by Elizabeth Krijgsman
Full disclosure: the Foreign Service was not my first choice of career.
I was in college back in the Dark Ages when unmarried women’s business cards said “Miss,” women were called “girls,” and pantyhose hadn’t yet been invented. When it dawned on me that I might not be getting married right after graduation, I began to think seriously about what kind of career I wanted. I decided that it would ideally involve a lot of free time. It would of course pay well. And I thought it would be very nice if it involved travel to exotic places. Being fond of indoor plumbing and not fond of physical labor, I immediately eliminated the Peace Corps as a possibility.
During the summer after my junior year in college, I realized—I should become a Diplomatic Courier! Lots of down time on airplanes. Constant travel to those exotic locales. Staying in luxury hotels. Decent pay. And almost no actual work!
The Internet had not yet been invented, so it took quite a lot of effort to track down the telephone number of the Courier Service. But I managed to do so and phoned them to find out how to apply. I spoke with a man who was, I now realize, much nicer and more patient with me than he might have been.
Me: “How do I apply to become a Diplomatic Courier?”
Him: “Well, first of all, you would have to meet the requirements.”
Me: “What are the requirements?”
Him: “One, you have to be a college graduate.”
Me: “I’ll graduate next year!”
Him: “Two, you have to be twenty-five years of age.”
Me: “Oh.” (Oh well, I thought, I can do something else for a few years in the meantime.)
Him: “And three, you have to be a man.”
Me: “That’s discriminatory! You can’t require that!”
Him: “Miss, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking of the briefcase chained to the wrist, like in the movies, right?”
Him: “Miss, the diplomatic pouch is actually a large duffel bag. It probably stands taller than you do, and it generally weighs a minimum of forty-five pounds. You come on down here, and if you can lift and carry two of them at once, we might reconsider.”
Me: “Thank you for your time.”
In those days I only weighed 105 pounds myself, so that was the end of my dream of being a Diplomatic Courier.
I sulked for a while. Then I realized that becoming a Foreign Service Officer might have even more of what I was looking for in a career: I would travel less, but I would live in beautiful foreign capitals. I would be important and respected. The pay would be better. There would be better opportunities for advancement. I would have a diplomatic passport, and a car with diplomatic plates. I would hobnob with heads of state—why, I might even hobnob with royalty! I would have a housing allowance, and a lovely house in the best part of the city. I would have a cook-maid or a houseman—I might have a chauffeur—I might have a staff of servants!
The only down side was that I would probably have to actually work. And first, of course, I’d have to get in.
Once I had made the decision, I announced it to my parents.
Me: “I’ve decided to join the Foreign Service!”
Mom: “That’s wonderful, dear!”
Dad: “Don’t you have to take an exam?”
Me: “Yes, several. I’ll take the written exam in December. Then there’s a—”
Dad: “Don’t you think it might be helpful if you had taken some history, or some political science, or some economics, or any courses that might help you pass the written exam?”
Me: “I took a history course! Besides, you always say that college is not a trade school!”
Dad: “Yes, but if you want to pass the exam, it would be helpful if you had some background in something other than French literature.”
Me: “I do—English Renaissance literature. And history—”
Dad: “One history course.”
Me [ignoring that]: “And, uh, geology. And some Italian, don’t forget. Languages are very important in the Foreign Service!”
Dad: [throws up hands and leaves the room]
Mom: “I’m sure you’ll do fine, dear.”
My courses were already set for my senior year, and I had no desire to try to make any changes. Besides, the exam would be given in early December, and how much could I learn about political science or economics in just a couple of months?
In December, I took the most difficult standardized test I had ever seen in my life. The first section looked like this:
Question 1. Which of the following were direct results of the Congress of Vienna?
I. Obscure fact about a country that I think no longer exists.
II. Obscure fact about a person I have never heard of.
III. Treaty I know nothing about.
IV. Economic situation I do not understand.
V. Yet another obscure fact.
A. I and III above.
B. II, III, and IV above.
C. II, IV, and V above.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.
There were also maps with the names of the countries omitted. I have very little memory of anything about that section except sheer terror.
