Exactly one year ago today I took the Foreign Service Oral Assessment for the first time, and was shocked beyond belief when, as the last person testing that day awaiting my results, I was brought back into the group exercise room, filled with examiners, who somberly informed me I had passed the exam, before breaking into smiles and trying to shake my already vigorously shaking hand. I’m not completely sure what happened next because the next ten minutes were a complete blur, but it’s very possible I burst into tears– which may also be responsible for the blurriness of the memory.
Fast forward twelve months and I am unfortunately still sitting on the register, not having scored high enough for an invitation to be immediate, and having gotten caught in a budget/sequester hiring slow-down, at a time when an inordinate number of people have been added to my register. I am Consular track, and despite historically being the shortest register, it is currently the longest. Figures, right?
But, there is good news. After realizing the hiring pattern wasn’t turing around, I began another candidacy in February, hoping to improve my OA score and move up higher on the Register. I re-passed the written exam, blowing my previous score out of the water. I re-submitted my Personal Narratives (PNQs), and I’ve been waiting on pins and needles for the results of the QEP, where the Board of Examiners takes everything they have on you so far; your PNQs, your written exam, and your registration information, and decides if you will be invited to the OA. Here was the dilemma: last year’s PNQs were good enough to get me an invite, so should I just re-use them? But, what if there are fewer invitations this year, and what I wrote last year won’t cut it? So maybe I should change them? But, what if I change them and lose whatever made the difference last year (from previous unsuccessful attempts to get to the OA), and again, the new PNQs don’t cut it? So, I split the difference; I used last year’s PNQs, but made sure to update the stories with new information, and to really ensure I was emphasizing the 13Ds in my essays.
It worked. This morning I received my QEP results letter, inviting me to the Oral Assessment! Exactly one year to the day from when I passed the OA the first time. Turns out my initial instinct was correct, there do seem to be fewer invitations going out for this round of OAs, and many people who made it through– and even passed– last year were not invited this year. So I am extremely thankful to have made it over this hurdle. I didn’t realize how stressed I was about it until I read the letter in the middle of the grocery store*, knowing myself well enough to know there was NO WAY I could wait until I got home. I think I screamed (or whooped) and may have dropped my phone, then high-tailed it to another aisle in case someone came looking for the commotion. Again… it’s a little blurry.
So, next step is another OA. I am hopeful I will be able to pass again, and plan to make every effort to improve my score. I think I’ve identified a few things I can work on from last year’s OA, which will hopefully make a difference. I am also hopeful about the timing this year; taking the OA in the July-November window is ultimately better for me than last year’s March-May window. I have some free time over the summer to study, as opposed to last time when I was focusing on school. Last year I had other things going on, with work and family, and preparing for my month in The Hague. This time, I have no upcoming travel for work (something no one has said before: thank you sequester!), and I have some time before my summer classes. I’m going to look for a study group of folks who have also previously taken the OA, so if you fit that bill, please leave me a comment. And if anyone has any tips for preparing, please let me know. Wish me luck!
*Why was I at the grocery store on a Monday morning, and not at this job that seems to keep me so busy? Why, because of a water main break on the main road near my office that killed all the running water in my building. So, since I don’t work on a cruise ship, the powers-that-be deemed an office building with no water a sanitation concern, and sent everyone home. Which is just as well because had I been at the office when I received my QEP results, I would have become immediately unproductive for the rest of the day anyways.
As I can see the end of my semester approaching on the horizon, and knowing I’ll have more than a month off before my summer classes begin, I find myself making lists of what I will do with all this free time. Also, hopefully putting this out there for the world will actually motivate me to do some of the less pleasant things on this list. So here goes; so far, here are the highlights:
1) Finish blog posts about Ireland. I realize it has been well over a month since I got back from vacation, and I lost momentum in posting about our trip about halfway through. So, I need to go back and finish that up. I apologize for those still waiting to hear about St. Patty’s Day in Dublin– see, it’s first on my to-do list!
2) Derby Day! Although this will probably happen before I finish the Ireland posts. Every year, some family friends throw a party for the Kentucky Derby, and every year my family goes. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that a member of my family has been at this party every year since the party began in… the 1970s? Every year except last year. So, this year we will have a lot of catching up to do with everyone!
