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The A-100 Class: Building a Better FSO [Foreign Service Journal]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Foreign Service Journal
May 1999, pages 50-55

AMID A SEA OF POWER SUITS sits Harmony Caton. The 24-year-old from Connecticut is wearing her most professional looking charcoal gray wool blend, and she’s sweating. It isn’t the temperature inside Room F-2328 of the Foreign Service Institute that’s getting to her. It’s the anxiety. Today is flag day, and Caton along with 33 other members of her A-100 Class are about to find out where they’ll be spending the next two as Foreign Service officers.

“I have never been so nervous,” admits Caton, shifting impatiently in her assigned seat. “My first choice it to be posted to Damascus, but if I get any one of my top 15 choices, I’ll be happy.”

Finally, the flag ceremony begins. Taking center stage is Niels Marquardt, director of the entry-level division of the State Department’s Bureau of Personnel, Career Development and Assignments. His charge: To announce where each member of this 90th FSI A-100 orientation class will be posted.

A half-hour into the ceremony learns she’ll be heading to Windhoek, Namibia. She rises and retrieves the green and blue flag representing the country she’ll depart for on May 17. She gives it a wave.

“I’m happy,” she says later, admitting that joy, fear, excitement, quiet contemplation are but some of the emotions that mark the start of a journey that aspiring officers have worked toward for years.

Doni Phillips has been to pass the Foreign Service exam since 1996. Last year, she accomplished her goal. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” she says upon learning she’ll be posted to Mexico City. “But I don’t think it would be very professional to jump up and down. So I’m tong to stay as stoically serene as possible.”

A Select Group

Phillips has a right to be proud. Of the 9,618 would-be Foreign Service officers who took the Foreign Service exam in February 1998, 380 passed both the written and oral portions of the test.

Before heading off to embassies around the globe, each junior officer must take the mandatory A-100 Class. FSI hosts the orientation classes five times each year, training 30 to 50 students during each seven-week session. “Once they leave here, they’ll get more specialized training,
but we give them the basics,” says Jean Neitzke, chair of the A-100 Class.

In the last two decades, the curriculum has improved dramatically, says Craig S. Tymeson, director of the Orientation Division, who
himself is an alumnus of the A- 100 Class of ’81.

“When I was a student, we mostly sat in a chair for two months and were overwhelmed with information,” Tymeson says. “Today, we don’t attempt to teach the students everything they need to know for their entire careers. We simply try to give them a foundation, then provide the resources to fill in the gaps later.”

With classes that include direction on how to fill out a travel voucher to State Department ethics, students say the most useful information comes from the personal accounts from Foreign Service veterans.

Tymeson likes to tell newbies about an incident that occurred during his first assignment in Fiji. “I was called upon to host a backyard pig roast for 200 diplomats, and knew nothing about the tradition,” he admits. “So me and my wife did some quick research, found out that the event was similar to a Hawaiian luau, and began organizing the celebration. It worked out fine and everyone had a great time, but I learned pretty fast that I needed to think quick on my feet
because I’d have to be prepared for anything.”

Young, But Experienced

Student Louis Crishock, 28, says that although he may never have to host a roast a pig at his post in Kiev, Ukraine, just hearing Tymeson’s tale makes him feel like he’s being welcomed into a fraternity.

“The senior FSOs have so much experience and have so much to offer. “ It’s great just knowing I can tap them as a resource. It’s comforting, since I know my first post won’t be all fun and games.”

Indeed, the pace of a junior officer’s first assignment can be unrelenting. And Crishock says he’s ready for the hard work. He already has spent a few years in the former Soviet Union as a teacher with the Civic Education Project, a New Haven-based non-profit organization that sends Western-trained professors to teach university courses in states making the transition from communism.

The Arlington, Va., native taught sociology at Urals State University in Yekaterinburg from 1995 to 1996, then worked as a deputy director for the Civic Education Project’s Russia office until 1998. The experience, he says, changed his life.

“Living and working in Russia opened vistas for me,” Crishock says. “I never lived outside the Beltway for more than a month until I went to Russia after finishing graduate school at Catholic University. I caught the travel bug, and decided I had to spend my life doing international work. I can’t imagine a better career than being an FSO. I mean, if you only go around this earth once, why would you want to do anything but work for the Foreign Service?”

