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summer transfer season

Growing up, we’ve always looked forward to summertime. The season of long vacations, family roadtrips, and sleepaway camp while we were kids, summer’s allure followed us into adulthood, especially once we moved to the shores of Lake Michigan. We may have left extended vacations behind us along with our schoolbooks, but the long days and perfect weather of the summer months were still worth looking forward to, as anyone who’s lived through a Chicago winter will attest. Perhaps it is because we have stored up so many pleasant summer memories that we’ve found it difficult to get used to the stress and tumult of the Foreign Service summer transfer season.

Arriving in June of last year, D expected to work long hours at the outset. This was his first assignment and the Ambassador had also just arrived in Kenya, so staying late at the office made sense. Having now made it most of the way through a second summer in Nairobi, we can confidently say that another factor was also at play. While entry-level officers rotate at somewhat haphazard times, most tenured FSOs gravitate towards the summer transfer season, as it lines up with their kids‘ school schedules and offers a wider array of possible onward assignments.

Each time one completes a tour of duty abroad, one must – by law – take a minimum of four weeks of home leave to get reacquainted with the United States. Coupled with training and consultations, this requirement creates staffing gaps that are at their worst during the summer months. As Secretary of State, Colin Powell had made a push to expand the Foreign Service. He argued that the only way to get around the staffing shortages created by Congressionally-mandated home leave and the need for training in between assignments was to employ 10% more FSOs than there were jobs. Needless to say, in an era of budget deficits and fiscal conservatism, this idea failed to get traction.

Unlike many other posts, which lessen the transfer season burden by allowing longer tours, Nairobi is 2-year assignment for most State Department officers. This summer’s turnover was roughly two-thirds, including the heads and deputies of four of the five State Department sections. Not only does this mean more work being done by fewer people, but it also means that the Embassy’s administrative support has to cope with a large number of new arrivals, which creates additional challenges. For instance, when D went to inspect the house to which a newly arriving officer we are sponsoring had been assigned, he found himself in the awkward position of walking in on a family that had just moved in a few days beforehand. Apparently, the housing office had assigned two families into the same house and had to scramble to find another one for our sponsorees.

Next summer, when it comes time for us to depart Nairobi, we will no doubt feel a great deal of sadness at leaving this country we have come to love. What we won’t miss is the stress of the transfer season. Instead, we’ll get to enjoy one more long summer vacation.

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