Alumni Share: Life as a Foreign Service Officer

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Podcast Transcript

Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode we will be speaking with Bryan Furman, a 2011 Boren scholar to Russia. Bryan is currently serving as a Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Ukraine as a cultural Affairs officer. Thank you for joining us today Bryan, we're looking forward to hearing more about your journey to this career path in your experience as an FSO and I know that you've also previously done a tour in Bangladesh as well and spent some time in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as a Fulbright scholar in addition to your Boren. With all of your international experiences, did you always know that the Foreign Service was the path for you?

Bryan:         Hey Shabnam, I’d just like to start by saying thank you so much for having me on your podcast, it's such an honor to be here, and I'm super excited to share my experience with you and with the broader listener community. To get to your question, no actually I didn't always know that this was the path that I wanted to choose and in fact it took me awhile to eventually figure out that this is where I wanted to end up. When I was in undergrad, I was a criminology and psychology major first and then after my trip to Uzbekistan I ended up deciding that International Affairs was really interesting to me, and then I thought I was going to go get my PhD, and then you know I kind of went back to psychology and thought I'd have a career in mental health. All of my International experiences eventually came together during my Fulbright in Tajikistan, which was the first time that I really saw how an embassy operated, and because Fulbright as a U.S state department program it was run out of the public affairs section in Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and I got to know some of the officers who were serving there and I think I just really fell in love with their jobs and I thought “wow this is a really interesting job and it's a way to serve my country and I'm interested in foreign affairs so it seems like a really a really interesting career choice.” so that's when I applied for the Commissar Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which is a feeder program into the Foreign Service and thankfully I was selected for the program

Shabnam:  When you had decided that you wanted to pursue this path, what were you kind of hoping to get out of your experience?

Bryan:         I think the lifestyle in general lends itself to lots of different experiences, I should say the career in general lends itself to lots of different experiences. So, you know there's sort of the cosmetic aspects to it, you’re living abroad and learning about new cultures and trying new foods and all the fun stuff, but I think what really appealed to me was the deeper Public Service aspect of this job. It's a very intense job and in many cases Foreign Service officers overseas and domestically have a lot of responsibility, a really large portfolio, you they're doing really intensive and Hands-On work within the international affairs realm, so I was really hoping to jump right in and do that because I think it's super interesting, but I also think it allows you to test yourself in new ways, while also, like I said you know, serving the U.S and that to me is a really important facet of this job.

Shabnam:   How did you come to decide upon picking the public diplomacy track when considering the various cones within the state department?

Bryan:        That’s a good question. I went back and forth for a very long time because I actually, I find all of the cones fascinating, or tracks I guess, I think we call them tracks, I’m not supposed to call them cones. I find all of the tracks fascinating because each one by itself you know it sort of - it doesn't stand by itself, but all together they form sort of the core of an of an embassy and each track, officers in each track provide essential function. It was really hard for me to decide between whether I wanted to do something that was more you know reporting intensive like a political or economic officer, or whether I wanted to do something that was more public facing in terms of outreach like public diplomacy officer, whether I wanted to make sure that the embassy was able to operate and function as a management officer or to protect U.S citizens abroad and protect U.S borders as a consular officer, they’re all really fascinating tracks and come with really interesting portfolios. I think because I was a Fulbright in Tajikistan and because I had spent time on exchange programs in Russia through the Boren program as well as just in general had a little bit more interaction with officers representing the public diplomacy track, and that’s eventually where I ended up. What I think is cool is if you have an appreciation or an interest in all five of the tracks, you know there are always opportunities to broaden your experience within the State Department. It's cool because I feel like no matter what job I go into whether that’s a public diplomacy job or not, I’ll love what I'm doing.

Shabnam:   You had experience with Boren and Fulbright and these other programs that have enabled you to kind of use language in the program, but how is your experience with language training with the state department prior to your posting like?

