Monday, February 20, 2012

Finishing training
I am just about finished my A-100 class. It is the orientation class for all Foreign Service Officers. It doesn't seem like much on a day to day basis but this was definitely the best month of education I have ever received. Every day has 4-5 modules and they cover just about everything you could imagine. A lot of the modules are on how the State Department works and simply how to navigate the system. These include the various offices and how State works with all the other parts of government. Other modules are on health and mental well being in relation to living abroad or on personal and informational security. These are all courses I would have expected.
Then there were lessons on all kinds of things I didn't expect. An example is the personality tests and how to work with your personality type. There were also bits on ethics, multicultural communication, and the history of the State Dept. We had several hours on State Dept. writing. Many of the students come from other parts of govt and the State Dept. apparently has a unique way of writing and communicating. We had a couple days where we changed location for what they call Leadership Training but I call learning how to work together. Think trust falls and the like but more sophisticated and much more difficult.
Part of the training is listening to the bigwigs give talks. Usually they describe their division and how it works but much of it is war stories (sometimes literally) and opinion. These are big name speakers who are highly sought after by universities and think tanks and their visit might be touted for weeks. The A-100 class might have 4 of these speakers in a day including speakers controlling tens of thousands of employees and billions of dollars. The stories are amazing and the opinions come from true experts in a relatively uncensored setting (i.e. they say what they really feel). Our class mentor recently came back from being ambassador to Egypt where she saw the Arab Spring unfold and probably played an important role in the situation.
The most surprising and powerful of the lessons were on Speech Making and Composure under Fire. I've been a member of toastmasters for years so I have a pretty good idea about both but these were intense sessions. The modules were taught by experts borrowed from press organizations or major universities. The speech was not easy because everyone gets videotaped and then your speech is picked apart. Not so much for content but for body language, gestures, voice, and the like. Then you have a couple days to redo the whole speech and get videotaped again. If I ever feel too proud I will simply pull out that DVD and see all of my mistakes. Composure under fire was far more difficult. Each person must defend American history, actions, and culture against a hostile audience from another country (played by your classmates). I got India and all the questions were about Pakistan. I answered one question with some ambiguity and the other students were all over me. It was like blood in the water and a feeding frenzy started. The second time I did the exercise was a more informal setting where the students surrounded me and asked inappropriate and tough to answer questions (You want to marry my daughter?, or my favorite: How big is your salary?). My goal was to take charge of the conversation and make the US look good. These sessions are like the "murder boards" often used except less specific and the questioners are completely supportive afterwards.
All in all I would say it was a pretty impressive training. I learned a heck of a lot in a short period of time. Sometimes you learn things that are good for a short period (like in preparation for a test) and sometimes you learn things that give little info at the time but inform you for many years later (like a trip to the zoo). Most of this training was in the latter category. It is hard to say exactly what I learned but I feel that I will keep recalling these sessions as issues come up in embassy work.



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