Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Contractual Agreement

The Pickering Fellowship is much more than a scholarship with paid internships. You are actually signing a contract with the federal government which you are bound to fulfill. While this contract is one that I am very proud and happy to fulfill, it is nonetheless a contract with consequences for not complying.

The most important point that you are agreeing to is to be a Foreign Service Officer for at least three years immediately after you graduate from your two-year masters. It cannot be a three year masters and it cannot be postponed other than for a Fulbright (no 1 year volunteer/teaching fellowships or Peace Corp). You must obtain two internships (don't worry, Pickering staff make it as easy as possible) and you will also do some workshops while you are in DC. You are also not exempt from the general rule that the first post for FSOs is assigned; you don't get to choose where you go and will likely do consular work the first tour.

You then are contractually obligated to fulfill the necessary steps to become a Foreign Service Officer. This includes the security clearance, the worldwide health clearance, the Foreign Service written test (FSOT) and the oral exam (FSOA). You also need to make sure you that you graduate from the program without letting your GPA drop below a 3.2. There is some flexibility with the GPA like academic probation and the chance to explain. Also, you cannot work over 20 hours a week.

The most critical things, the security clearance, medical clearance, and the two exams are requirements that may be troublesome for some. Luckily, there are workarounds for the exams, sort of. There is an alternative to passing the FSOT or FSOA (I don't remember which). If you don't pass, you don't break the agreement as far as I know. You just don't get tenure so will have to leave the Foreign Service after your three years. This is because you have to get tenure or get out; this is FS policy.

The medical clearance and the security clearance are something to be wary of. If you don't pass either of these, you won't be able to be an FSO and thus would owe Pickering/US gov the $40,000 that went to your tuition, for how ever many years they paid for you. There is some leeway in the medical clearance in that if they find a medical issue, you probably have time to clear it up and I've heard of instances where you are assigned to US posts until you are able to go abroad.

There is little leeway if you don't pass the security clearance, though. If you think you won't pass the security clearance, I would actually advise you to not apply. (Heartbreaking, I know. </3) You won't find out if you pass the clearance until after they pay for your first year. There is an appeal process that can be used, but it will likely mess with the timeline of your contractual obligation to do an internship every summer (clearance is needed for the required internships). The timeline change probably won't forfeit the agreement itself, though. More importantly I don't know how successful the appeal process is, but if you don't get the security clearance, you will be in a huge debt to the government if they decide to make you pay it back. During the appeal, you will likely continue with the process of applying to graduate schools because not doing so will definitely forfeit the agreement. While waiting for the results of the appeal mean, you may have to pay for your first year of graduate studies yourself (if you are an undergraduate fellow).

It is a bit scary to have so much on the line. Not passing the security clearance will put you in a tough position but to put things back into perspective, not passing is probably pretty unlikely. The biggest reasons, as far as I've seen, are unmanaged debt that you do not take care, a history of crime, and being at risk of foreign influence. Since most of those applying are young and academically minded (i.e. nerdy), we probably don't have to worry about crime, bankruptcy, or huge red marks on our history.  BUT we are at risk for probably having too much "foreign influence." Most of us, being international affairs-minded likely have family ties to other countries which sparked our interest in transnational affairs. Also, while some of the laws regarding weed are being relaxed, the federal law is still strongly in place. We are young and if it is harder to prove that any drug use (or any other crime/mischief) is "mitigated by time" since we simply do not have as much time on this earth as most other applicants. A few times a few years ago might fly, but I know this stuff is decided on a case by case basis. Having tried it once while younger though should not disqualify people like it might have several years ago.

If you think you have too much drug use or foreign influence, I just feel like it's fair that you are aware of these risks. Do not plan on lying during the security clearance, as the State Dept will most likely find out and the consequences will be far worse. NO LYING. NONE.

After you become a finalist you do the interview and writing exam process. Some days or weeks later you will be told if you are a winner. You have some time to respond to the offer. You are committed when you reply to accept the offer because you reply with your signed and notarized agreement. Once it is sent to them, I'm pretty sure that is when you can no longer back out (to answer a commenter's question).

