Back in the spring of 1968 I had a big job interview — the oral portion of the U.S. Foreign Service exam. It was a long shot, and I was not expecting to pass. Still, I hoped I’d succeed, since work as a U.S. diplomat in embassies and consulates around the world would give me the long-dreamed-of opportunity to work and experience life in other countries.
Most of what follows is a recounting of how I came to this point in life. But before I return to the background, let me jump to the end — almost — and tell you that I did pass the oral exam, the “job interview.”
The point of this story, though, is how I did it. While passing felt like a miracle at the time, I now understand what made that miracle happen: I was not nervous or anxious. Quite the contrary, I was completely relaxed and at ease. Still, when the three Foreign Service officers on the interview panel came out of their conference room1 and congratulated me, I was shocked.
Now back to my story, which will conclude with my secret to relaxing in a high-stress situation like this.
I had been interested in what was happening outside my own country since grade school. When I began reading the New York Times regularly at age 12 (seventh grade, 1956–57), I was fascinated by reports from around the globe, especially about wars and the dictatorships and poverty that afflicted so much of the developing world.
In late 1956 I watched the Suez war and, nearly simultaneously, the Soviet Union’s crushing of the uprising in Hungary.2 I also followed the 1958 popular uprising that overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in Venezuela. I read reports on the progress of Fidel Castro’s guerillas, intent on overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. I read about the developing war in Vietnam and the three-sided civil war in neighboring Laos. I followed the end of European colonialism and kept hoping to see signs of economic growth in the newly independent developing nations, mainly in Africa.
Later, in college, I majored in Soviet Area Studies and became utterly fascinated by the history of Russia. Throughout my years studying that country — and especially the horrific government of the USSR, particularly in the Stalin years, when the Communist regime’s bloody cruelty truly rivaled that of Nazi Germany — I wondered what sort of career I might follow that would allow me to learn even more about that country. I thought it would be an incomparable experience to live and work there, perhaps as a journalist or a diplomat.
So, in 1967–68, as the end of my two-year master’s degree program in Soviet Area Studies approached, I submitted two applications — one to join the Peace Corps and another to take the Foreign Service exam.
Peace Corps application
The Peace Corp application process, as I recall it, involved filling out a long form, explaining what drew me to Peace Corps service, and saying where I might like to go and what sort of work I wanted to do. I said I’d go pretty much anywhere, except that I wanted to work in the countryside in some capacity3 — on the front lines of Third World development — and not be stuck in a university teaching English (where I feared the Peace Corps might be tempted to assign me in light of the great education I’d been lucky to experience). The countryside, I believed, was where I could see the Third World up close and perhaps make a small difference in the lives of some of the people who lived there.
After a few months, I got a letter inviting me to join a training program for volunteers who, if they were found to be qualified, would be sent to India to work with wheat farmers. If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you know I completed the training (many were asked to leave training early, after being judged unlikely to succeed in a Third World environment). So, having been accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer, I flew off with the rest of my group (India 55) and lived and worked for two years in the village of Rajnagar, in Madhya Pradesh (Central State).
Foreign Service exam
Earlier in my final academic year (1967–68) I had also taken the written portion of the Foreign Service exam, which was similar to the SAT/College Boards but which also presented an essay question. I don’t recall the statistics, but that exam was widely regarded as a hurdle that would greatly narrow the field of applicants. (I’m confident the odds of passing the exam are even lower today than they were back then.) I’ve always been a good test-taker, however, so while I was delighted to learn I’d passed, I was not entirely surprised. However, the oral exam now loomed and it had a fearsome reputation. That was the hurdle I did not expect to clear.
The thought that particularly intimidated me was the likelihood that I’d be asked about my familiarity with American literature — a distinct shortcoming resulting from my having taken so many courses about Russia that I’d neglected to explore widely outside my major, something I continue to regret. I expected to be asked about my favorite American writers or something along those lines because when I applied to the Foreign Service I had to indicate where, more precisely, I’d like to work if accepted. The four choices: in the State Department’s political, economic or administrative “cones” (what a weird word!) or in the U.S. Information Agency. I picked the USIA for several reasons but mainly because serving in a press or cultural attache’s office meant I’d be working to provide information about the United States to foreign audiences interested in American society and policy.
I felt reasonably confident about being able to discuss these topics with the oral exam panel (three senior USIA Foreign Service officers), but I knew my Achilles’ heel was American literature. All the literature I’d read in college was by Russian writers. Yet if I were to be considered fit to work in a cultural attache’s office, I couldn’t be seen as unfamiliar with my own country’s most notable authors.
So I went into the interview hoping that somehow the topic would not come up.
My hopes were dashed almost as soon as the interview began. One of the interviewers asked about some aspect of American literature to which I could not offer an intelligent response.
Want to know how this impossible situation got turned around? I’ll finish the story in next week’s post.
- The interview took place at the U.S. Mission to the UN, in New York City. It happened in the middle of what is probably the most amazing three-day run in my life. On Day One I got my master’s degree from Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass. The oral exam for the Foreign Service took place in New York on Day Two. On Day Three I flew to California to begin Peace Corps training in the little town of Hemet.
- Early the next year, a boy who had escaped Hungary with his family came to our community in New Jersey and became a grade school classmate, even though, at the beginning, he knew no English.
- I had an image in my head of tramping through a jungle somewhere, a tank of insecticide on my back, spraying mosquitoes and helping eradicate malaria.