As foreign service officers, we are all generalists. Under the terms of my commission, I am deemed to be world-wide available and suitable for any job. Thus, although the State Department hired me as a political officer, I can be assigned any job anywhere in the world. Just about all officers, regardless of background or cone, will serve at least one post as a consular officer. My first assignment falls under this category. I will be a consular officer in Ottawa, Canada, serving for a two-year tour.
Notorious for having the best stories to tell, Consular Officers are responsible for providing all of the client services at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate. They adjudicate non-immigrant and immigrant visas, and they deal with a huge variety of emergencies that befall American citizens abroad. Since completing the A-100 course, about two dozen of us from the 149th, along with a few officers from earlier classes, have been immersed in the law and procedure that forms the foundation for work in the consular section.
The Consular Training course, dubbed ConGen, lasts 6-7 weeks and feels a bit like a law school class interspersed with computer applications classes and some live fire simulations. ConGen takes place in relatively small classrooms, a state-of-the-art mock embassy, and a jail cell (where we meet with our American citizen clients). Not only do we learn the finer points of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (which comes conveniently in a 2-1/2″ thick book) and the Foreign Affairs Manual (affectionately known as the FAM), but also the legal and social structure of the Republic of Z, the fictitious country we use for all exercises.
We cover one large topic a week, concluding with a three-hour exam. The exams are not as bad as they sound, but we need to pass each one with a score above 80%. There are several different sections at ConGen working on different parts of the curriculum. On Christmas Eve, for example, while I was doing some light studying on the immigrant visa ineligibility standards, I could hear another section in the embassy dealing with a mock-Christmas Eve airplane crash. The phones were ringing off the hook. The televisions had updated news reports. Officers checked off priorities, dealt with relatives of those on the plane, and efficiently coordinated with the task force in DC. Not exactly a relaxing half-day, but crises will occur. Even on holidays.
After weeks of orientation in A-100, it feels good to be learning actual on-the-job skills that I’ll be using in a month and a half.