Looks like former Fox News correspondent and current State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert is set to be the least qualified US Ambassador to the UN in our country’s history. 45 will make his announcement on the post soon. From chatter and pattern, it seems as if qualifications and experience once again will matter very little. That’s a shame. Our country needs highly innovative, knowledgeable, effective and empathetic diplomats like never before. In other words, our country needs artists.
In December 2012, I began my own artists’ journey to become a US Foreign Service Officer. The testing process is complicated and daunting for an artist. Most candidates major in international relations, economics, business. While many friends have nailed it with successful careers in the Foreign Service, few to none have an arts background.
For many people, including myself, diplomatic service to country is comparable to military service to country. With a strong belief in the power of cultural and artistic diplomacy, and a self-confidence in my ability stemming from experience running a State Department program in Egypt, I chose the career track of public diplomacy (cultural attaché). I began to study for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), which I took at the US Embassy in Cairo in the spring of 2013. According to the State Department’s Information Guide to the Foreign Service Officer Selection Process, the FSOT can cover any and all of the following:
- English grammar, writing strategy, sentence structure and
- US government, including the Constitution in detail;
- US history, society, customs, arts and culture;
- World history and geography;
- Macroeconomics and microeconomics;
- Mathematics and statistics;
- Management principles, psychology and human behavior;
- Communications, including public media relations;
- Computers and the Internet
The FSOT has four sections: job knowledge, English expression, a Biographical Information Questionnaire (which is trickily timed), and the essay. Each section is scored separately. To pass, test-takers must reach a minimum score on each part. While taking the test, I felt confident until I read the essay prompt on climate change. The prompt itself was beyond my comprehension; I struggled to rush in a complete answer.
Three months later, I received my results: I passed all sections with surprisingly high scores, but failed the essay by one point. Unsuccessful candidates must wait at least a year before trying again.
In 2015, I registered a second time. I studied longer and more strategically, paying particular attention to the essay portion and practicing essays on various hot topics. Because the Pearson System tracks the questions that test-takers receive, I didn’t spend too much prep time on climate change. I retook the FSOT in Chicago, while on a trip back from Egypt. Again, I felt confident until I hit the essay section, this time on fracking. And again, I failed the essay by one point. Fracking became my new favorite swear word for the rest of that year.
In 2017, I registered again. Miraculously, my essay prompt this time was on education. I passed! Success meant that I had a couple of months to write and submit my Personal Narrative (PN) to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). With help from good friends who volunteered to read through my many drafts, I passed this step of the process, too. It can be a difficult step, so I felt lucky to pass the first go-round. If I had failed to receive an invitation from the QEP, I’d have had to start the process all over again.
For the next few months, I prepared as much as possible for the final testing step. I joined online study groups and participated in practice sessions via Skype. I bought the books and I bought the flash cards. I talked to others who could advise me on the process. I bought two new suits. And, in early 2018, I flew to Washington, DC, for the Oral Assessment (OA). I paid for my flight and stayed with a generous friend in town, arriving a day early so that I could be rested and ready for this full-day exam, interview and simulation that began at 7am. In my group, there were two white men, two white women (counting myself) and two women of color.
OA candidates find out their results on the same day. I was the first of our cohort to be called back into the office that evening to receive my results envelope. My score was 5.0 and I needed a 5.25 to pass. So, I quickly found myself being silently escorted out the back hallway and down to the lobby, where I waited as the three other females also filtered downstairs, also with long faces. We waited and waited for the men, but they never joined us. We ladies went together for a much-needed drink and dialogue.
Turns out that both fellows in our cohort passed. They were upstairs signing their medical and security clearance paperwork in order to be reviewed by the Suitability Review Panel that would decide their placement on the long wait-list (“The Register”). For all of that, in the end, a position is not guaranteed even for those who pass.
I went home to Chicago feeling unsuccessful and unclear. My friends reminded me that I probably didn’t want to work for this administration anyway. But this thinking didn’t sit right with me. I thought, “Can my commitment to the world be swayed by who is in the White House at a given time?”
In a year I can try again with the process but I would need to start over at the beginning, with the FSOT. Honestly, I don’t know if I have the stamina or the heart, especially with this particular POTUS and his administration. On the other hand, it is exactly because of 45 and his team, rhetoric and policies that we need more artists in the Foreign Service. Please read through the 13 dimensions of a successful US diplomat. Tell me that an artist wouldn’t be a superb fit for the Foreign Service:
- Cultural adaptability
- Experience and motivation
- Information integration and analysis
- Initiative and leadership
- Objectivity and integrity
- Oral communication
- Planning and organizing
- Working with others
- Written communications
- Quantitative analysis
Looking at this White House and its appointees now representing the US abroad, I highly doubt any of them would pass our Foreign Service selection process. Certainly not Nauert, whose qualifications are…being a former Fox News correspondent?
The good news is that many of our nation’s career diplomats (vs. political appointees) are incredible. They are holding things down to the best of their abilities, but diplomatic innovation is not often their strength. Perhaps we need a fast track to get more artists and arts leaders into a few of these positions ASAP.
Or perhaps it’s just my exhaustion and bitterness speaking.