All in all, the Pickering Fellowship is a fantastic opportunity and I truly feel gifted to be part of this community. There is a slight risk for financial hardship, though, if the security clearance is not obtained after the appeal. You will likely know, though, if your history might have too much foreign influence, drug use or other red flags. The contractual obligation is a large part of the fellowship, but is one we are happy and thankful we can fulfill.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Worldwide Medical Clearance Sessions

The entire ordeal could possibly be very expensive. To see how I got it for free, read my post on the costs here.

The Lab Work
Scheduling the examination went smoothly. Luckily, I found some new FSOs on their way to State Department who showed me the entrance which was actually on E St.

Security is confusing. The human scanner was somewhat perpendicular to the visitor's entrance, and there was a line at reception. Now I understand: reception first, then scan, then reception again to obtain pass and get your ID back. Instructions to the nurses' office were easy and the paperwork (and the wait) was surprisingly very short.

Most medical clearances are two days; both sessions being an hour long. The first session was just the nurse taking my measurements and taking SIX vials of blood. I'm terrified of needles so this was a bit of an experience for me. I requested a smaller needle which I'm sure the nurses only acknowledge affirmitavely as a placebo for my nerves (no complaints here. It's all psychological, I'm sure). They also gave me a cute pear shaped thing to squeeze while I was listening to the nurse tell me about her kids while my blood was getting sucked out. Overall, not as bad of an experience as I thought it would be. The vials are small, and the needle is only inserted once and less than a minute. Whole ordeal was done in less than an hour.

The Physical Exam
This is normally scheduled sometime in the few days after the Lab Work session.
While waiting in the clinic, I contemplated all of the things I could have that could disqualify me for clearance, pulling a massive hypochondriac moment.

I was very nervous for this clearance because I had heard about previous (but very, very few) Pickerings who had discovered an ailment which they were not aware of during this examination. One Fellow even found out they had cancer during this session, which definitely put me on edge from thinking that I was too young to worry about cancer.
It seemed like forever until they finally called me in. The doctor was talkative and charismatic, making me wish this was my permanent doctor's office and not just a medical clearance clinic. She took out my lab results and everything came back perfect. There was nothing wrong with me judging from the lab tests, but next was the physical test. This was a comprehensive exam, with the physician examining your ears, eyes, chest, skin, thyroids, lymph nodes, etc. for any complications. It was over quickly, however. I was expecting to be hooked up to several things while running on a treadmill like a hamster, and was relieved that this was not a painful test in anyway.

Afterwards, I walked into the last physician's office and she announced to me that she had nothing to talk to me about, which was great news. I was told immediately that I was placed into the Class I worldwide medical clearance. I'd receive an email confirming it later, and the results were automatically sent to the State Department. Nothing further I had to do. I am so thankful to be in good health, particularly when so much was at stake. Not passing the medical clearance may complicate issues with the Fellowship since the contract requires passing the clearance to be able to work as a Foreign Service Officer, but I'm also confident that the staff would have worked with us if anything would have arisen.

Worldwide Medical Clearance: the costs and your insurance

The Pickering Fellowship, as does the Foreign Service Officer career, requires that you pass the Worldwide Medical Clearance. This confirms that you are healthy enough to travel and work extensively in remote regions where you may not have easy access to medical care. You will receive information about how to complete the clearance.

There are many, many tests involved. Some are obscure, like the one testing to see how you react to a certain anti-malarial medicine. This can be VERY expensive.

It may be completed outside of DC, but if possible, wait until you're in DC to do this test. They have all the resources to do it in two visits. Otherwise, you'll have to schedule multiple visits where you can meet with the facilitates who do only certain aspects of the test. Insurance may or may not cover this. Luckily, I got my test for free.

