College, Internships, and Career Experiences: Foreign Service Officer Abdel Perera

by Stasia Lopez / Sep 17, 2014 /
Stasia Lopez's picture

As a Career Consultant who works with many students who’re interested in careers abroad, I receive so many requests from students who’re interested in a job that entails "some form of travel." One often overlooked career is in Foreign Service — a career designed to promote the peace and prosperity of citizens of the U.S. as well as continue building U.S. relations abroad. It’s work that has a direct impact on the world, and for those who really want to experience global cultures, customs, and people of all nations, then this might be a career path for you!

Below is a detailed interview of my good friend, Abdel Perera, who’s a newly appointed Vice Consul Foreign Service Officer in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

College, Internships, and Career Experiences: Foreign Service Officer Abdel Perera

 

Abdel had a humble beginning and I can tell you, he is one of the friendliest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. He was born in Havana, Cuba but calls Hialeah, Florida his hometown. He was the first to attend college in his family and is a very driven individual. He graduated in May 2011 from Florida International University (FIU) where he received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations; he earned Certificates in Law, Ethics, and Society as well as in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

He also earned his Master of Arts in International Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C. with a concentration in Comparative and Regional Studies—Latin America and a functional concentration in Revolution, Violence, and Transition in May 2014. Read more about my friend Abdel’s very unique and interesting story of his journey to becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO); he dives deep into the process from start to finish and explains in complex points all that is needed to be successful in this career.

 

How did you choose your major in college? How did you choose the universities you chose? Did you have a mentor or person who helped guide you through that process?

As a first generation college student, my family did not have the means by which to fund my education, but was dedicated to providing me with the tools necessary to succeed. I wanted an institution where I felt identified with my fellow classmates; an institution where I was challenged to think innovatively and creatively about the world’s pressing issues; and an institution where I could build a community of support. Through various academic scholarships and federal grants programs, I was able to pursue my bachelor’s degree at Florida International University (FIU), a renowned research university and a leading state university.

FIU met all my priorities at the time, and the size and diverse faculty captivated me. I always envisioned pursuing a law degree, and a political science program was fitting for what I believed to be my calling. A Diplomacy class soon tested my initial decision to pursue a law degree, broadening the way I analyzed the world events shaping international affairs. Becoming a U.S. diplomat was a distant choice and what I thought to be inconceivable for an immigrant from a small town in Miami. The opportunities and experiences provided to me at FIU molded me into a competitive candidate for the Foreign Service.

When choosing a graduate program, I was coming from five years of an unbelievable undergraduate experience where I was pushed beyond my limits, creating a cauldron of support made up of academics and practitioners in the field of international affairs. When I was presented with the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree at American University (AU), it was an intimidating choice. I was leaving my comfort zone to “unknown territory,” and although there was some hesitation, family, friends, and a number of mentors contributed to my ultimate decision of leaving my hometown and relocate to our nation’s capital. I had been selected as a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow, providing me with the financial resources to pursue graduate studies and created the pathway by which I would embark on my dream career. The fellowship program is a coalescing effort by the Department of State to recruit a diverse Foreign Service, and provides twenty fellows each year with the unique opportunity to launch a career in the Foreign Service after the completion of a two-year masters program. I knew I wanted to continue my studies in international affairs, and most specifically, my concentration in Latin American studies.

As an immigrant in the U.S., it was never a path I thought I would be able to embark upon. Receiving my acceptance into AU was a testament to what my family had worked and sacrificed when we left our homeland. The university was the perfect choice for me. I was able to continue my studies among some of the most distinguished faculty, intellectually engaging student body, at the epicenter of international affairs.

 

How involved were you in college? Did you study abroad? Did you have internships? Did any of these experiences lead you into realizing your passions for work and career? If so, how?

I have always said that my involvement in professional and extra-curricular activities laid the foundations for my career path; being involved allowed me to think about our world differently; being involved allowed me to learn about cultures and how to engage societies in transformative dialogue; being involved gave me a tool kit of skills I can always utilize and consult when making career decisions.