3) Cleaning. Not nearly as exciting as the first two, but oh, so necessary, so it makes it to third on my list. I’m not sure where to start, but included in this are cleaning my apartment, my car, and cleaning out my closet– which yes, is different than cleaning my apartment. Of course, after I clean out my closet and donate stuff to Goodwill, I’ll have all this extra space, so I’ll need to fill it.
4) Shopping. I grimace just typing that. But, I realized the other day I was wearing the same exact outfit to work that I wore on my first day at my current job– almost five years ago. So, I think it’s time for some new threads, and I don’t think I need to feel guilty about buying new clothes. But let’s be honest, that’s not what’s been keeping me from updating my wardrobe. The fact that I hate shopping and trying things on has really been the holdup. But it’s time, so I’m gonna suck it up. Anyone want to hit the outlets?
5) Catch up with friends. Who have been sorely neglected for months now. And you all know who you are, and that I’m sorry. So, starting next weekend (not this weekend because it’s Derby weekend!), I’m ready to fill up my calendar with activities. Wine tastings? Sure. Movies? Star Trek comes out soon, who’s going with me? Baseball game? Nats or O’s? Dinner? Turns out at least three restaurants and two bars have opened across the street from me in the last six months, and I have yet to try any of them. Who’s gonna help me fix that? Honestly, this should be much higher up the list, but while I hope to check off most of the things above here, I’ll be happy coming back to this one all summer.
6) Reading. For FUN! I have stacks of books just staring at me while I sit on my couch studying. The most difficult question I hope to face in the next few weeks is: which one first? I think I need to finish Storm of Swords, then… I have no idea.
What’d I forget? I’m sure this list will grow, and oh too soon it will be time for classes to start again. I can only hope I make a dent, especially in the cleaning.
My apologies, I know I slacked off on posting about my vacation, got caught up catching up at work and school. To pick up where I left off…
We left Killarney the next day to head south to Cork, but en route we looped back through the Killarney National Park leg of the Ring of Kerry because the day before it was already getting dark by the time we got there. We stopped at Torc Waterfall and Ladies Point– named as such because Queen Victoria and her ladies maids loved the view when they visited. Of course, as soon as we parked it began raining, so we ran inside the gift shop to wait it out. When it let up and I went to take some pictures while Mom continued shopping. I spotted my first rainbow of the day. Later as we drove south I spotted another, and spent the rest of the day searching for more. We wandered around Kenmare for a while, which was just getting its summer farmer’s market underway. We stopped by their Druid Circle, which I expected to be like Stonehenge, but was really more like a fire circle of big rocks. Sorry to any druids I offend by not being overly impressed.
Our next stop was Blarney Castle where yes– I kissed the Blarney Stone. I figured the gift of gab could only come in handy during my second FSO candidacy or any other job interviews I may have in the future. Plus, since it was pre-tourist season, there wasn’t a line, so after hiking up to the top of the castle it seemed like a wasted climb to not kiss the stone. Mom took pictures. We then headed to Cork, arriving just in time for rush hour, and suddenly the country leisurely driving part of our trip was over.
Next up: the Rock of Cashel, Waterford, Killkeny, and Dublin!
“The Ring of Kerry is a tourist trail in County Kerry, south-western Ireland. The route covers the 179 km circular road, starting from Killarney, heading around the Iveragh Peninsula and passing through Kenmare, Sneem, Waterville, Cahersiveen and Killorglin.”
Day 3 of our trip was filled with scenery, as we dedicated the entire day to the Ring of Kerry. We again marveled at the benefits of avoiding tourist season, as we were able to move at our own pace– stopping along the side of the road to snap some pictures, and feel our way along the narrow roads we would not have wanted to share with tour buses. We had amazing weather, blue skies and fluffy white clouds– for the most part. But as promised, the Ring offered all different kinds of views and terrain, and weather:
Mom really enjoyed driving up the switchbacks, and I appreciated the variety of warning signs along the way. We paid to visit the spot advertised as “the best views in Ireland,” but we were unwilling to commit to that; personally I think some other views we saw were better, but to each their own. We both appreciated the spray-painted sheep, and wondered what happens to the markings when it rains?:
My favorite spot was Sneem. Partly for the name of the town (which makes me think of Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Nee, and Professor Snape), the bakery where we snagged a fantastic brownie and some coffee and hot cocoa, but most importantly…. the town time capsule:
We ran out of time and decided we needed to go back through the end of the Ring the next day on our way to Cork….