Insured (costs depend), the Underinsured (costs high), and the Uninsured (free in DC)
I do not know the process of how to get this covered by insurance because I did not have insurance. My method of getting it for free only applies to the uninsured. Those that are underinsured are hurt the most, because you will likely have to pay the entire thing out of pocket. The minimal insurance plans will not cover these costs but having insurance at all will disqualify you for the waiver.

If you are not insured, like I was, then doing it in your hometown in NOT an option. You will have to pay separate doctors to do separate testing and it will cost you probably over $800. If you are uninsured, the State Department will not charge you, at all (at least at the time I did this, 2011). It might cheaper to fly to DC and get it done there. It is as easy as signing up for an appointment and walking in. No dealing with bills, claims, anything.

In DC, the test examination is divided into just two sessions: lab work and the physical. This is one of the most thorough health examinations on the planet, imo. There have been instances where people find out they have early cancer or something serious, so I was thankful to get something like this, especially being uninsured.

Read more about the day of the exam here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Ensuing Paperwork

There are few times when I can recall being as happy when I won the Pickering. It is truly a magnificent opportunity to enable you to go to graduate school and serve your country. The not-so-fun part of it is the ensuing paperwork you will have to do.

Keep everything organized and do not delete any emails/pdfs/docs you receive or fill out. I'd recommend scanning your papers so don't get lost.

For me, the tuition reimbursement process was pretty easy. It was all behind the scenes, with little work having to be done by me to match up the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to my school. The reimbursement to myself was easy enough because my undergraduate institution cost more than the total funds of $40,000 meaning I get a refund of $0. Nonetheless, I no longer had to take out any loans (as at my school, scholarships replace loans first and then replace need-based aid).

Keep in mind, you now have to notify the wonderful staff at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for any milestones, issues, or large decisions you might be making. This includes a mid-semester report on your midterm grades, any decisions to study abroad, if you are enrolling less than full-time, if you are taking on another job (none of which can take your labor for more than 20 hours a week).

The biggest "paperwork," though, was the Security Clearance and the Worldwide Medical Clearance. These are extremely important and required of you in the contract that you signed accepting the Pickering Fellowship. While the Security Clearance is free (on your end, it costs the government thousands), the Worldwide Medical Clearance can cost you hundreds of dollars. Read more about how I got it for free (and underinsured Pickerings got screwed) here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


You will get to meet all of the other winners today and meet more of the dedicated staff who are working behind the scene to make sure everything goes smoothly.
The hotel is in D.C. Folders, as in the finalist session, are given out by the hotel when you check in. You'll likely find other Pickerings at the bottom floor doing their security clearance forms which were due the next day. If you are not able to finish the entire security clearance or had questions, that's fine (though not encouraged). The staff had many of us not turn them in until the second day of the orientation or even later.
The schedule will be given to you. They gave us a a very useful book, Inside a US Embassy. It gives you different roles and narratives from foreign service officers and other positions.
Both days will consist of visits to the State Department! You'll hear some great speakers which I'm sure won't be the same every year. Foreign Service Officers, former ambassadors. Take notes and ask questions because these are the people who are in the field, living where you'll be or want to be in a few years. Your fingerprints will be taken here, and you will also submit your documents. There will also be a networking event at the end of the orientation with Pickering and Rangel fellows also. Ambassador Pickering showed up, and so did Mr. Hope, the founder of the fellowship.
Come loaded with questions because this is where everyone will be together to answer them! Questions we brought up:
Can school health insurance be covered? No.
How does the funding for the second year of master's degree work? 2/3 or 10k, which ever is greater will be provided by the school.
How does the rent work? Up to 1,000 per month only for rent. It cannot be used as down payment for mortgage and does not cover utilities.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My Interview

