A life of service
Coursework I took as part of Cal Lutheran’' MPPA program helped me realize it was time to pursue my dream of becoming a diplomat.
In 2018, I received an email that would change my life: It was an offer to begin working as a diplomat for the U.S. Department of State.
The Department of State is an executive branch of the federal government that focuses on diplomatic international relations and foreign policy. Usually when people think about it, they think of U.S. embassies abroad that help Americans with lost passports. Often, the perception of diplomats is that they spend their time at fancy luncheons or cocktail parties in their black-tie apparel. I can tell you that both perceptions are true — there are black-tie events, and we do help with lost passports. However, there is much more to what the Department of State does. It is hard work; in fact, I have never worked harder at any other job in my life, and I have never been prouder to serve my fellow Americans.
On the day I received my offer letter, I had been working in the auto industry for over 15 years. I was a business consultant who helped dealerships improve profitability through analysis of many different metrics and observations. I was proud of the work and the relationships I had built.
It was during this time that I enrolled at Cal Lutheran in the Master of Public Policy and Administration program. While working full time, I took a couple of courses each semester and found that I loved the subjects. I particularly was interested in how policy affects people, and I was fascinated with how government, as the vessel for policy, could significantly impact lives. I realized that something was missing from my life: service. Before I worked in the auto industry, I served in the Air Force for seven years, and it was important for me to feel like I was making a difference on a grander scale. My three children were adults, so it seemed the perfect time to pursue my dream of being a diplomat.
The goal of the Department of State “is to shape a freer, more secure, and more prosperous world through formulating and implementing the president’s foreign policy, while supporting and protecting American interests abroad.” With 270 diplomatic locations around the world, the work we do varies by location and by job.
When I started the recruitment process, I chose management as my career track. All incoming foreign service officers choose a career track into which they would like to be hired: consular, economic, political, management or public diplomacy. There also are options for specialists, who are hired for their expertise in facility management, information technology, office management and more. I chose management as it seemed to match my skills as a business consultant. The hiring process is complex and long. It starts with a computerized test that covers myriad subjects like history, current events and grammar. Those who pass are invited to write a series of essays describing their leadership skills using examples and stories. Those who pass that step are invited to an oral assessment in Washington, D.C. The oral assessment is a full-day interview.
On the day of my interview, I was one of two people who received conditional offers of employment pending the passage of physical exams and background investigations. After that, you are sorted by score and placed on a hiring register. If you are not called up, you may expire off the register and must start the process over from the beginning. The process requires patience: Most people who get hired try several times to pass all the steps.
After I was hired, I joined a group of 85 colleagues from all walks of life — interesting people who had lived extraordinary lives. We began our introduction into how the Department of State works with eight weeks of classes that included how to answer interrogations by reporters and how to give speeches. It was an exhausting yet invigorating time. It was my first time living on the East Coast, and I enjoyed brunches, sightseeing and going to museums in Washington, D.C.
At the end of the eight weeks, we attended a ceremony called Flag Day, at which we learned where our first assignments would be. I was surprised to learn I would be the general service officer at a post in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in West Africa. It was a place I had never heard of. I also was told I would need to learn French to a professional level, since Mauritania was a former French colony.
For almost a year, I studied French for six hours a day in a small group setting with colleagues headed to other French-speaking countries. I always loved languages and was excited to learn. The intensive language training was much more difficult than I thought it would be. Each day there were classes, conversation coaches, pronunciation practice and lots of homework. I lived French 24 hours a day! I was excited to finally pass my course, pack up my dog, Luna, and fly to Mauritania.
Nouakchott, the capital, is a large, rambling city in the Sahara Desert. The country is an Islamic republic with a newly elected president who was the first president elected in a “free and fair election.” The women wear melhfas, traditional coverings for modesty. The men wear flowing gowns in white or light blue called boubous. I dress as an American; I try to keep my hemlines below the knee. The people in Mauritania are the most welcoming people I have ever met, and I often am flagged down as I walk by and asked to enjoy Mauritanian tea by complete strangers.
I handle logistics at the embassy, from housing to motor pools, and I supervise 65 locally employed staff members. It is the most challenging job I have ever had. As my time in Mauritania comes to an end, I’ve learned my next post will be in Amsterdam. It is a bittersweet time; I will miss Mauritania but look forward to something new.
My time at Cal Lutheran helped me get to this point and I am grateful for that. I learned so much, and professors helped me directly and indirectly along my journey. I am proud to be a steward of the taxpayers’ money and proud every day to serve my country, but I am almost as proud to be a Cal Lutheran alumna. I welcome questions and I’m happy to mentor anyone interested in this career path.
Ana M. Garrett is a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, serving at the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in West Africa. She can be reached through LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ana-g-07892439.