His optimism doesn’t blind him to the dangers involved in serving at a foreign post, however. “It would be foolish to say that safety isn’t on my mind,” he admits. Crishock is not alone.

“In general, the students that go through our program today are more aware of terrorism than were previous generations,” Neitzke notes. “We don’t dwell on the potential dangers, but we prepare our students for possible scenarios. Most people who make it through the recruitment process know the reality of what they are getting into.”

Class member Diana Haberlack, for instance, says she made a deal with herself years ago that if she were going to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, she wouldn’t fret about the unforeseen. “If I did worry, I’d be a crazy person inside of a week,” says Haberlack, 56, who is being posted to Seoul, Korea. “I am confident I will be able to deal with things as they come up.”

As the most senior member of the class, Habertack already has years of experience with the Foreign Service. She applied in 1994, after spending more than 20 years as a paralegal in Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. In 1995, she became a Foreign Service secretary in Lusaka, Zambia, and in 1997 was transferred to a similar position in Amman, Jordan.

While in Lusaka, Haberlack worked with Bill McCulla, then a consular officer and now the deputy course chairman of FSIs A-100 class. He encouraged her to become an FSO. “She’s a bright and ambitious person, and I thought she could handle more than she was being asked to do,” McCulla says.

So Haberlack took the Foreign Service exam and passed on the first try. She says having already worked overseas for the Foreign Service gives her confidence that she’ll be able to cope with the challenges of living abroad.

Still, being an officer will be a change. “Already I can see how different life is going to be,” she says. “Studying and mastering the course material of the A-100 Class was more difficult for me than it was for some of the younger officers.”

The average age of the 90th A-100 Class is 32, with class members ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s. That’s a typical breakdown for most A-100 classes, Neitzke says.

Despite their youth, the class members bring a wealth of experience to the Foreign Service. Previous positions held by students include controller, market research analyst, naval officer, economist, historian, writer and editor.
Also typical of most A-100 classes is their uniformly
high level of education. The 90th class is no different. Thirty-two of the 34 students in the class have master’s degrees, law degrees or doctoral degrees.

Simon Lee, for example, is a 1997 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Law School. When he got his law degree, he had no idea it might help him land a job in the Foreign Service. Rather, he planned to be a corporate lawyer for a few years to get the experience he needed to accomplish his ultimate goal of working internationally. The Korean automobile manufacturer Hyundai Motor Co. even offered him a job. However, when the Asian market began its decline two years ago, Hyundai told Lee it would have to cut his salary in half, to less than $20,000.

Lee, 29, figured he could do better elsewhere and declined the position. The experience actually dimmed his desire to pursue a career in law altogether. So instead of taking the bar exam, Lee took the Foreign Service exam. He passed the first time.

“Being in the Foreign Service fills my desire to work internationally,” says Lee, who is being posted to China. “My long-term goal is to work on issues dealing with my native country of Korea. But going to China will provide me with a strong base to understand the region, and I think that will be great for my career. After all, come the new millennium, no country in the world will be able to ignore China.”

Lee is single, as are 24 of his 34 classmates. Being married and in the FSOS can get complicated. Just ask Susan Tuller, 31, who spent flag day praying that she’d end up at the same destination as her FSO husband, Bill Bridgeland, a computer scientist. The couple, married for five years, met in 1990 while working in Micronesia for the Peace Corps. Last year, they decided to both land jobs with the Foreign Service.

Both took the exam—and passed. They knew they might not be posted together, but it was a risk Tuller says they were willing to take. “The worst thing that could happen would be if one of us had this great career and the other just had to follow along,” says Tuller. “Being that we both made it into the Foreign Service, I know we’ll each have a fulfilling career, and that is a big relief. Sure, it may mean that we’ll be apart for this first assignment, but this career path is the best thing for us in the long run.”

Tuller says Vietnam was initially the couple’s first choice of postings. But the night before flag day, she reconsidered. “We just found out my husband got a job as a Foreign Service specialist in the computer programming division and that Haiti would likely be his post. So I was crossing my fingers that I’d get assigned to Haiti, which actually was my second choice.” Sure enough, when Tuller’s name was called the flag of Haiti was raised. “What a relief,” she said after the ceremony.