The next section was more up my alley—grammar, usage, punctuation, and vocabulary. There was also a section for which one had to write a cogent report based on a list of random facts. I probably did very well on that part, having written a minimum of sixteen lengthy papers a year for the previous three years.
As you no doubt know, grading of the written exam was (and probably still is) done on a sliding scale, depending on how many people the Foreign Service wishes to recruit at that moment. In my year, they wanted 200 serious candidates, which meant that they slid the scale to give 2,000 of the test-takers a passing score.
I received the lowest possible passing score.
But somehow, miraculously, I did pass!
Of course I realized that my father was right: I hadn’t really qualified myself for the Foreign Service. And even after I’d heard that I’d passed the written exam, I was extremely worried about the oral. I knew that the sensible course of action was to have a fallback position.
Many of my classmates were taking the Civil Service exam—
(Before you dismiss this as a fairytale, I assure you that in those days there was actually a mandatory Civil Service exam for administrative careers in all government departments. This is apparently no longer the case for every position, although there are still tests for clerical jobs—and believe it or not, they actually still include a test of typing proficiency. Really. You can google it.)
—some because they wanted to work for the government, and many as a fallback position. I thought that if I didn’t get into the Foreign Service, it wouldn’t be too bad to be working in Washington; I could keep living at home and save most of what I earned. I might even get to hobnob with Cabinet Secretaries and members of Congress.
So along with many of my classmates, I took the Civil Service exam, which compared to the Foreign Service exam was a walk in the park. Like most of my classmates, I totally aced it.
Perhaps in emulation of the Foreign Service, the Civil Service at that time also required applicants for administrative careers to take an oral exam. (I swear I am not making this up.)
Three of my classmates, all women, took their Civil Service orals before I did and not only passed but totally breezed through—piece of cake, they said. Easy questions, they said. Nothing to it, they said. So I confidently went in for mine.
I was confronted with three elderly white-haired gentlemen with paunches, sour expressions, and dark suits, who had no doubt all had long and honorable careers as senior Civil Service administrators.
They were confronted, I now realize, with a female person who at that point and for several more years could pass as, and was often mistaken for, a high school student. This impression was reinforced by my height of five feet two and by what I’ll refer to as a lack of gravitas. (On my first efficiency report, my supervisor described me as “bubbly.” I don’t think it was a compliment.)
I couldn’t get a smile out of any of them, and very little eye contact. I had been raised to believe that it was a lady’s duty to make everyone feel comfortable in all social situations, and I tried to be friendly. I honestly had no idea why they weren’t responding.
They asked questions. I answered them, easily and confidently and, I’m positive, correctly. I couldn’t understand why they seemed to be growing more and more antagonistic.
None of the questions were at all difficult. None of them even gave me pause, until—
One of them looked at me over his glasses and asked, “Tell me, Miss, do you feel confident that you would be able to supervise a group of men?”
“Of course!” I said.[What follows is a direct quote, not embellished or exaggerated in any way. I know I’m remembering it accurately—I will never forget it.]
“Ah,” he answered, nodding his head in satisfaction and producing a tiny smile. “So you see yourself as a Simon Legree.”
I have the dubious distinction of being the only person I have ever known who failed the Civil Service oral exam. I told my friends, the ones who had passed their orals, what had happened. They had all had different examiners, and they had a lot of trouble believing me—I’m not even sure that they did.
The shame, the humiliation…
Plus, now I had no fallback position.
And I had a brand-new worry about the Foreign Service oral exam. Not only was I a little shaky on history, economics, political science, and so on, it was also highly improbable that I would be able to grow taller or more mature-looking or to become a man before I took it.
In due course I passed both the background check and the physical and was given a date and time to report for my oral.
