August 30, 2017 | By Alina Holmstrom
My job was to cry. I was to go up to the nearest foreign service officer and start bawling uncontrollably about my dying brother in the United States who I had to see just one last time. The officer's job? To decide whether or not to approve my visa.
Working at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Virginia, was nothing like I had expected. Previously, I had spent my summers working in the U.S. Consulate General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My time there was spent helping U.S. citizens who had lost their passports or taking the fingerprints of visa applicants. This summer, I decided to follow my passion for diplomacy by interning with the FSI at the State Department's training center.
I worked in the Consular Training Division, which prepares foreign service officers to adjudicate visas and help U.S. citizens who run into problems in foreign countries. Having been part of a consular section overseas, I was excited to be able to see where it all begins. It surpassed my expectations considerably.
I assumed that the training would look like university classes (officers call FSI the “College,” after all), and to an extent they did. But integrated into the course are roleplays in which officers practice how to adjudicate visas and offer services to Americans in distress in a realistic setting. I played several different characters, ranging from an international pop star to a store clerk whose brother was gravely ill. The idea is that it does not matter who the customer is, officers must abide by the law and grant services accordingly.
The course also uses games such as Taboo and Pictionary to facilitate efficient learning. There is method to the madness: retention of difficult material such as U.S. immigration law is maximized when the material is presented in a fun and engaging way.
The largest project I took on at FSI was redesigning our crisis management module. I read the feedback given by all the diplomatic posts abroad that had completed a crisis management exercise (a simulation in which embassy/consulate personnel discuss how they would react to a specific crisis happening in the region, ranging from a hurricane to a terrorist attack) in 2017. I noted the similarities and differences between each post's experience, identifying regional and individual trends then creating ideas on how our exercise could better prepare officers for actual crises
This was an interesting task for me as I had faced a crisis myself on the consulate compound in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia when a bomber detonated his suicide belt outside the walls of our compound. I was able to relate this experience to the experiences that posts abroad had with their simulations. This in turn led to more efficient targeting of technical issues such as reduced communication, and the personal issues such as worrying about family members who are unaware of haven locations. While my experience was petrifying at the time, it ultimately provided me with a unique and relevant perspective that enabled me to present meaningful feedback for our course.
As someone who wants to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, the opportunity to spend a summer at FSI interacting with officers, participating in classes, and creating curriculum materials constituted an unforgettable experience that will enrich my studies and my future career. Albion College and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service have helped me along the way by allowing me to pursue my passion for foreign policy and public service through individualized, challenging courses, and amazing opportunities that I wouldn't have anywhere else. Combining this with my summer experiences, I will have all the tools I need to achieve my goals.