Bryan:         So I didn't have very much language training with the state department before I joined as a Foreign Service Officer, but I definitely had - obviously through Boren I was studying Russian in in Moscow and then at my undergraduate institution I studied Russian, and I also study Persian. It’s funny to me, because language is such an important tool for understanding another culture and communicating but I wouldn't necessarily characterize myself as you know loving the nitty-gritty of digging into grammar rules and things like that. I think I enjoy the experience of being able to communicate with others so for me, most of the language training for me that I found really helpful was when I was on Boren for instance, studying abroad, because you're in an experiential learning environment so you know if you want to be social and make friends and the friends around you don't speak English or whatever your native language is, then you have to speak their native language. I found that to be the most effective language learning style, that's one of the reasons that I so strongly support, whenever I talk to students, programs like Boren, like Fulbright, even though Fulbright isn't a language learning program, or at least the U.S Fulbright program isn’t a language learning program. You’re spending time overseas, and often times that involves a language learning component and so you know I think those types of experiential learning environments are best.

Shabnam:  Thank you for sharing that, Bryan. I feel like we got a good idea of how you journeyed into the field, but I'm also curious to better understand your work within the field, within your position. What does your day-to-day typically look like?

Bryan:         One of the things I live about my job is that it’s hard to say that I have a day to day, especially now in my job as one of the assistant cultural Affairs officers here in Kyiv, my job depends on what's happening during the day. Sometimes there are internal projects that I'm working on, whether that's working with my team, I supervise a team of four, so whether that's working with my team on their professional development and skill-building or whether it's answering requests for information from Washington or from our Chargé d’Affaires or – we call our Chargé d’Affaires and the Deputy Chief of mission our front office, they are basically our executive office within the embassy, so you know sometimes they'll ask us for information or questions. There's also often times an external and public facing aspect to my job, and so that can be working on a large cultural program and trying to organize that, you know I supervise a number of different professional exchange programs here, so selecting cadres of potential exchange participants, making sure that our programs are targeting our strategic objectives, all of this can fall into my day to day, and so what portion of my day I spend on each really just depends on which day it is I guess I should say.

Shabnam:  You mentioned that you work on these projects and programs. Is there a certain program that you designed that you're especially proud of?

Bryan:         My team fantastic, so it's hard for me to pick just one program that I'm proud of. It's also hard for me to say that I designed it, because like I said I supervise a group of four, but then I also work in an office with many more people, all of whom provide a lot of input and advice on the programs that we run so I can't take full ownership, but I will say one of the things that I found really a timely and also really cool was a hackathon that we recently organized with a local IT organization that was looking to tap into the Ukrainian technology sector for assistance with mitigating the Covid-19 outbreak. So, we put together, in collaboration with this local organization, a hackathon, I don't know how much people are familiar with the idea of a hackathon, but basically a bunch of IT professional come together with you know thematic experts to form groups and design technology-based solutions to social issues or economic issues, or in this case a public health crisis. We put program together very quickly and the U.S embassy issued a grant to this local organization to help you know throw everything together and collect the teams, make sure that at the end of the hackathon there was some prize money for the winning team to then implement their idea. I think it was pretty awesome because we had so many teams that came out with these fantastic ideas, one was I think a robot that helped doctors serve patients in hospitals without too much physical contact to maintain social distancing. The one that won was an automated chat bot that used artificial intelligence and cognitive behavioral therapy to help people who are feeling depressed or isolated in quarantine to overcome those feelings or at least to help manage them and get through these difficult circumstances. I love that we were able to, in a very short period of time, react to a crisis of the day and come out with concrete results that will hopefully have a real positive impact on Ukraine's ability to deal with this public health crisis.

Shabnam:  That’s very cool. Alluding back to what you talked about how you had a passion for mental health, and it almost seems like this is a really unique way of how that's channeled into your work now. What goes into designing these programs? How do you go about strategizing the need for implementing a program like this and then going about implementing a hackathon for example?

