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Thursday, September 8, 2011


"Aren't you afraid?," my classmate asked.  We had just received news that the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam had been bombed.  
Weeks before, I learned about the Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, one of two programs now known as the Pickering Fellowships, and I had applied.  Though it involved a three-year work commitment in the Foreign Service following graduation, it was a no-brainer for me.  I loved the adventure of international travel, I needed the money, and I didn't have any strong feelings one way or another about a specific career, so long as it was interesting work and comfortably remunerative (my commitment to public service would grow later).  The Foreign Service appeared to be a good fit. 

As for danger, I was from Detroit and had traveled a little bit.  I figured the possibility of harm was everywhere. I was also a bit naïve.
Following graduation, I joined the 104th A-100 Orientation Class at the Foreign Service Institute on Monday, September 10, 2001, bright-eyed and ready for the world, or so I thought.  

The second day, thirty minutes into our first session, the deputy course coordinator ran down the left aisle and exclaimed that a plane had struck one of the two World Trade Center Towers in New York.  We were to remain calm and seated and await further information.  I first thought of my uncle who regularly attended business meetings in the World Trade Center.  Was he ok?  Then I thought about my friend whose father also had regular meetings there.  Was he ok?  Neither, we later learned, was harmed.
We then heard that another plane had struck the second tower, that the Pentagon had been hit and that the Department's main building in Foggy Bottom was evacuating.  And then we evacuated.  I returned to my hotel room, numb.  Like the rest of the world, I remained glued to the television.
The next morning, I boarded the hotel's shuttle to FSI.  I hadn't heard whether class was still on; I assumed and perhaps hoped it would be.  Ninety-seven of my 98 classmates felt the same way, it turned out.  
Following training, several of us were sent to Bogotá for our first assignment.  While there, Club El Nogal, a country club in the city, was bombed, blocks from where many embassy personnel lived, including me.  There were other terrorist incidents in the city during our posting.   But it was clear to most of us how seriously the Department and Embassy leadership considered our safety.  Phone tree drills, regular security briefings and updates when there were credible threats helped me, and I think others, feel more secure.
I have felt the same priority on safety in subsequent overseas assignments in India, Singapore and now in Jakarta.  

Since joining, only a handful of my 104th colleagues have left the Foreign Service.  Most of us have served in danger or hardship posts, and will likely do so again, proudly.  We remain undaunted.

Published in the September 2011 issue of the Foreign Service Journal

1 comment:

  1. Was in Tokyo at the time (on a 'public intellectual' exchange called the Asia Leadership Fellow Program). My colleague from Korea called me, in a real panic. 'Switch on your tv' she yelled, 'New York is being attacked! It's like science fiction!' I thought she must be over-reacting. But I did turn the tv on. And sure enough, the image was unbelievable. It remains hard to fathom.