There were two rooms for interviews, each with three judges in each room sitting on the panel. Both of the panels had one or two former ambassadors while the rest were from academia or non-profit work. For those of us who were lucky enough to be in the first session of interviews, we had no idea what to expect (we didn't have bloggers for insider's info on this). The interviews were 25 minutes, with five minutes or so in between interviews. We were all just talking and waiting in the lobby for our turn. Afterward stepping out of the room, some were confident and at peace, but others were nervous and sullen.
I was obsessively nervous about the interview during the weeks leading up to it. I picked up reading new books during heavy school courseloads, scheduled practice sessions with my professors, and read the news from top to bottom every day. Once I got there, I was not as nervous as I thought I would be. Mostly because after meeting the rest of my Pickering finalists, I didn't think I stood much of a chance. I was sure this was just another competition where I only reached the finalist level, and I would be totally okay with that. I was so happy to have gotten this far, but did not expect to win amidst students who had extensive travel and more extensive language learning. Thus, I walked into the interview without that biting nervousness I saw in other students. I was able to speak with ease, enthusiastically, but still casually because I did not feel that impending sense of pressure from everything that was at stake. I found out later I was not the only winner who felt this way walking into the interview. Thus: freak out as much as you like the weeks before the interview, but on the day of the interview, it's really all done and out of your hands because you walk in emanating who you are and that's what they're really after.
I was introduced by one of the members of the panel to the rest of the members and sat down in the middle of the room. The panel was much friendlier than I was expecting and the interview was not a brutal session of interrogation. It was very similar to a job interview (and I've had about a dozen of those) so I was not unfamiliar with the format. They all took notes and smiled attentively in all of the interviews as far as I heard. I was terrified, however, because someone on the panel closed their eyes for what seemed like forever during one of my questions. I suspected I was being long-winded and rushed to finish the question. I thought I had not gotten the spot for sure, but other Pickerings told me of some of the members of their panel doing interesting things, including shoving their glasses in their mouth. After the session, I was escorted out of the room, to continue onto the rest of the day as a Pickering finalist, meeting other finalists and reviewing the contract I was hoping but not expecting to soon sign.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Day of the Interview

I'm assuming this is the most critical point in the entire selection process. I arrived at the hotel room that night and met my roommate. She was the sweetest girl from UChicago and we became instant friends. I thought we would feel competitive or suspicious of each other, but we didn't. She confided in me later that she set up two or three alarms because you just never know. One of her friends had an experience where the roommate turned off her alarm so she was late to a similar interview. Very good advice, I thought.
I'm very glad I wore my nicest 2 piece black suit with a knee-length black pencil skirt. Some people also wore pin stripe suits, but most wore black. This definitely calls for a matching 2 piece business suit although one girl did wear a nice black dress with a suit top.
Meeting the other Pickering finalists that morning was intimidating to say the least. I was seriously wondering what I was doing there among Ivy League students and students who had acquired competitive experience all over the world. I transferred from a community college just the semester before and the only abroad experience I had was driving (or walking) over to Mexico because I live in a border town. All of my extracurricular and volunteer work was inside the States, and what I love about the Pickering is that I was still a competitive candidate. The Pickering Fellowship is very comprehensive in that they also look at not only what you've done but also your personal background. I didn't quite understand this at the time, and thought I was among the (if not the) least competitive candidates that just barely managed to make it on the finalist list and didn't stand a chance.
There were two interview sessions so I met only half of the finalists. A few were viewing the pre-interview speeches via Skype. The 20 finalists on my day were split into two groups which took turns going to the two sessions. One of the sessions had speakers about the contract, the clearances, and FSO work. Even some previous Pickering Fellows spoke with us. This is a great time to ask any questions about the process. The other session consisted of the interview schedule, and free time (to freak out, stress, and go crazy, of course) before and/or after the interview. For me, the interview session was first.
Take care what you do during the info session and your downtime. Another fellow told me about an incredibly competitive candidate (great school, amazing experience, multiple languages) who did not get the fellowship because he did not interact with other Fellows during this time. Apparently, he had simply listened to music on his headphones the whole time. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but I'm sure it makes sense that your time outside of the interview when you think no one is scrutinizing you is used to judge your character. The State Department is making a huge investment in you after all.