Initially, my interest in public service led me to partake in Student Government as an intern for one of the representatives of my college, where I learned about the university, our student body, and needs of a public institution. We worked together to increase student access to college administration, hosted a series of public forums to share best practices and innovative ideas, and provided resilience to student concerns.

Throughout this process, I identified skills I was lacking and decided to join the Professional Business Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi. From this group I gained confidence, worked on my public speaking skills, supported the organization efforts to build new programs, and worked to address risk management. The community of support I built within this fraternity was monumental in my decision to foster a social conscious about pressing international issues.

Perhaps my legacy within the university has to be a student organization I helped establish, Future Business Leaders of America-Phi Beta Lambda (FBLA-PBL). As the founding President of the organization, I worked with members and officers to establish a chapter of this organization for the first time in the university’s history. FBLA-PBL stretched the way I was utilizing my skills, while turning weaknesses into strengths.

I continued to pursue activities where I could build new skills, including joining the Student Ambassador group through the University’s Alumni Association. Finally, I identified an opportunity to become Treasurer for the Council of Student Organizations, overseeing the budget of 200 student organizations by providing treasury trainings and policies for the university.

While I did not study abroad, I found international service opportunities that brought me to an orphanage in Thailand and an underprivileged community in Honduras. Whether it was caring for orphans in Bangkok by promoting wellness activities, or working with women leaders in a community to build a classroom in Tegucigalpa, my passion for diplomacy was reinforced. Such experiences marked my desire for a career in public service, where I could work directly to improve the quality of live of those around me.

 

Did you have any professional fellowships or participate in a Pathways Program?

My academic work, extracurricular activities, and international service projects paved the way for a series of internships that consolidated my interest in diplomacy. Through the mentorship and guidance of our Diplomat in Residence at FIU, I was able to secure an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo, working in the Consular Section. Working with an exceptional group of Foreign Service Officers and Locally Employed Staff, I was able to experience diplomatic work first-hand. I was treated as a member of the team, given substantive responsibilities, and I worked to make a difference during my tenure at post. I was hooked—a career in the Foreign Service was my destiny. During my Senior year as an undergraduate student, I was selected as a Una Chapman Cox Fellow, allowing me to complete two additional internships—one overseas and another in Washington, D.C. at the Department of State.

In Lima, Peru, I worked in the Fraud Prevention Unit of the Consular Section, conducting studies on trends among visa applicants and providing fraud prevention indicators to officers. I used this time to shadow officers in their visa interviews and took note of skills I should work on as I moved forward in my path to the Foreign Service. My internship at the Office of Conflict Prevention at the Department of State gave me additional tools on the structure and functions of the State Department. Whether it was participating in working groups to assist conflict prevention officers or assisting in-field officers with valuable research, such experiences continued to inspire me. Ultimately, it was these experiences that led me to successfully pursue the Charles B. Range International Affairs Fellowship.

From my humble opinion, the world is at a crossroads where students need to pursue their career interests by experiencing on-the-job training and participation. It simply transforms the way we look at our career choices—it changes the way we look at a job, and begins to focus the individual on pursuing a career.

 

College, Internships, and Career Experiences: Foreign Service Officer Abdel Perera

 

When did you know that you wanted to pursue becoming a Foreign Service Officer? What are all the different career tracks a person can become? Which one did you choose and why? What led to that career decision?

Through my interaction with Foreign Service Officers in the field during my internships, the engaging diplomacy classes, and the mentorship of officers in the service, I realized becoming an FSO was my destiny, and diplomacy my calling. I rejoiced at the thought of representing the U.S., our mission overseas, and protecting our nation.

The Foreign Service has five career tracks—Political, Economic, Consular, Public Diplomacy, and Management—and we are trained as Generalist, hence, we can perform in any of these tracks in accordance with the needs of the service. Yet, each incoming officer selects a track of preference, and usually spends a large portion of his/her career in this track, as cone specialization is highly encouraged. This is of course not the case for all officers, and changing career tracks is also an option officers have should they find their strengths are better suited for a different cone. Selecting a cone, in my opinion, is one of the most self-evaluating and humbling parts of the application process. Applicants evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, match professional and personal experiences, and research the specificity of each track before making a selection.

