I’m running awkwardly down the hallway, as fast as I can in my heels and suit and massive backpack. I can see the classroom door about to close, cursing under my breath I manage to catch it just in time. I get a withering glance from the instructor as I make my way to my seat… at the front of the classroom.
The rules are strict. Don’t be late or you’ll be locked out. Stand up and state your name before making a comment or question. Suit jackets on at all times. The address on a thank you letter is exactly 7 lines from the top of the page. Introduce the speaker in this specific way. Protocol, protocol, and more protocol.
This is orientation to the Foreign Service, and I’m drowning.
A month ago, I said goodbye to Bogota.
I remember the culture shock the moment we landed in El Dorado. I complained about the pollution, the broken sidewalks, the traffic, the social isolation, the language barrier, the hiring freeze, etc. I couldn’t wait to leave for my first trip home just six months after arrival.
Nearly two years later, as I packed our suitcases and organized the apartment, these things barely registered. Instead, I’ve spent months mourning the friends, the church, the cafes, the people that I’ll miss.
But in this lifestyle, you move on. And you cry. And you adjust.
Despite my tears and apprehension of leaving my latest “home”, I was excited for the next step.
Before my husband joined the State Department, we lived in the Midwest. He worked towards a PhD and I loved my career, which was my #1 reason on my “why NOT to join the foreign service” list.
When we arrived in Bogota in Fall 2017, there were no jobs for spouses due to the hiring freeze in the State Department. Morale was low. I expected that eventually I would get a job, but as the harsh reality set in, I struggled with being in Colombia.
Pretty soon after our arrival, my husband convinced me to apply for a new program with the State Department that basically enabled EFMs (eligible family members/spouses) to become consular officers (this is the CAAEFM program in case anyone is wondering). For all intents and purposes, the day-to-day job responsibilities are the same as career FSOs or Consular Fellows. The key differences are that these positions are tied to their spouse’s orders. For instance, in this program I could only ever get a job at the same post as my husband. Which is great because unlike tandem couples, we wouldn’t ever be separated. The downside is that I can’t ever be promoted or really do anything other than an entry-level consular job.
The CAAEFM Process
I wasn’t very interested at the time, but I figured it didn’t hurt to apply. After program acceptance, the first step was to take a qualifying written exam. With my passing score, I scheduled an oral interview in DC while I was already in the US. I passed and settled in for the long wait for my security clearance which was finalized just a few weeks after my son was born.
So, great, right? Well, then I had to wait for space in one of the 3 annual orientation classes. Unfortunately, in early 2019 the government shutdown cancelled the first class of the year. Next my options were June or August, if ever. By this time we knew we were scheduled to go to Guadalajara, Mexico for our second tour and we thought the odds were pretty good for me to get a job there.
In mid-July, after waiting and fretting for what felt like an eternity, I landed a spot in the August orientation class.
This meant leaving Bogota two months early and coming to Virginia for training with my kids. My husband would remain in Bogota to finish his tour.
If we are being totally honest, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. I was dying to go back to work and I was doubtful I would get another opportunity. With lots of apprehension, I boarded a plane with my two tiny children in tow.
It’s been six weeks so far.
I’m over halfway done with my training and our separation. The transition has been really hard for my kids – new home, new beds, new nanny, mom is gone all day, dad isn’t around, etc. I have had several nights where I only slept 3 hours. I spend my lunch breaks pumping milk in a freezing cold room while scarfing down a quick lunch and also doing my homework. Things are improving slowly. And there is a lot to be grateful for. We have family in the area and they have been wonderful. My darling baby boy is growing up so much and no longer cries every time I walk out of a room. My nanny is a gem. I have made some new friends. My kids are benefiting from a wealth of attention from cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
When my husband comes home, we’ll be on leave for a few weeks before we head to Guadalajara to work side-by-side at the consulate. I’m excited. I’m exhausted. I’m terrified. I’m thrilled. It’s just one adventure after another.