Though, to my relief, the Foreign Service examiners were a friendly group who made eye contact and didn’t seem to disapprove of me instantly, they did appear inordinately interested in my love life.
“Are you engaged?”
“Are you planning on getting engaged?”
“Do you have a steady boyfriend?”
“You’re not married, are you?”
“Are you planning to get married someday?”
“Not planning. But I suppose I will eventually. Um, why?”
“A Foreign Service officer must be available for worldwide service. A wife can follow her husband to his postings anywhere in the world, but one couldn’t expect a man to give up his job to go with his wife to some foreign country.”
Well, when you put it that way…
They then asked me why I wanted to join the Foreign Service. I judiciously refrained from mentioning my preference for the Courier Service and talked instead about my eagerness to serve my country and my love of travel.
“Why not join the Peace Corps?”
The Peace Corps was new and shiny, not even a decade old at that point, and many of my friends and classmates were considering it, so it was a supremely logical question.
Phrases such as “staff of servants” and “hobnobbing with royalty” passed through my mind and were rejected. I squirmed on my chair and finally blurted out the simplest version of the truth: “I don’t want to live in a hut!”
I didn’t know it then, but among themselves, Foreign Service officers referred to members of the Peace Corps as “mud hutters.” So I guess that answer was a point in my favor.
There followed an exciting few minutes during which they called out the name of a famous woman and I had to identify her in a few words:
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
“Lewis and Clark.”
You get the idea. Luckily I have a magpie memory and was not stumped by any of the names they threw at me.
“I see you were born in Missouri,” one of them remarked. And they embarked on a series of questions about Harry Truman, who, you will remember, was also born in Missouri.
Serendipitously, the week before the oral, I had checked a U.S. history textbook out of the library and read it—my concession to the fact that I really didn’t know anything I needed to know. Even more serendipitously, the textbook ended with the conclusion of the Second World War, so that was the section I’d just finished reading.
Thus for a day or two, a period coinciding with my oral, I knew quite a lot about Harry Truman. Except that I somehow forgot that he was the one who had ordered the bombing of Hiroshima…
Eventually they stopped asking questions and began making disheartening remarks:
“We’ll get you trained and teach you a language, and you’ll probably meet someone immediately and get married.”
“It would be hard to send you to Latin America—or any number of other countries. Your government contact there—instead of taking you seriously as a United States diplomat, he might tend to pinch your bottom!”
I was unable to come up with suitable ripostes.
They finally sent me out to the waiting room while they conferred. I had been told that the wait to hear their decision would be maybe five minutes max.
After five minutes, I was still waiting, so I picked up the newspaper that a previous candidate had left. I turned pages, found that I was unable to concentrate, and put it down again, only to discover that the newsprint had come off all over my damp palms.
I was afraid to go to the ladies’ room to wash my hands. What if they came back and I wasn’t there? I managed to clean up, more or less, with spit and a tissue.
Time passed. I was afraid to touch the newspaper again. Having been told that the wait would be extremely brief, I hadn’t thought to bring a book. I sat and waited, getting more and more nervous and discouraged and wondering what in the world was taking so long.
Do you know or have you ever heard of anyone else who had to wait more than twenty minutes to hear whether she had passed her oral? Now you have.
Eventually they invited me back in. They seemed as bewildered as I was when they told me I’d passed, and the head of the panel made a point of suggesting that, while I waited for my classes at the Foreign Service Institute to start, I would do well to read an economics textbook or two, and some political theory, and maybe some more history… And then they congratulated me.
And no, I still haven’t the faintest idea why they let me in.
Elizabeth Krijgsman entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1967. Upon her marriage at her first post of duty in Amsterdam, she was compelled to resign. She was the managing editor of the international journal LINGUISTICS from 1986 to 2003. Born in Missouri to a U.S. Army family, she lived in a number of locales growing up. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. After 36 years in The Netherlands, she and her husband retired and relocated to North Carolina.