I selected the Consular track, much as a result of my internship experiences, where I realized that consular work is a fascinating field, where the security of our nation meets the needs of our citizens. From my point of view, consular officers are the unsung heroes and our nations first line of defense. Consular officers identify fraudulent travel patterns, help combat human trafficking, and provide assistance to U.S. citizens in distress worldwide. These elements of our duty are, perhaps, what attracts me the most to the consular cone.

It is important to keep in mind that all career tracks share certain common duties, such as engaging with host government officials, private sector leaders and international organizations. Each career track provides the opportunity to work closely with people from other countries, and each fosters dialogue between the host government and the U.S. Each officer must also promote U.S. interests and communicate U.S. policy.

 

What are the general requirements to become a Foreign Service Officer? Do you have to be fluent or proficient in a language? Is a Master’s degree required? Did you have to pass any formal examinations to become an FSO? What are the general steps a person should take to get into this field? What was the interview process like to become a Foreign Service Officer? Were there two interviews (phone and then face-to-face) and was it with one or two people or committees of people?

Becoming a Foreign Service Officer is a lengthy process for a rewarding career.  The general eligibility requirement is that applicants need to be U.S. citizens on the date they submit the application. Applicants must also be at least 20 years of old and not older than 59 years of age, and 21 years old and under 60 on the day you are appointed as an officer. Perhaps the most important requirement is that applicants must be available for worldwide assignments. The Bureau of Human Resources conducts a job analysis on FSOs and identifies certain knowledge, skills and abilities that prospective FSOs should possess. Knowledge of general English usage, U.S. society, culture, history, and government, world history and geography, and world political order and issues has been identified as essential for success in all the career tracks. A Master’s degree is not required to apply for the Foreign Service.

There are certain recommendations on general understandings FSOs should have, as well as more in-depth knowledge on specific areas depending on the track selected by the applicant. For more information about the general requirements, please consult the Department of State Careers website.

Fluency in a foreign language is not a requirement for the Foreign Service, as language training is provided upon appointment to a country where the officer does not speak the foreign language. Yet, despite such language flexibility, applicants with a Critical Needs Language, as defined by DOS, will receive additional weight once they are placed on the hiring register. Claiming a language “bump-up” will also require the officer to complete a tour where the language is used in the early stages of the career. As a result, I always encourage students to take on a new language or perfect a language they already speak.

The first step in the process is to do your research! There is a plethora of information provided by the department on the examination and hiring process, and applicants should be well informed about the details of each step. Do not make any life-altering decisions prior to the official letter of employment and receipt of a security and medical clearance. The FSO application process, from my perspective, should be incorporated into your lifestyle, not become your lifestyle. Register and take the test; it is a free examination and the first official step in the application process. Following the test, successful applicants will submit short and concise responses to personal narrative questions on your experiences, from leadership to management.

The evaluation panel will inform successful applicants of their advancement to the Oral Assessment and requirement to submit a security clearance request. Candidates are invited to travel to Washington, D.C. for a three-part assessment based on the 13 Dimensions of the Foreign Service: the Group Exercise, Structured Interview, and a Case Management Writing Exercise. An Exit Interview provides the applicant with the status of their candidacy, and whether they met the 5.25 out of 7 score to advance in the pre-employment process.

 

Any advice for anyone going through the interview part of the process?

Here are some of the lessons-learned from the application and interview process, and please keep in mind there is no magic formula, but certainly some helpful advice as potential applicants move through the process:

1.    Do your research: research your cone of interest, the Foreign Service, the lifestyle, and the various components of the interview process.

2.    Speak with your family: building a community of support early on in the process is key to a successful interview.

3.    It is NOT a Competition: once you reach the Oral Assessment part of the application process, which is the in-person assessment, everyone in the room can “pass”. Do not be afraid to make friends, speak with those in the room and get comfortable for what will surely be a memorable day.

