"Right after college, I took the foreign service exam. I heard about it at a cocktail party. A distant relative said, 'Oh, you majored in German. You should take the foreign service exam.' And I said, 'Really, what's that?' And it just sort of snowballed from there. I took the exam at the University of Virginia in 1986. I was literally laughing while I was taking the exam, because it was so hard. It's changed some since I took it, but generally speaking, it's not like all those tests that you took as a kid that measure your ability to learn. It tests what you know.
"There are sections on economics, macroeconomics, on world history. There are questions on the arts. For example, when I took the exam there was a Dorothea Lange photo and you had to identify who the photographer was. Another question was, 'Who is the director of the American Ballet Theatre?' -- at that time it was Mikhail Baryshnikov, which I knew. The exam was very broad and very difficult. There was and still is a part of the exam devoted to English and English grammar. You must pass that section in order to pass the exam. I know that nonnative speakers of English find that section very difficult.
"So, you take the exam and you wait months and months to hear if you've passed. If you do pass, then you schedule the oral exam, which you can take in DC or at several other locations across the country. It's a day-long series of activities with other exam-takers. Generally speaking, it's role-playing. I took the oral exam in DC. We had to role-play an embassy staff meeting. They don't tell you what they're grading you on. They give you a situation and they refuse to answer questions. At our 'embassy staff meeting,' we'd each been given a program that we had to defend funding for. I was given a proposal for giving a radical student group a photocopier and a van. Obviously, they were grading us on our interpersonal skills. I defended the photocopier but not the van, because I felt that it would be 'irresponsible' to give a student group a van. On and on it went. A whole day of this kind of stuff. Now, apparently, they do talk to you about yourself. Back when I did the oral exam, they didn't. They asked me, 'Name five American authors who you think best represent U.S. literature and explain why.'
"Mysteriously, I passed the oral exam as well. If you pass the oral exam, you're given a background clearance in which they literally interview just about everyone you've ever known. They interviewed every landlord of every student apartment I lived in when I was in college, some of whom had never met me. They interviewed every employer I'd ever had for every job I'd ever had, even as a teenager. They spoke to friends. They work from a list that you give them, but they also ask each person they interview, 'Who else should I talk to?' So, they descended on my hometown. It was just the talk of the town the day they were there, because they fanned out through the town, doing it as quickly as possible. For some people it takes longer. If I had traveled all over communist Europe, for example, my background check would have taken forever.
"And then you have your medical clearance. They pay for you to have the most exhaustive physical you can ever imagine.
"If you pass all of that, you're put on a waiting list for jobs, and you're rank-ordered on that waiting list. I don't understand the mysteries of it. But apparently now, for example, you can get a 'veteran's preference' that will put you above other people on the list. You have a certain amount of time to be offered a job from that waiting list, or it's over. If you want to try again, you have to start all over from the beginning and take the exam again. When I was on the list, the waiting period was 18 months.
"The year that I took the written foreign service exam, 15,000 other people took it. Of that 15,000, 250 people were eventually hired."
Davis's first post was, she told me, at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires. She explained that early in the exam process, the career of a potential foreign service officer, or FSO, is directed toward one of five employment tracks or "cones": management, which deals with the day-to-day financial, logistical, and personnel concerns of running an embassy or consulate; consular, which handles issuing visas to foreign nationals and troubleshooting the many problems Americans encounter while abroad, such as imprisonment, death, and lost passports; economic, which involves advocacy for American business interests and analysis of foreign markets and the economic policies of foreign governments; political, which requires monitoring foreign political events and forming recommendations for U.S. policy; and public diplomacy, which tackles the promotion and explanation of U.S. policy and culture via media relations, education, conferences, and exchange programs.
Davis was directed to the public diplomacy cone.
"I was in DC for one year, being trained, and then I was in Buenos Aires for three years. At the embassy level, the public diplomacy, or public affairs, section is huge. We have a cultural attaché, a press attaché. Each has an American officers staff. The public affairs section does everything from running libraries to making sure that U.S. policy is correctly stated in the local media. All of those jobs fall within the 'public diplomacy cone.' The training for those jobs takes place in DC.
"I know it's better now than when I did it. I know they now train you on how to give an interview. They have a course where they tape you giving interviews, and they critique them. My cone tends to attract people who have some experience in those things -- educators, journalists, art historians. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to give a good press interview or a speech or program an event. So, there's a certain amount of training and a certain amount of on-the-job experience that's involved.