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.