Today is my one-year anniversary with the US Department of State. It's been quite an adventure already, and I haven't yet been overseas! I'm soon leaving for my first assignment in Bishkek, and I couldn't be more excited.
Many of my colleagues along the way have said that working for the Department of State is not just a career, but a lifestyle, which is exactly right. I knew that was the popular opinion before joining, but it really didn't make total sense until recently. When you work in the same city for years, even if you're in different jobs or work for different companies, you build community in one location. However, your sense of community in the Foreign Service is pretty transient. It's still a strong community, no doubt, but it changes quickly- month-to-month, year-to-year, and post-to-post.
There are pros and cons in any career, and I knew that there would be in this career as well. You really can't anticipate what those pros and cons will be until you start experiencing them. As with anything in life, you just kind of learn as you go.
Travel is an obvious pro. How cool is it to get to travel and see other parts of the world, to learn languages, to eat interesting food and to meet interesting people? I think it's pretty cool.
Career is another pro. It's an incredible career opportunity for me, and I really believe in the work I'm going to be doing. It's pretty cool to do the work I love -- Human Resources -- in other countries. It's also pretty cool to do it for an organization whose mission I believe in. You work hard in one county for a couple of years, and then you work hard in another country, or perhaps in Washington, for a couple of years. There's a lot of room for growth and also room for diversity in the type of work you do from tour-to-tour.
The biggest and most obvious con: being so far away from home. I miss Gainesville. I miss my parents, my friends and community there. I was in the same place for seven years, and there was a lot of comfort in that. I worked with great people, and I believed in the mission behind the organization I worked for. The biggest downfall was the lack of opportunity for growth where I worked. My office was a small, beige cubicle. I remember sitting at my desk one day, surrounded by those beige cubicle walls and just feeling like I was missing something. While I was doing good work, working hard and with really good people, I had become a bit complacent in the work I was doing.
For the past year, my office has been the different classrooms of the Foreign Service Institute. I've taken management and Human Resources-related courses, communication courses, Central Asian studies and most recently, Russian language training. I've had up to 30 or 40 classmates and most recently as few as two. While each day was a little different, I've never had that same feeling that I was missing something in the work I was doing. I haven't had time to become complacent. While it's all been new and very overwhelming at times, I've never doubted that I've been in the right place and exactly where I'm meant to be. Before I joined the Foreign Service, I never could have anticipated learning Russian (or any other language for that matter). I mean, I knew I'd learn enough of a language to get me by while living in a foreign country, but I didn't think I had it in me to learn a language every day for six months. Turns out: it's really tough, but doable.
It's probably an understatement to say that my fellow classmates and I have experienced many ups and downs throughout the language-learning experience. Some days have been awesome, but many days have been frustrating. Knowing that you would probably only be able to speak as well as a first- or second-grader is kind of disheartening when you're an English grammar buff, when the right words are always at the tip of your tongue and when you generally never lack the ability to express exactly what you're thinking in a thoughtful way. I've had a great schedule, but I've been so exhausted at the end of each day. Using that part of my brain -- a different part than I'm used to using so regularly -- for six hours or more a day has required so much energy that I didn't have much to offer outside of work.
I've somehow managed to plug along and keep going. The carrot dangling in front of me has been the desire to better communicate in the community I live in when I go overseas. I recently started language consolidation, which means I'm working with someone one-on-one in order to prepare for my final exam. She's been really great, really pushing me to use the words I know -- the ones at the tip of my tongue -- instead of worrying so much about that really cool word that I learned but have already forgotten.
When I get out of my head and stop worrying so much about using the right words, I communicate just fine. It's been rewarding and has given me a glimpse of what immersing myself in to Russian-language speaking cultures might be like. Now I know that even if I don't get the score I have aimed for, my experience there will be richer as a result of being able to communicate with the Kyrgyz in a language other than English. I think having a base in the language will help me immerse a little better and with more ease. I'm still going to Bishkek, and I'll still use all the Russian I've learned!
Of course, despite all of the challenges of the first year, I'm so glad I'm doing this. I have been in the place I was meant to be in, and even during the hours of frustration and homesickness, I have never doubted that. I mean, if I can speak and understand a little Russian and talk with a stranger for an hour or so in another language, I can do almost anything I set out to do.
I'm excited for my next step. I think it's pretty neat that my next office will be inside the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.