Bryan:         That’s a great question. I think that you are getting at the essence of the strategic planning process here. The strategic planning process is one that I think all public diplomacy practitioners would agree with me is essential to making your programs relevant and making them useful in terms of serving the priorities of your mission. All missions overseas, U.S Government missions overseas, have internal strategy documents that outlines the priorities of the day, and so - I shouldn’t say of the day, they’re usually there for a couple years, so priorities of the next couple years, and based on those strategic planning documents, you know we in the public affairs section and throughout the embassy, we read throughout them, we take time to think about them, and then we assess what are tool kits are or best ways to address. So, you know if one of our strategic priorities is for example, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship then you know we keep that in mind when we're designing our programs, and so we might for example design a professional exchange that is specifically targeted to develop the skills of young Ukrainians in innovation and entrepreneurship. Alternatively, we might run a business incubator, so the program design really starts from that strategic phase and then from there you’re ready get to the mechanics of the individual program. That's when you start thinking about who are the target audiences, what are they interested in or what would appeal to them you know, what can we do that will have – what will success look like and how can we measure that success, and what type of program will allow us to achieve those indicators of success? All of that together, and it sounds like a lot, and it is a lot, because designing programs in my personal opinion isn’t easy, it shouldn't be easy, but that's how you, at least in my view, that's how you get those high impact and really interesting programs.

Shabnam:   Have you had to learn a lot of that just on the job?

Bryan:        Yeah. So, I don't know if you're if you're familiar with our Foreign Service Institute, but we have a whole diplomatic Training Academy that's got a lot of different courses including ones on strategic planning for public diplomacy or you know how to do report in for political and economic officers and you know what you need to know before you become a Human Resources officer. All before going out to our assignments, we usually have some combination of language training and trade crafter or job-related training, so I took a whole set of courses on public diplomacy 101 and then cultural affairs 101 basically before I came out to my post here.

Shabnam:   That’s very cool! The other thing Bryan is that I know several Boren awardees are quite well-travelled much like yourself, and many of them may even see themselves joining the Foreign Service at some point in their careers, but as great as the foreign service is, I've heard before that in addition to it being a career, it really is a lifestyle choice and it's not necessarily for everybody, but the aspects of it that are often glamorized are, you know, the thought of traveling the world and getting paid to study language, but I wanted to ask you if there is there a harder reality or not-so-glamorous aspect of the work that we really need to consider?

Bryan:         That’s a fantastic question Shabnam, you know I wish that question got asked more because I think it's important for two reasons. One is to inform people who are interested in the career that you know, it's not all easy and fun, but also to inform you know the American public that foreign services, Foreign Service officers have - you know, face real hardships when they’re overseas in many cases and you need to be really dedicated to the idea of Public Service to take on this job. You're right that you know they're definitely some glamorous aspects to the job as you said, and I alluded to them earlier in our conversation, learning languages traveling overseas, being immersed in new cultures, these are all fantastic opportunities but you do need to keep in mind that oversees you are a U.S government employee so that often comes with a different set of behavioral standards, you can’t really be the college student studying abroad, you need to obviously recognize that you are an official representative of the U.S government and so 24/7 you are to be aware of how you are behaving in public and how others can perceive you and that's not really a hardship but it is something that people don't necessarily consider when they're applying to take the Foreign Service Officer test. Some other things to keep in mind is that not all of our posts are in the easiest locations to live, some of them are inactive warzones, some of our posts are in places where there are high risks of crime or terrorism, and so sometimes those posts come with added restrictions on whether you can bring your family with you or whether you can spend a large portion of your day in certain areas or sometimes even just outside at all. So, for people who wouldn't consider themselves resilient or able to handle those types of tough circumstances, this job in some cases could be really difficult for them so you know there's that and then there's also - this is the last thing that I’ll mention, it is hard work. I have never been in an embassy or an office back at the State Department main building in Washington in which people were not working super hard so it is definitely not cocktail parties and fun concerts, it is a lot of reading, writing, analyzing, managing people, thinking strategically and all those things are really great and super awesome skills to either have or develop through this job, but that is an important thing to remember that this job is hard and in many ways it's hard in a very good and rewarding way.

Shabnam:   Thanks Bryan, I think that’s a really helpful insight to keep in mind. Another thing that is a thought that comes up is to be in the Foreign Service or to be successful in the Foreign Service, you kind of have to be a generalist as opposed to a specialist. Would you stay that that true or would you say that there are certain skills that would make someone successful in this field?

