I’m happy to be following a fellow blogger who is a Foreign Service Officer. She connected with me yesterday to say that she got her government start at the Voice of America, after serving in the Peace Corps in Macedonia. She’s been posted to our embassies and consular offices in Uzbekistan and Australia, and she is on her way to Mexico. Her clear and candid writing brings us beyond the headlines and behind the scenes to experience who this diplomat is and how she carries out her life as she represents us abroad.
She is midway through an intensive Spanish language course at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s training institution in Washington, DC. Here’s some of what she’s written about that experience:
“I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too …”
“…This is my third time studying at FSI. I was there full-time for nearly a year from the time I joined the Department in mid-2014. I did A-100 (the introductory course for all new diplomats as they come in), then six months of Russian, followed by area studies, ConGen, and various other courses before departing for my first tour in Tashkent in May 2015. I also came back in mid-2017 before my second tour in Canberra to take political and economic tradecraft training. Last month I hit 14 total years of federal service, and I have to say that never in my career have I had as much excellent training as the State Department provides. It is truly an incredible opportunity to be paid to assemble the skills you need to be better at your job.
When Dad was hired by USIA in 1956 to work at our Embassy in Caracas, his Spanish-language proficiency was not tested. America was in good hands, however: Dad was born, as Mom said, with languages on his lips, and his summers in Mexico during his journalism studies at Macalester College had given him a strong base. He’d teach himself Italian via his Caraqueño barber before being posted to Italy, and he learned Portuguese via tape during his commute when his responsibilities included Brazil while we were in Washington, DC. Italian and Spanish remained in-family code for the rest of his life.
Where he did feel at sea, however, was filling the role of “diplomat.” He reflected on that concern in his book about serving as Press Attaché in Caracas, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, recounting his feelings during his first day on the job. It was July 4, 1956, at the Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July reception for the who’s who of Venezuelan diplomatic relations:
“Back home [on the farm in South Dakota], ask anybody to associate a descriptive word with “diplomat,” and you would most likely hear “elite” or “striped pants” or something similar. All I had ever read about the US Foreign Service suggested that American diplomacy traditionally meant Eastern Establishment, professional practitioners trained at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities. People born to the social graces, accustomed to cocktail parties and big receptions. One simply assumed that those assigned abroad to an American embassy personified — or should — years of applied preparation: mature men truly educated on the major aspects of our own history and culture; conversant with the most erudite thinking of our greatest institutions; skilled in negotiation and able to articulate all this fluently in the language of the host country.
Instead, here was I, expected to assume duties tomorrow at Press Attaché and Information Officer, American Embassy, Caracas, Venezuela — after only two months of practical orientation in Washington, preceded by five years of corporate public relations, a BA from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room school on the prairies of South Dakota. Not exactly elite.“
His start may not have been elite, but Dad had what Eisenhower was looking for when he created USIA in 1953 to help project America’s image overseas and deal with the public aspects of diplomacy. Augmenting VOA direct broadcasts, USIA officers would handle cultural programs as well as placement in foreign media of information favoring US interests. Dad wrote:
“Word got around regarding opportunities for employment overseas. Hundreds of us with modest professional experience in fields of communication — men and women who had never considered working as civilians for the government, but who had developed deep interests in international relations — found ourselves querying Washington about this new line of “foreign service” work. Not that many of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats … Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. Overseas employment became an imminent reality.”
Dad worked for USIA from 1955 to 1979, serving in Caracas, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá, Washington DC, Madrid, and Rome (again!). He rose through the ranks from Press Attaché in Venezuela and Italy; Director of USIS in Colombia; Public Affairs Advisor to the Latin American Bureau of the Department of State; Assistant Director of USIA for Latin America; and Public Affairs Officer in Spain and Italy. His final position was as the Murrow Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The farm boy became a professor at one of those Ivy League schools of diplomacy.