November 2, 1998
Volume 51, No. 10
Rivadeneira finds value in even smallest foreign 'service'
Waking up at 5:30 every summer morning is not a happy scene. However, knowing that hundreds of American citizens living overseas depend on the information you provide encourages you to sacrifice one or two hours of sleep. Until the morning of Aug. 7, I was unaware of what my work in Washington meant to the Department of State.
As soon as I walked into my office early that morning, my boss requested that I immediately search for the names, phone numbers and addresses of the student interns working at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The news of the embassy bombings struck me so much that I could not even believe my next assignment consisted of contacting those students and making sure they were all right. For the first time in my life, a tragedy of this magnitude felt very close to home.
I sat at my desk trembling and hoping that whatever news I received was encouraging. In just a matter of minutes, several thoughts went through my mind. I did not know what to think: were these people alive? Injured? Dead?
At the other end of the receiver, the distant voice of a consular officer answered all my inquiries. To my relief, the two students in Kenya were in good condition, and the intern in Tanzania received only minor injuries. The next five to 10 minutes after my conversation were devoted to writing a "speedy" report to the Operations Center, the Department of State's 24-hour watch. They in turn notified the students' families and reassured them all three were to return home in a matter of weeks.
The morning of Aug. 7 summarizes what Foreign Service officers (FSOs) have to go through on a daily basis.
It is a common misconception to associate the word "diplomat" with elegant dinners, glamorous lives and pompous meetings with foreign government officials. These images tend to overshadow the work of many FSOs and fail to portray the whole range of their responsibilities. In reality it is service for one's country that drives these individuals to work overseas and promote American interests.
By way of illustration, a consular officer's primary role is to protect the interests of American citizens who travel or reside abroad, adjudicate visa applications and monitor migration issues of interest to the U.S. government. Economic officers concentrate on matters such as money and banking, trade and commerce, communication and transportation, and economic development. Moreover, economic officers deal with environmental, scientific and technology issues such as ocean fisheries, cooperation in space, acid rain, global warming, population and health. In the same manner, a political officer's primary responsibility is to follow political events within the host country and report significant events to the secretary and other State Department officials.
During disasters, for instance, FSOs are most often the principal coordinators of U.S. assistance efforts on behalf of victims and the evacuation of American citizens and protection of their welfare and property.
At a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the embassy bombings, part of the discussion centered on the issue of educating Americans, and particularly Congress, about the Foreign Service. It was there that she said, "I pledge to do all I can as Secretary of State to remind the American people of the importance of the work that you do day in and day out on their behalf, and to remind them as well of the hardships and dangers. You are America's best. And you who are Foreign Service nationals work side by side with us for a world that is more peaceful, prosperous, lawful and free."
This meeting had an enormous impact on me. In only 40 minutes I learned that a career as a Foreign Service officer demands sacrifice and challenge. Following Secretary Albright's remarks, I also was encouraged to do what she did that day: to educate more people about the Foreign Service.
We all need to understand that our foreign policy is not conducted solely by nations or institutions but by people who take pride in representing America abroad. Working at the Department of State allowed me to see the world in broader terms. Not only was meeting Secretary Albright a gratifying experience, but the feeling of making a difference and serving others helped me realize that, indeed, the Foreign Service is the most interesting work-in the world.
Shirley Rivadeneira is a senior majoring in international studies.