4.    Follow Instructions and Practice Active Listening:  make sure to listen carefully to all the instructions provided, know where you need to be, the time, and prepared for the session at hand. Following instructions is a big part of the Foreign Service and it starts in this room.

5.    Be Concise: the day is long, but for the assessors it is a short time to evaluate you and your competencies. Express your thought, but avoid long-winded answers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or points of clarifications.

6.    Show Your Competencies in the 13 Dimensions: the dimensions are the examiners benchmarks and you should be familiar with each dimension and be ready to demonstrate your competency in these dimensions throughout the day’s assessment.

7.    Show Off, but Don’t be Conceited: from interpersonal skills to writing skills, be ready to show your best work under the circumstances, and showcase your dedication to this career path. Don’t fall into the trap of taking credit for everything you’ve done without recognizing the values of teamwork and working with diverse groups; share successes!

8.    Remain “Cool, Calm, and Collected”: you do not want to loose focus during any one part of the assessment day. From my perspective, one half of the outcome is attributed to the assessment itself, while the other half is a result of how calm you remain throughout the day. Take deep breaths, grab a cup of water, or pick up a State magazine for some leisure reading.

These are some initial pointers, but the list is not exhaustive. Above all, keep calm, enjoy the day, and never be disappointed with the outcome, be proud of your accomplishments.

 

What do you currently do to achieve work/life balance? Any advice for students, graduates, and entry-level professionals that you could provide?

Work/life balance is by far the most challenging; we are all eager to take on the world, our generation is out for innovation, creativity, and to work ourselves to exhaustion. Having a strong work ethic is not a sin, but keeping a balance is part of being resilient in the workforce and achieving this will be a challenge—understand this, embrace it, but don’t allow work to dictate everything in your life.

Personally, I like to keep active by seeking out friends and family, whom we often forget; catching a new movie, to be culturally relevant; escaping to a small gateway, to explore new places; and capturing those special moments, by using photography as my go-to hobby.

For entry-level professionals, my advice is to listen to those who are there before you, hold your new and innovative ideas until your learn from others what is currently in place, and seek mentors who will change your life along the way.

 

What made you decide to choose international service over domestic service? Is the opportunity to serve worldwide (including back in the U.S.) an option for a Foreign Service Officer?

I’ve grown up personally and professionally in an internationally complex environment, where the call to serve our nation has been paramount. International service and domestic service make up rewarding career paths, and I’ve always been drawn to both on different levels. On one side, I have a deep interest for engaging with foreign leaders to promote our nation’s foreign policy, while taking the steps to protect American citizens and the international community. Domestically, there is substantive work to be carried out, especially engaging our citizens in international affairs issues, and serving as an example for other nations begins at home. Foreign Service Officers do serve domestically in assignment at the Department of State, Congress, the National Security Council, and International Organizations. The opportunities are countless, and officers are encouraged to come back and work domestically on foreign affairs issues.

 

What are the benefits/perks of an FSO?

The job of a Foreign Service Officer is a rewarding and challenging experience, and an FSO’s day varies depending on the assignment and country. The benefit is that you serve your country; you are part of a unique group of individuals that serve our nation’s interest, promote our values, and protect our citizens. Public service is experienced from various cultural lenses and that has the opportunity to turn into unlimited learning opportunities. Training and development is ongoing and our workforce stays on the cutting edge of professional training that fosters new skills and improves acquired skills. FSOs have access to a number of healthcare, educational and personal programs benefits, and the continuing support of the Foreign Service community. Language training is also in added benefit as you prepare for new assignments.

Your family will have experiences of a lifetime as you embark on your journey to close and far-away places. You have the potential to make a difference in the issues affecting the daily lives of millions.

 

College, Internships, and Career Experiences: Foreign Service Officer Abdel Perera

 

What are the challenges of an FSO?

