Last summer I received a letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell inviting me to be “The Face of the U.S. to the World,” as the letterhead read. Congratulating me on my performance on the Foreign Service written exam, he invited me to participate in the oral assessment in Washington, D.C. in November.
So on the day before Thanksgiving, I walked into the lobby of the U.S. Department of State where I was greeted by my fellow test-takers — a seated row of middle-aged men, silently watching CNN. Bearing a panicked smile, I nodded hello.
“Are you going to be taking us upstairs?” one of them asked me.
I laughed at what I thought was a clever joke. He was being sarcastic — as the only female there, I must have been the secretary. Yet I was the only one laughing. They were serious. And just as I was about to introduce myself as the competition, the actual secretary entered the lobby. Her shrill voice cut through the intimidating atmosphere of double-breasted suits and matching peacoats.
“You all made it! And they cloned you, too! You’re all the same color!” She caught the fear emanating from my trembling legs. “Except, of course, you. You go, sister.”
I ran through the possibilities for escape in my head — I could pretend to faint, or maybe just run without explanation. The truth was that the State Department had already rejected me once before. Last December, I received an internship at the Embassy in San Salvador. Yet in May, four weeks before my internship was to begin, I received phone messages regarding my “foreign-born relatives” and “extensive travel overseas.” When I told my parents about the calls, they were impressed by what they perceived as my friends’ witty pranks. “Foreign-born relatives?” my mother said incredulously, “people from the government don’t talk like that.”
Unfortunately, my mother was wrong. The calls were from an actual State Department investigator who I met outside of Au Bon Pain last May. After asking about my grandparents’ places of birth, the dates they left Pakistan during the Partition, my parents’ U.S. citizenship, and my own “extensive travels,” he told me that my security clearance would be rescinded, and that I should arrange alternate plans for the summer. It turned out that the “people from the government” actually do “talk like that.”
After that encounter, I never saw myself working for the U.S. government. Yet when I received the letter from Secretary Powell in July, I was curious. With anti-Americanism on the rise, I wanted to know how the government was conducting its selection of the next generation of U.S. diplomats. And I thought my experience would make a good story.
The first part of the exam required us to give presentations on projects that the fictional U.S. embassy in the fictional country of Banguro could fictionally fund. Beginning my presentation, I found myself discussing the inadequacies of microcredit in the war-torn country of Banguro and the need to promote U.S. corporate interests in the region. Just as I was about to discuss the need for the Embassy to detach itself from the country’s “Socialist Party and Indoctrination Center,” the words couldn’t come out. I knew that if I opened my mouth again, the laughter that was growing inside of me would explode and echo throughout the room’s sterile walls. Taking a chance, I continued, but my fear came true. Before I could do anything about it, I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of my current situation. Regaining my composure, I just stopped talking. And in the most dignified way possible, I walked back to my seat.
As expected, I failed the oral exam — miserably. And that makes me inexplicably distraught. I know I never want to work for an administration that quashed my summer plans because I’m brown. And I know that my conscience would never allow me to promote U.S. corporate interests, rather than local needs, in war-torn countries.
My failure is upsetting because part of me wanted to work for the State Department. And part of me wants anyone who has ever attended a Yale Peace Coalition meeting, or an anti-war rally to work for the State Department as well. There’s a frightening divide taking place in our generation in which those who question government policies are also those who shun government service. Working for the government was once considered a form of public service. Yet when I told my socially-conscious peers that I was interviewing for a position with the State Department, the looks I received in return were more disapproving than those I probably would have received had I told them that I was going to be an investment banker or a consultant.
Our generation certainly needs to continue putting pressure on the U.S. government from the outside. But we also need those same questioning individuals to create change from within. I didn’t take the trip to Washington, D.C. just so I would have a story to tell. I took the Foreign Service exam because, although I did not want to admit it, my idealism impelled me from the rallies at which my views ran contrary to U.S. foreign policy to a place where I hoped my critical opinions could have an impact. My reasons for taking the exam were probably more idealistic than my motives for going to New York last spring to rally against the war in Iraq. I just hope that the other young, optimistic foreign service candidates were able to get through their presentations on Banguro with a bit more poise and diplomacy than I was.
Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.