Class member Kristina Midba, 27, was worried that she may be separated from her future husband, Kevin Olbrysh, 29, the junior FSO she’s scheduled to marry in June. While Midba hoped the couple would be able to be newlyweds together, she had another dream. “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to land a job working overseas as an FSO,” says the Arlington, Va., native who grew up traveling to her father’s homeland in India—and also to Germany, where her mother was raised. As a college student, she majored in Asian studies and got a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

On flag day, she found out that both she and Olbrysh would be posted to Ho Chi Minh City. “I realized when I got engaged that being part of a tandem couple was going to be tough, and I am so grateful to the Foreign Service for accommodating us.”

Another big challenges faces married officers whose spouses are not in the Foreign Service—and don’t have flexible jobs.

Kelly Garramone, wife of student Gregory Garramone, will accompany her husband to his first posting to Bucharest this year. She will keep her job as the chief operating officer for KRW International, an executive consulting firm in their hometown of St. Paul, Minn.

“She’ll be telecommuting from Bucharest, a practice she perfected last year when we lived in England while I was studying for my master’s [in European policy at the London School of Economics],” says Garramone, 44, who credits his wife with being responsible for his FSO career path. He got the bug to join the Foreign Service when he accompanied her on a business trip to France in 1993.

“My wife was working long hours, and I was out sightseeing one day when I walked past the American Embassy in Paris,” Garramone recalls. “I was inspired by the beauty of the city, by being abroad. When I got back to the hotel room, I called the embassy to see if I could get a job there.” The next day, an FSO in Paris gave him a courtesy interview.

Garramone was told that embassy jobs were hard to come by, but to call the State Department to inquire about joining the Foreign Service. For the last six years, he’s tried to get over the hurdle of passing the Foreign Service exam. Now that he has passed, he says he’s eager to head to his post. “I’m not an impatient person by nature, but I have to admit I am anxious to get overseas,” he says.

Diversity in the Foreign Service

The graduating class of 1999 is unique in many ways. Whereas men usually outnumber women, 19 women and 15 men are graduating today. More typical, though, is that nearly all of the students are Caucasian—with the exception of Korean student Simon Lee, and two Hispanic students, including Alberto Rodriguez, 38.

He spent 10 years taking—and failing—the Foreign Service exam before finally passing it last year. Rodriguez didn’t waste his time in the last decade, however. He joined the Foreign Service as a communications specialist, working in Somalia and Haiti. Now that he’s an FSO, however, he says he’s a bit shocked to see such a lack of diversity among his A- 100 classmates.
“I have to admit that I’m a little surprised when I look around and see I’m one of only three non-Caucasians in the class,” says Rodriguez, who is being posted to Barbados. “Is it that African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics simply aren’t taking the Foreign Service exam, or is it that they are taking it and not passing?”

The answer, says John Collins, director of the Office of Recruitment, Examination, and Employment can be found in the statistics. The State Department’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights reports that 2,030 of the 9,618 people who took the Foreign Service written exam in 1998, were minority group members: 626 African-Americans, 673 Asian-Americans, 702 Hispanics and 29 Native Americans.

Of the 3,012 people who passed the written exam, 1,328 took the oral assessment portion, with only 380 passing. Of those, 31 – 8.2 percent were minorities. In 1998, 242 new junior Foreign Service officers, many of whom had passed the exam in previous years, were trained
at the Foreign Service Institute. Of those new FSOS, 32—13.2 percent—were minorities. Rodriguez’ class had a slightly lower percentage, 3 out of 34 students, or 8.8 percent.

Collins says that although the State Department has no formal policy to hire specific groups of’ people, it does strive to reflect the general U.S. population in its ranks. In an effort to accomplish that mission, for the last several years his office has pinpointed 57 colleges with high Hispanic and African-American enrollment in hopes of finding qualified candidates. However, Collins admits he has no control over who passes the Foreign Service exam.

Rodriguez says he’s just glad to have beaten the odds and chalks his accomplishment up to sheer perseverance. “I am a determined person,” he says. “When I set my mind to something, no matter how long it takes, I strive to accomplish my goal. It feels really good to have accomplished this one.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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