A while ago, another blogger I follow posted a list of blogging Dos and Don’ts, which included “blog about where you’ve been, not where you’re going.” Literally, not metaphorically; it’s a safety thing, and having watched Taken 2 on the flight to Dublin, I took this advice to heart, which is why I haven’t actually posted anything about my trip yet. But, I’m back in the U.S., safe and sound, so now I’ll catch everyone up on the last 10 days, with pictures and all…
Where we left off, Mom and I had just missed our flight to Dublin (by 10 minutes!) and were camped out in an airport hotel. The next day we got to the airport nice and early, and had no problem getting on that day’s flight. Aside from losing a day in Galway, we didn’t suffer any ill effects from the delay. Upon arriving in Dublin we hopped on a bus to Galway, then took a cab from the bus terminal to check in at our B&B, where we immediately crashed for a couple hours. We rolled out of bed mid-afternoon, took a bus into the city center, and walked around for a few hours, stumbling on the pedestrian area, and McDonagh’s — a restaurant to which I was referred by multiple people before I left. We satisfied our obligatory fish and chips meal on this first day:
We then found a pub where we were able to snag seats to listen to some live music:
A good, stereotypical, touristy day in Ireland, gray, occasionally rainy weather and all.
The next day our plan was to pick up our rental car at noon, and head south to the Cliffs of Moher and then the Dingle Peninsula, then continue on to Killarney for our next two nights. We called first thing in the morning for Enterprise to come pick us up, and they say no problem. Great, we’re on our way, everything’s back on track! Ha, yeah right. An hour later Enterprise calls our B&B, to let us know there is a problem with our rental car. We specifically reserved an automatic, since 1) driving on the left-hand side of the road would be enough of a challenge, and 2) I don’t really drive manual. (I technically know how, and I’ve done it before, but it wasn’t a fun experience for me or the car I was driving.) But the only automatic had been returned with some kind of mechanical problem, and it was going to be an hour or so before they knew if it was a quick fix, or if they needed to find us a different car. Fast forward a few hours and the car needs to spend the night at the repair shop, can we pick it up tomorrow? NO! We want to get on our way! Ultimately we decided to take a manual car, which Mom could drive, and see if there was another car in Killarney we could pick up the next day (turned out, there wasn’t). Finally, we were on our way!
I brought my GPS so we would have the option of using it, but we planned to just follow street maps. After studying a variety of maps and generally plotting our route, I acknowledged my tendency to get lost in any situation and decided to buy the Garmin GPS maps for the United Kingdom. Best decision of the trip. Our road trip would have been disastrous left to our own devices, given the lack of street signs and the general tendency for Irish “roads” to resemble American driveways. We drove through The Burren and a few hours later, we were at the Cliffs of Moher:
Aside from a bit of snow flurries, and wind, the views were excellent, and our first demonstration of how nice it is to be a tourist during the off season. Because of our delay starting out in the morning, it was already getting late, so we had to bag the Dingle Peninsula and head to our B&B in Killarney. We arrived pretty exhausted, and later than expected, and discovered the whole town shut down before 9pm on Mondays, except for one pub which luckily served really good food:
Next up: The Ring of Kerry…
I got home from class last night, so excited Spring Break had begun, and in a few hours I’d be on my way to Ireland! Met my mother at the airport a dutiful two hours before our flight to Boston, where we would have a 3+ hour layover before our flight to Dublin. Piece of cake.
4.5 hours after arriving at the airport, we finally board our short hop to Boston; it seems the storm in New England was delaying landings at Logan, so our flight left over three hours late. We landed in Boston and taxied for a solid 10 minutes before getting to the gate, where the bridge to the terminal got stuck (probably some frozen gear) for a few minutes. We race to the bus to go to the international terminal, only have to wait a minute, and then the bus leaves. After three stops, the driver gets off; says his shift is over, and another driver will be right over. We get off and get in a cab, for what turns out to be about a 90 second taxi ride. We race through the terminal, get someone to escort us to the front of the security line, bolt through security and to our gate….which is completely dark. The attendants from another airline at the next gate say the plane left… about 10 minutes ago.
