Each month, The Sun magazine offers fiction, poetry, essays, interviews, and photos in a black-and-white format without advertising. Each issue includes provocative ideas from people of science, religion, philosophy, the arts, or a combination. Each issue also includes Readers Write, a feature compiling nonfiction submissions from the magazine’s readers on an intentionally broad topic. Occasionally I submit pieces for consideration. More often, I write essays on the topics too late to submit them.
This piece should have been submitted by June 1, 2016, for consideration for the December 2016 issue.
I feel it appropriate that I begin this series with an assignment I could have completed by the deadline, if I had been paying attention.
Back in 1965, my 12th grade English teacher, Miss Buslee, assigned a research paper to my class. We were all considered college-bound, so the assignment made a lot of sense. The topic of the research paper was careers. I have always thought it was a brilliant topic.
But at that time, it was easier for me to list what I didn’t consider interesting or possible than to figure out what interested me. For example, I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse. Like most eighth grade girls, I had then declared I wanted to be a nurse. But after a six-week stint as a candy-striper at a nursing home, I knew nursing was not for me. And though the idea of being a stewardess had been high on my list of exciting possibilities in fifth grade, my teacher that year, who had been a stewardess once, pointed out that stewardesses had to have excellent eyesight. But I wore glasses–thick glasses–so that option seemed off limits.
I was interested in foreign languages. My ninth grade class was the first to be offered German as a foreign language and I loved the challenge. So my career-oriented research centered on careers involving foreign languages.
As I conducted my research, one career possibility captured my attention: Foreign Service Officer. Since it was 1965, it is likely the information I was able to find in my small midwestern town’s library came from many years earlier, so it isn’t surprising that my initial enthusiasm was tempered by the discovery of two things: First, becoming a Foreign Service Officer required excellent health, including good eyesight, so my glasses might affect my options. Second, female Foreign Service Officers must be single. If a female Foreign Service Officer married, she was required to resign. And like all the girls I knew, I assumed I would get married. At least, I hoped so.
I put the idea of becoming a Foreign Service Officer in the back of my mind and got on with my college studies. I continued to study German and added Russian to the mix. The summer between my sophomore and junior years at college, I spent a summer in New Jersey where I discovered I already knew a foreign language so well I didn’t have to study it–English was a foreign language to the Cuban immigrants in the Weehawken neighborhood I volunteered in. And they all wanted to learn English.
I changed my major to English, but no one in the middle of Minnesota had any idea what it meant to teach English as a foreign language. By the time I graduated, I was prepared to teach English to high school students who probably hated the subject. But I got lucky: I couldn’t find a teaching job in California where I moved after college graduation.
Three years later, I added Spanish to the list of languages I tried to master. I also entered graduate school in order to learn how to teach English as a foreign language. At that point, I saw teaching English as the key to being able to live and work overseas and continue my journey with languages. Once again, I got lucky: I lived and worked in two countries while I taught English as a foreign language–Iran and Romania.
Even more years later, I rediscovered the Foreign Service as a career option. Much had changed since I completed my 12th grade research paper. Being in good health was still a requirement, but contact lenses addressed my weak eyesight sufficiently. And in 1972, six years after I completed my research paper, the Foreign Service reversed the prohibition on married women being accepted.
Along with about 20,000 people each year, I began taking the Foreign Service Written Exam, offered then on the first Saturday of December. I passed the written exam several times and was invited to take part in the Oral Assessment. I passed it twice, but still I had to wait. I knew the process was competitive. Only one to two percent of those who take the exam are hired.
In 1985, after eighteen years had passed since I completed my research paper, I was appointed to the US Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. That’s perseverance.
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