On paying your dues
Consular work is hard – I spent a year teaching/living with “court acquainted” youth, and that was significantly easier than just one month of visa work. Visa work is down and dirty, roll up your sleeves stuff. Bag ‘em and tag ‘em. I did 10,000 visa interviews in just over a year, and that is nothing compared to my colleagues who work in the salt mines of our visa operations – the so-called “visa mills” in Manila, Seoul, Mexico City and the like.
One of the more annoying things I've run into in the Foreign Service is that person who believes that, because he/she went to Harvard/Stanford/Yale/SAIS/The Fletcher School/The Dingleberry Institute for International Studies that he/she shouldn’t be doing consular work.
“I didn’t get Magna Cum Laude at the University of Chicago to sit behind a window all day and stamp passports. I wanna go make me some foreign policy.”
Whatever, dude. Next applicant, please.
Fortunately, those people are few and far between, but, in true FSO fashion, we complain about them all the time. It always annoys those of us who consider ourselves professionals, and therefore wish to do our job the best we can, regardless of how “unimportant” it appears at first blush, and who realize that we are truly privileged to be in the Foreign Service in the first place. One colleague actually told my boss that doing visas “wasn’t [her] job.” After some discussion, she decided that the foreign service wasn’t for her, and resigned. We threw a farewell party for her. One day after she left.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out
The truth of the matter is that consular work gives an FSO so many of the skills that they will need later in life. Most important among these skills is management. FSOs are expected to manage local staff from their first moments in a consular section, no matter how junior they are..
Traditionally, management skills have taken a secondary role to reporting ability (i.e cable writing) when it came to promotions. Small wonder, then, that State had a reputation for poor man-management. Fortunately, this has changed a lot in the last four years, and now management skills are taught to (and expected from) all officers at every pay grade. And consular work, along with administrative work, is absolutely the best place to get it.
Furthermore, I believe that there is something to be said for paying your dues when entering any organization. Doctors go through internship and residency. Frat boys go through hazing. Hollywood wannabes go on coke binges and sleep with Paris Hilton. FSOs sit at a small window for long hours and have to make, at 2-5 minute intervals, decisions that could have a huge influence on the lives of the people to whom they are talking, sometimes including life or death. They do this knowing that often that person on the other side of the bulletproof glass knows, and will use, every trick in the book to get to the land of opportunity.
There are plenty of things that could be done to improve the way we do this. To be fair, much has been done to fix the errors that were a part of the tragic series of failures that culminated on 9/11. I have my thoughts on those, and will share them another day.
But no where else will you experience the full panoply of life’s rich pageant. In very few other places will you see humanity at its best and its worst. I have seen drug dealers and terrorists, beggars and rock stars, athletes and artists. I met a woman who walked with her family out of the axis of evil and waited for thirteen years to get an immigrant visa to live in the US. Putting that visa in her hand was one of the top moments I’ve experienced as a human being, let alone in my Foreign Service career.
The second person I ever refused a visa was a kindly woman who closely resembled my grandmother; when I refused her visa, she broke down in tears and begged me to give her a chance. Refusing her was one of the worst moments I’ve experienced in my Foreign Service career, and possibly in my life. Similarly, I had a woman faint right in front of me when I told her that I would not give her a visa. She just lay there on the floor, in front of God and the whole waiting room, while I stood over her and looked at her through the glass. The whole waiting room, filled with nervous applicants, stared at me. We called an ambulance, and my boss told me to keep interviewing – such is the numbers crush in our visa issuing posts. I can assure you that nobody messed with me the rest of the day.
If there is one thing I learned from all of this it is the following: I (along with all of my fellow Americans) am unbelievably lucky to have been born where I was, to have had the opportunities I’ve had. And there is no way that I will ever take that for granted again. As a visa officer these things are thrown into such stark relief that you can’t help but notice them – they simply strike you in the face again and again. That in and of itself is worth the time spent on “the line.”
I’m not doing visa work right now, and my ongoing assignment is going to take me in a different direction entirely, but I’ll always be grateful for the visa work I’ve done in the past. I’ll probably go back to it at some point in the future because, as difficult as it can be, it is of crucial importance, and a very good crucible in which to hone one’s skills. Nothing focuses the mind like pressure, after all.