So, we’re spending the first night of our vacation at an airport hotel in Boston. The good news is we had sort of built an extra day into our trip at the beginning, so we’re not really off track.
I’d also like to mention that despite the fact that at every turn the airlines and airports made less than any effort to help at all– refusing to call the gate to say the flight had landed, or that we were running through security so to not pull away from the gate, or even to tell us what gate our connection was out of– all of the people we encountered were in our corner. People were more than willing to cut us some slack and help us out– getting off our flight in Boston people were pushing us to the front of the plane, and telling us to shove past them to get off the plane to run to our gate; and at the security line, people were more than willing to cut us some slack and let us cut the line. Although it ultimately didn’t get us there in time, amid our frenzy and the uselessness of the airline, the kindness of strangers stands out as the highlight of the day.
Tomorrow, it’s off to Ireland (for real this time)! And according to my hotel room key, we are clearly meant to make it!
I know I’ve been radio silent for a while now, so here’s the brief update:
School: At about the halfway point this semester. I really don’t have a lot more to say about that. I’ll be happy when the semester is over, but I still have another semester and summer classes before I finish. The good/bad news is at the rate of Foreign Service hiring, I’ll probably have a chance to finish. More on that in a minute.
Spring Break: I’ve been feeling the need to take an actual vacation; something I haven’t done for about two and a half years. I couldn’t wait for summer, and with school I can’t just take off for two weeks, so spring break it is! My mother and I will be spending ten days traveling around Ireland, so stay tuned for more on that while we’re there. I’ll try to post pictures as we go, but I’m not sure what our Internet access will be like. We’re looking forward to taking in some scenery, crossing our fingers for sun instead of rain, and experiencing all that Ireland has to offer (read: Guinness, Jameson, Celtic music).
Foreign Service: If you’re here checking my progress toward a career in the Foreign Service, you’ll be as disappointed as I am. First of all, my register is significantly longer now than it was when I was added. The way the registers work is that even after you are added, your position is dynamic, because people with higher scores than you (a combination of Oral Assessment (OA) score, language bonus points, and veteran’s preference) are added above you even if they are added after you. Which means you can be pushed down the list. This is usually mitigated somewhat by people being invited to classes, but with the November class cancelled and the January and March classes not being full-sized, not as many people have come off the list. What does this mean? It means my chances of getting invited to an A-100 class are decreasing. It’s highly unlikely it will happen this year, hence my being able to finish law school. It’s too soon to know what the next fiscal year will hold in terms of FSO hiring.
So, all that being said, I decided I couldn’t just wait and wait, I have to try to improve my chances of getting an offer. I’m not a veteran, and I don’t speak another language well enough to earn bonus points, so my only option is to improve my base score. To that end, I sat for the Foreign Service Written Exam again at the beginning of February. Results came out last week and I passed, I actually did a lot better than I have when I’ve taken it before. So, on to the Personal Narrative Questions, and then hopefully another call to the OA. If I can improve my score at the OA, I may be able to improve my chance of being invited to an A-100 class. Or at the very least I can give myself another 18 months before expiring off the register.
Sequestration: Who knows what this means for the Foreign Service? And for orientation classes the rest of the year? And for the number of people invited to the OA? At this point there aren’t a lot of answers. At my current job, the effects of sequestration are mostly rumors as to exactly what will be done, how it will be implemented, for how long, etc. But we are on notice. So, Congress, anytime you want to fix this, we’re all ready. While I know my situation isn’t as dire as some folks, since I don’t have an entire family depending on my paycheck, I’m pretty annoyed by the principal of the thing. Because Congress can’t get along with each other, me and my coworkers are penalized?
Okay, I’m done, I’m not going to get sucked into that black hole. Hopefully by the time we get back from Ireland it’ll all be worked out. My mother wants to blog about our trip, so for family and friends checking in here, I’ll post a link to her blog once she sets it up. Here that mom, now you’re on the hook! And if anyone has suggestions for where we should go or what we should see, please post a comment!