkwardness of a first meeting. From my seat on the floor I was able to ask ‘Pati’ numerous questions about her life and her family. As I was a recent new mom, we were able to bond more as I pantomimed questions and used simple gestures and questions to facilitate our conversation. Through her broken English and gestures, I was able to get her to tell me about her life in Sri Lanka, what she did, and why she left. We chatted, growing more engaged by showing one another little personal treasures. I wanted ‘Pati’ to get to know my family’s background and values, even though our conversations were limited verbally. By helping her to understand my extended family and I, she was able to learn more about her soon to be grand-daughter- in-law. The meeting was a huge success.

4) Managerial Skills:: Foreign Service Officers are often required to manage projects, demonstrating the ability to plan and organize, set priorities, employ a systematic approach, and allocate time and resources efficiently. Describe a project you managed or helped to manage and how you sought to achieve the project’s goals. (What was the project? What steps did you take to manage the project? What was the result?)
One of the biggest projects I’ve managed was a live televised wedding between 5 and 7am. I was able to choose the couple, our viewers had to choose the rest of the wedding details. I started planning for the event about a year in advance. I used an essay contest to choose the couple, then had to procure vendors for the flowers, cake, dresses etc..I also had to figure out how to institute viewer voting on what would be chosen. The project required me to work with our IT department to phase in internet voting, I had to coordinate with the vendors to get video of their products, and to work with all our own departments to assist with the big day, all the while keeping the bride, staff, and sponsors happy. The goal was to choose a wedding detail, give three product choices, have the viewers choose the item, then feature the winning item, all within a week. I did this with every aspect of the wedding while still producing a daily newscast. I supervised the camera locations, inside and outside of the event, coordinated with local law enforcement to block off streets and worked with the family to ensure a smooth day. The wedding was a stunning, everything worked out and not a thing went wrong. It is one of the most memorable, happy, live events ever produced at our TV station.

5) Leadership Skills: Leadership can be defined as motivating others, encouraging creative solutions, establishing positive team relationships, or significantly influencing the direction of the work. Describe how you have demonstrated leadership, either on one particular occasion or over time. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to show leadership? What was the result?)
As Executive Producer of Channel 2 News Daybreak, I was given the task of making the staff cohesive and making the show #1 in the market. When I started, there was a great deal of infighting and no vision for the show which had poor ratings. The first thing I did, was to assess the show’s format and evaluate the team, to try and figure out the issues leading to disenfranchisement about their work. I realized a large part of the issue was lack of communication, and no follow through. In short, they did not feel as though anyone cared. I immediately instituted mandatory weekly meetings to discuss grievances, and ideas. After a couple of meetings there was an attitude change. They started to listen to one another, but more importantly they began to take pride in their work. We used meeting ideas for weekly features, playing to the strengths of the team members. I had to use a lot of creativity with these projects as there was no budget and I couldn’t pull in staff. Oftentimes I would ask people to do the tasks for the benefit of the team with no monetary reward. They seemed happy to do it, saying that they’re usually never shown appreciation for a job well done. After one rating period the show grew, and in less than a year we became the number one rated morning newscast in the area
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The answers are not mine, as I made the mistake of typing mine up directly in the form and not in Word, so they were not saved. These are provided anonymously by an individual who passed this stage and lived to tell the tale.  Nonetheless, I think they are suitably inspiring and universal.  Be brief, be interesting, be relevant, and answer the question as best you can.  Beyond that, it's all speculation.  Good luck!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

So ... Why?

Without much regard to the appropriate order of horse and cart, I've told a number of my relative and friends that I recently passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment, to much excitement and confusion.  Inevitably, after the standard "what's that"s, "Where will you be going"s, and "when do you leave"s, I hear a lot of "Why?"s.

Why is, by far, the easiest question to answer:

BAM!  Look at that thing!  Are you kidding me?  It is black, and I keep it in addition to my civilian passport.  How can you see that and not want one?

Oh, a small book isn't enough?  How about this?



That's a series of golden statues of Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.  He changed the names of the days of the week in the Turkmen language, wrote the principle holy book of his people, and made recorded music illegal.  I suppose you could rustle up the resources necessary to cross the Karkoram desert as a private civilian, but would you ever?  And even if you did, tourists are not particularly welcomed, and don't have near the access and freedom of diplomats.  How can you possibly say no?