A lot of you who read this are in the Foreign Service, so it won’t be any surprise when I say, they make you jump through a lot of hoops to join. There’s an application, a multiple choice knowledge test, an essay, more multiple choice, grammar, more essays, an interview, a group exercise and some more essays, and that’s just to get invited to begin training. The process starts with what’s called the Foreign Service Officers’ Test (FSOT for short, or just “the written”). Most people take it, as I did, somewhere in the U.S., but it is made available overseas in U.S. Embassies. That’s where I’ve been the past two weekends, proctoring Peace Corps volunteers and Embassy family members who wanted to take the test in Cotonou.
It’s called the written, but these days its taken on computer. When you’re somewhere like Benin, ensuring the network connections are fast enough is part of the pre-test process. After some consultations with our tech folks and some practice runs, we determined the most our network would handle safely is four people at a time. We were limited to the past week (two weekends) to give the test, so my first plan was to hold it the first Saturday available. Unfortunately, there was already a test scheduled for the computers on that day, so I moved the initial session to the second Saturday. I figured a morning session of four and an afternoon session of four would be plenty After all, how many prospective FSOs could there be in Benin? I quickly discovered, more than eight when those first slots filled up. The Ambassador was determined that anyone who wanted to take the test here would be able to, so I scheduled another eight slots for the Sunday before that, even though that basically meant working two weekends in a row. As it turned out, a couple of the folks originally scheduled for the Saturday session bailed out, so we ended up with four the first weekend, and six the second.
If you join the Foreign Service, you’re eventually going to get a security clearance (another hoop, also a medical clearance), but when you take the test they don’t trust you won’t try to look up something in Wikipedia, so one of the first tasks of the proctor is to run some software that shuts down local Internet access except to the test. We also provide the scratch paper, and make you sign a non-disclosure agreement so you won’t fill in anyone else on what the test contains.
When you arrive, the first question is “do you remember the userid and password you created when you signed up?” Based on my experience, the answer for most people is “no”, so the proctor has to look it up. During the test, if the network is iffy, you may be disconnected. No worry, the test keeps track of where you were, but it does mean the proctor has to reauthorize you and you have to sign back in (you did remember the userid and password THIS TIME didn’t you?).
When it’s all over, about three hours later, you don’t even know if you “passed”. All you get is a screen that tells you they’ll get back to you in three to five weeks! At least the studying and worrying is over…until you have to prepare for the orals.
Change of subject. Even though everyone will agree it is much easier to live in other parts of the world as an FSO now than it was even 10 years ago, with air freight, cell phones and Internet, there is still an innate strangeness to things. There’s an inconsistency of life that strikes you after you’ve been here a while. It’s not that you don’t have electricity, it’s that it’s inconsistent, or ungrounded, or some things turn back on after a power outage and duplicate things elsewhere in your house don’t. It’s the people who drive the wrong way down divided highways or the wrong way around traffic circles. You don’t really realize how much you take for granted that people and things in the US basically follow “the rules” even if those rules are unwritten and unspoken and nobody really is enforcing them. Not so in Africa. It puts an edge on living here, even with the relatively cushy Foreign Service life.