Bryan:         That’s another great question. So, you know the foreign service actually has two different, really broad employment categories. There is the generalist category which encompasses the five career tracks that we discussed earlier, and then there are specialists career tracks which are just as important and just as interesting but designed for people who maybe have a bit more of a specialized skill set. For example, Diplomatic Security is a bureau within the state department and Diplomatic Security agents provide for the safety and security of personnel overseas, of our buildings, often times of foreign representatives when they come to the United States or when our high-level officials go overseas. So, a specialist position like that, you often times do have in the job description – there are a little more nuanced requirements for somebody who's looking to apply. The same thing is true for, for instance, for financial management officers, usually people who come in as a financial management specialist have some more advanced training in accounting and finance. So, the Foreign Service does have these two broad categories, specialist and generalist, and definitely for specialists the job descriptions usually have more concrete, recommended skill sets. For generalists, I think one of the beauties of the Foreign Service is that it’s not looking for any cookie cutter person in particular. Obviously you know the people who generally apply for the Foreign Service are usually folks who have a background in international affairs who have traveled quite a bit, but those are by no means requirements for the job, in fact you know the Foreign Service has a list of, I think there are 13 precepts, that’s what we call them although I think the official name something different, so if you look up 13 precepts you might not find it immediately, so we have a list of basically the qualities that foreign service officers are supposed to exemplify. Those by no means are specific to one discipline, they are more characteristics I would say, like leadership, communication, interpersonal skills, management skills, these types of things that people who apply for this job should be able to demonstrate that the outset, but that you are expected to grow and sort of personify more as you advance throughout your career. I would actually like to tell everybody who listening and who's interested in the Foreign Service that you don't need to have a specific background to join, and in fact one of the really cool things that I noticed is - you know I've served abroad with people who were authors before they joined the Foreign Service, or chemists or engineers or - some people who were international affairs experts, but by no means was there one specific thing that all of these other officers and myself did that set us up perfectly for this job.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Bryan.  The final million-dollar question I have is, is there something that you know now that you wished you knew before starting your journey as an FSO?

Bryan:         That is a good question. I feel like what we just talked about is something that I did wish I knew because you know, like I said I applied for the Pickering program which as I said is a is a feeder program into the Foreign Service, but I actually applied for twice and the first time I applied for it I didn't get it and the second time I applied for it I did end up getting through, but I was so focused the first time around on you know, exemplifying this super knowledge of international affairs and trying to sound like I was true diplomat material, whatever that meant. The second time around I really focused on sort of trying to explain why I would make a good leader or a good contribute to the broader mission, to serve the U.S government in general, and I think that time I hit closer to what I now realize is key, and that is not trying to be this hyper specialized applicant for the foreign service, but trying to be sort of gaining all those experiences that you gain through your interests of – oh you’re interested in mental health, you can do a Fulbright focus on mental health, and then you can join the foreign service even if you aren’t doing anything related to mental health, I’m talking about this because it was my situation, but you still can succeed in this career. I guess what I wish I had known the first time that I applied and what I realized the second time, and thankfully I had a year in between to pursue some of my other interests was that trying to craft the perfect resume and the perfect back ground for this job is not necessary, it really is welcoming to people of all experiences and all skill sets and I really encourage people who are interested in joining the Foreign Service you know if they have something that they're really passionate about, and that isn't the foreign service right now, take the time to pursue that too, because I think that if you come out of that still interested in joining the Foreign Service you're going to have an extra set of skill sets and an extra set of experience that I promise will serve you very well then when you join the Foreign Service.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much for joining us today Bryan, you know you've provided such thorough and deep insight on your journey, and we really hope that this helps future awardees better understand the Foreign Service.

Bryan:         Absolutely Shabnam, it was my pleasure and I hope that what I've said will help people to understand the Foreign Service and maybe inspire some others to join.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate, and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will discuss what it’s like to be a Foreign Service Officer. We will discuss the thought process of someone who may be considering, technical steps to pursue this path, and the realities of the work. Mr. Bryan Furman, a former Boren Scholar to Russia, will discuss his path to Foreign Service and his experiences as Foreign Service Officer.