the long road to tandemhood
Flag Day – the exhilarating, nerve-wrecking, and slightly ridiculous ceremony in which new Foreign Service Officers’ first assignments are revealed – is almost upon us. On Friday S will learn her fate along with that of her 81 classmates, and we will start laying the groundwork for our next overseas move. Assignments are typically finalized a couple of weeks ahead of Flag Day, making the wait for the grand reveal all the more excruciating. Yet compared to the long, tortuous path leading up to this moment, the next five days will last little more than the blink of an eye.
From the moment we arrived in Nairobi and the difficulties facing trailing spouses sank in, D begun nudging S to take the test. S was hesitant – she had finished her graduate studies just as D joined the Foreign Service and she wanted to put her degree to use. Over the next few years, S did a lot of soul searching, questioned her public health calling, and contemplated moving into special education or even teaching yoga. She explored telework, spent too much time unable to find employment, and worked for the U.S. Government under an alphabet soup of hiring mechanisms (PSA, FMA, PSC, EPAP).
At the end of the day, S craved continuity, increasing responsibility, and intellectually challenging work. She wanted a career, not an ever-expanding series of haphazard jobs that ballooned her resume. She grew tired of always searching for the next job, spending weekends and evenings prepping for myriad assessments and writing cover letters, and continually selling herself as a consultant at social events. She decided also to join the Foreign Service – with USAID, the U.S. Government’s development agency.
While we were still in Nairobi, S applied to USAID’s Crisis Stabilization and Governance office, but the vacancy announcement was cancelled soon after S had submitted the lengthy application. Next, she applied for a mid-level Health Officer opening. S made it to the final round – an all-day oral assessment consisting of a case study, a group exercise, and a structured interview. Unlike the State Department orals, USAID does not give its applicants grades, so it was difficult to gauge how well she had done; S just knew that she hadn’t made the cut.
By this point, S had gotten a glimpse into State’s overseas work and decided she wanted to cross over from development to diplomacy. The only problem was that she was terrified of the selection process and worried that she would fail, especially after her performance at the USAID orals. She signed up to take the Foreign Service written exam – the first in a series of hurdles – but each time the exam date approached S would get cold feet. She deferred three times before D made her promise to just take the test already.
S fought the urge to back out a fourth time, took the written exam and, to her immense relief, passed it. This was in October 2014, halfway through our second overseas tour in Moldova. We wound up flying home a few months before wrapping up the assignment the following summer – ostensibly to spend time with our ailing grandmothers but scheduling the trip to coincide with S’s oral assessment date.
What’s more, S had also applied to the Department’s then-recently established Consular Adjudicator program, and the oral assessment for that program coincided with the one for officers. Technically, passing the latter would have automatically qualified S for the Consular Adjudicator program, but because she is a nervous test taker S decided to take them both – the Consular Adjudicator orals serving as a dry run for the Foreign Service Officer assessment.
S passed, but passing does not guarantee employment. Those who pass the Foreign Service orals must first go through a lengthy clearance process and, if granted clearance, are placed on a dynamic wait list. Those who score higher are offered a job first, and one can only remain on the list for 18 months, meaning that it is possible to pass all the testing hurdles, obtain all the requisite clearances, but not receive a job offer. After 18 months on the list, the application automatically times out and one must begin from square one.
S passed the orals in 2015, but with a middling score. That fall, in preparation for our Kigali tour, we both started French classes at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute – D because his job required it and S because she was eligible for the classes and because having a foreign language, along with being an armed forces veteran, is one of the ways to receive extra points to improve one’s standing on the wait list. She also signed up to take the test again, thinking that she could improve her score while the clearance process ran its course.
She wound up taking the orals a second time in 2016, literally a couple of weeks before we packed up our house and set off for Rwanda. And this time S crushed the test. With the language bonus bump-up, S ranked number one on the wait list for consular officers. What’s more, the Department completed her clearance review – the one that was initiated in 2015 – shortly after we arrived at post.
With her clearance in place and a high score, S was all but guaranteed a job offer the very next time the Department would will an entry-level class, at that point projected for October 2016. We were thrilled, but the timing was less than ideal. We had just arrived in Kigali, where S had landed a stellar job. D’s position was also excellent, and we were trying to have a baby. It is possible to decline one offer, but rejecting a second one effectively terminates one’s candidacy. Fortunately, there is a provision allowing spouses of Foreign Service Officers who are posted overseas to defer their candidacy for up to two years, so that is what we did.
In the fall of 2016, that seemed like a no-brainer decision. By the end of that year, however, it looked like a much riskier bet. A federal hiring freeze went into effect in January 2017, lasting only three months for most agencies, but dragging on for over a year for the State Department. More than once S wondered whether she had made a mistake by deferring. All’s well that ends well, however. The freeze finally ended just as we were wrapping up our assignment in Kigali. S came out of deferment in the spring, and received her offer a few weeks before we packed out the house and returned stateside.