With the career, expect plenty of sacrifices, and nothing is most challenging than uprooting a family from the comforts of the U.S. to call a distant place home. Yet, soon after the initial cultural shock, the challenges become opportunities for growth. Being worldwide available at times calls on officers to complete unaccompanied posts, which does have the potential to have an impact in the household. Yet, the department offers wonderful support systems and programs for family members who cannot accompany their spouse to these posts. Finally, keeping in touch with family and friends is a challenge the officer must be proactive about. Today, with social media and easier travel opportunities, the world is more interconnected, but engaging your family and friends will be a definite challenge in the initial stages of the lifestyle.

I would like to stress that despite there being challenges, the Department has build a community of support for officers, and works to improve the quality of life of foreign service families.

 

When building your resume for this governmental position, how was it different than crafting a Civilian resume? What is the key to mastering having a Federal resume?

Personally, I have found that there are many similarities between a civilian resume and a federal resume. For federal agencies, maintaining an online profile with USAJobs is a starting point for applicants interested in federal service positions. Much like with civilian resumes, it is critical that the information presented in the resume is clear, concise, and substantive. Clarity in thought will help the readers understand your work requirements and contributions. Concision will transmit your thought in an active voice, focusing on your role in a project, contributions to the work environment, or the importance of your research. Substantive information is essential, as applicants should focus on the outcome of your actions. For example, did your presentation improve the working relations between two groups and to what extent.

When applying to fellowship programs or internships, for example, there is usually a page limit for your resume. Applicants should follow the page limit and include the most relevant work experience and education. Include extra-curricular activities, study abroad experiences, service projects, among other professional and academic experiences.

Additionally, consider adding a section to your resume on trainings and skills, showcasing specific functional trainings received that inform your interest for a particular position, career track, or regional interest.

As with any resume, do not overload the reader with information and do not dismiss any professional experience because of the nature of the job; every job, no matter how menial has provided you with skills that can be transferable to a career in the Foreign Service.

 

College, Internships, and Career Experiences: Foreign Service Officer Abdel Perera

 

For many people, getting married and having a family is very important to them. How do FSOs manage this important stage of their life, especially if they’re stationed abroad? Are spouses allowed to come with you? If your children are born abroad, do they receive dual citizenship?

Building a family within the Foreign Service is completely feasible. I have met beautiful families in the service, some of who met in the service while serving in distant places, while others embark in the career with a spouse and children.

Being single in the Foreign Service is perceived as an additional challenge to maintaining work-life balance, but there are many opportunities to meet other singles. Whether within the embassy community, other expats living in your post, the local population, or while serving in D.C., the Foreign Service provides opportunities for FSOs to meet individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds across the world. FSOs looking to meet a significant other are proactive in seeking assignments in larger cities, perhaps in a particular culture, or a larger post, rather than smaller mission.

Growing your family is also part of the Foreign Service, and whether it is giving birth to a new child overseas, bringing your pets with you, or getting married for the first time, family members receive overwhelming support from the Department. Spouses are allowed to accompany their wife/husband to post, as well as children, with the exception of a few unaccompanied posts.

I am joining the service being recently married, and must say that the key is to involve your spouse from the beginning of the process. Provide your family with all the information and ensure that their priorities are also being met as you launch this journey. Be creative, be supportive and understanding with your family, they keep us grounded and mentally connected to home.

 

Anything else you’d like to share? What is up next for you?

I was sworn into the Foreign Service on August 8th and have been assigned for a two-year Consular tour in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My wife and I are excited about returning to Argentina, a country we visited a few years ago and captivated us with its culture, people, and beauty. It is a transformative time to be in Argentina and I am proud to represent the U.S. at our mission in the country.

As a final thought, I would like to say that the opportunities within the Foreign Service are plentiful, but the values of Loyalty, Character, Service, Community, Diversity, and Accountability, are enshrined within the work we do as public servants. We serve the American people and it is a humbling experience to be part of a community of professionals dedicated to advancing our foreign policy.

 

#StudyAbroadBecause

 

 

 

This is part of a series on international education, as part of our commitment to #GenerationStudyAbroad and our commitment to the White House Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. You'll find many more inspiring stories here on Wandering Educators!

 

 

Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando.

 

Photos courtesy and copyright Abdel Perera

 

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