Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Consular Fellows Program and the game of registering your car in Virginia

I have been meaning to write about the Consular Fellows Program (formerly the not-so-elegantly named Limited Non-Career Appointments, or LNAs as they are still popularly known) for a long time. Rejoice for today is the day! So, what is this program thing, you ask?

Well, essentially, the State Department has finally realized that visa demand in certain countries, affectionately known as “visa mills,” will just not slow down and will keep growing, while at the same time there can never be enough foreign service officers to tackle that demand. They did hire a whole bunch of us about 5 years ago (also know as “the surge”), which dealt with the immediate need for entry-level visa officers, but only resulted in a glut of us once we got promoted and started moving into the mid-level ranks. So, in a stroke of genius, rather than continue the surge, the Department instead began hiring smart folks who speak key languages in countries with high visa demand, for 4 to 5 year gigs as visa officers. The initial program proved to be so successful that now it expanded to hire speakers of languages like French and Russian. Thusly, currently, DOS is recruiting awesome smart people who can speak any of these: Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and French and are curious about living and working overseas for a few years. Check the recruiting schedule here: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/consular-fellows.

For the duration of their contract, the Fellows are treated 100% like Foreign Service officers - they get trained in the supercool (not) Foreign Service Institute, get the dip passport, the paid housing, the consular immunity, their kids can attend private schools in that country, they get perks like student loan forgiveness, the usual health insurance and so on. In exchange - you get to do visa interviews and deal with American citizens overseas, or whatever other fun activities a consular section can throw at you. Depending on where you are, you can even go for a short period of time to a different embassy to help them out if they have a staff shortage (also called a TDY, or a temporary duty assignment). All of my LNA colleagues in Brazil got to go on at least one, if not more TDYs during their tours, to places like Jamaica, Cuba, Chile, Peru, China, you name it.

As the name of the program cleverly suggests, this is a limited gig only. The original contract is for 4 years, and you can extend for a 5th year, which almost everyone does. This is not a shortcut into the Foreign Service (although you’d think it would be?!) and after finishing, people go on to bigger and better things in life. Since I have not done the exam myself, I can’t really speak to it, but my understanding is that once your language proficiency is established, you will then go to an Oral Assessment exam, which is quite rigorous and resembles the FS one. Here is pretty good info on the way the exam is structured with some great examples. After that is all said and done, you will go through the exasperating and excruciating security clearance process, and if by then you haven’t given up, you’ll be ready to ship your life overseas for the next 4 years. All of your immediate family gets to go with you (unless you don’t want them to, which um, well, is your own problem, really). I have been asked many times on this blog whether I recommend the program and I cannot say YES with more conviction. I think it is an awesome gig, especially if you are fresh out of college, happen to speak quite good Mandarin and want to see if the whole living overseas thing is for you, or you really need to live close to Target, be able to call your aunt without international charges and have hairdressers actually understand how you want your hair cut.

In other news, we have finally managed to register our car in the great state of Virginia, no matter how much they tried to make us NOT to. Who knew that trying to register your car and actually driving it legally in the state of Virginia, in the county of Arlington, was tantamount to winning Survivor - full of hidden obstacles, pure endurance and Catch-22 challenges. The car arrived on a hot Wednesday afternoon, delivered by a 6’11” giant and his colleague. It was so filthy, you’d think they’ve used it in the mines for a week before they brought it back to us. In the remarks from the U.S. Customs, it was (possibly sarcastically) written - “Very dirty!” It sure was.

That same afternoon, rather naively I might add, the DIplomat and I went to the nearby DMV to register it. We only had the few customs forms sent to us from the Transportation Office at the State Department, essentially stating that this car is coming back to the US from Brazil and is in compliance with whatever obscure environmental standards there are. After staying in line for only 34 minutes, we presented ourselves, breathless with excitement, at the check-in desk at the DMV where a surly and officiant employee listened to our request to register the car that same day in disbelief, looked through our documents and asked us (fairly enough) for the title to it (since our car had never been registered in VA before, they had no record of it). We did not have it. What is worse, we did not know where it was. We looked guilty. We were clueless. We were poor excuses for car owners. We probably did not deserve to own a car. Until I remembered that when we were leaving FOR Brazil, I had to give a copy to the Transportation Office in order to ship it. The title was with the lender (the car is still not paid off) and I actually had the copy in my email. With some flair for good measure, I triumphantly waved the phone in her face, showing her the title. She couldn’t have been any less impressed. With a steel look in her eyes, she barked - “I need the original” and our little hearts sank.

We began to call frantically our lender to see if they would somehow agree to mail the DMV our title. Like, tomorrow morning, if possible. The lender pretended they did not understand for a while what we were talking about. Then they told us that we need to send them a formal request to send our title. We paid an unreasonable amount of money to fedex overnight such a request (a one page paper that could have easily be scanned and emailed). Two days passed in nail biting anticipation and when nothing happened, we called them again. They pleaded utter ignorance. Then they promised to overnight us the title after all if we paid for the mailing charges. Naturally, we did (interesting fact - overnight Fedex is expensive). Two days later, after I ripped the crisp fedex envelope apart, I stared in disbelief at a letter from BMW Financial Services, cheerfully listing the registration requirements for the state of Virginia, along with a form letter for us to fill out, requesting our title. Not the title itself. Not even a teensy little copy of it. Or maybe a teaser picture, you know, like proof of life with kidnapped people. I cannot tell you why the contents of the expensive fedex package could not have been e-mailed to us to save us 1) time, 2) money, 3) many expletives. Considerably pissed off, we called them back and after some yelling, the clerk sheepishly told us that actually, they do not have our title after all. Nope, never had it, not even for a moment. Turns out, the state of NY (where the car was previously registered) has our precious car title.

At this point, about 10 days had already passed from the day the car arrived. In the meantime, I managed to get car insurance, get it through inspection and do all kinds of other required things. So, when the Diplomat called the NY DMV and asked them to transfer the title to VA, which they did instantly, you’ll have to understand his unbridled enthusiasm going to the DMV 3 days later, reams of papers in his hands, ready to drive off with a freshly registered vehicle. After a minor snag, where he was sent back home to retrieve more documents after a testy exchange with yet another indignant DMV clerk, it all went fine and miraculously, at the end of the day we had a brand-spanking new VA-registered vehicle! Which was good, since we had been renting a car for over 2 weeks by then, which was yet another expensive element in the whole coming-back-to-America experience. Not a second too late, we received a letter from Arlington county to tell us that we owed them money for a (very classy) Arlington county decal because they have noticed that we “garage” our car frequently in the county, as well as some awesome car taxes. Now I am just waiting for our street association as well as the block community to shake me down for some more cash for more cool decals allowing me to “garage” my car in front of my own house. Welcome back to America!