Opening photo: Members of the Transition Center team gather for an annual photo on the lawn of the Foreign Service Institute, 2019. As of March 2020, Director Ray Leki (center holding rake) leads the team with virtual meetings twice weekly via Zoom. Photo by Michael Mateos
By Kathey-Lee Galvin
Transitions and change are part of everyday life. In the foreign affairs community, change and transition are indispensable norms.
“In a work environment [that] places a premium on orderly, predictable changes of all types, those who develop a set of skills in change and transition management early on will invariably experience less stress throughout the course of their careers,” said Director of the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) Transition Center (TC) Ray Leki. “Changes in assignments, supervisors, colleagues, family structure, administrations, and global politics are invariable and inevitable parts of our lifestyle. How we plan for, manage, and ultimately embrace these events can determine our personal well-being, our interconnectedness with each other, and ultimately, our satisfaction with career and family life.”
TC exists to lend support to all members of the U.S. foreign affairs community. Testimonials from across the Department of State and other foreign affairs agencies attest to how well they do it. The staff assists in supporting Foreign Service officers and their families from the first assignment to retirement. TC’s numerous stand-alone tools, courses, and dedicated professionals help support the community overseas, providing tips for safety, information on how to get pets to post, foreign affairs life skills training, advice on shaping a new path for the future, and much more.
Four programs fall under TC’s umbrella: the Overseas Briefing Center, Training Division, Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience, and the Career Transition Center. Together, they provide information and cutting-edge tools for everyone from new professionals moving to their first Mission abroad to locally employed staff and seasoned veterans confronting something new—like a pandemic—for the first time.
Effectively negotiating early challenges can set the tone for a positive career-long experience. Training helps people flourish by developing a sense of confidence and control over their circumstances.
The Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) often assists the foreign affairs community’s newest members as they navigate moving overseas for the first time. The OBC team curates a collection of more than 6,000 post-specific documents and handouts. While many are well-known resources—such as Post Info to Go—OBC regularly updates content and adds new resources such as apps and guided journals for children. They also connect foreign affairs community members with crucial Department resources.
Individualizing research can make a meaningful difference in finding the best options. “Do you prioritize schools or an inclusive social environment or both?” “Air quality?” “Will you focus on internet connectivity and freedom of movement around the city?” Division Director Sarah Genton manages the OBC team, which has helped thousands of foreign affairs community members find answers to these and other questions.
“The human side of a transition requires empathy, listening, collaboration, and problem-solving. Transitions carry a lot of emotional weight, and OBC helps people think through their questions and concerns about traveling overseas,” said Genton. “The OBC team takes pride in giving clients personalized attention.”
Establishing realistic expectations for living abroad is a lofty goal, especially when the most common answer to questions is, “It depends.” The Training Division manages a set of online sites, fact sheets and handouts, and recorded presentations on topics such as cross-cultural communication, spouse employment options, and diplomatic protocol. The Training Division’s life skills and security training experts make it their mission to help every client prepare through orientation programs and resources focused on demystifying the “It depends” answers.
All 35 life skills and security classes are designed to empower community members to manage their own transitions by knowing the key offices, finding resources, and identifying opportunities.
“We know that people in the midst of moving need access to resources they can reference at any hour,” said Division Director Laura Miller, noting that they’ve been offering online seminars since 2015.
“As a trainer, the best feeling is watching the transformation of a student who enters orientation visibly overwhelmed and anxious about what they have gotten into, and over the course of the various sessions begins to get excited about the opportunities and is less stressed about the pending life change,” said Training Instructor Fauve Johnson. “Students often leave our programs confident in their new sense of control.”
Research shows that almost anyone can learn and strengthen their resilience by embracing keystone habits and strategies. The Center for Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR) aspires to create a culture of resilience across the foreign affairs workforce—U.S. direct-hire, locally-engaged staff, and contractors—from entry-level staff to senior managers. CEFAR builds personal and team resilience through training, education programs, and consultations.
During the stress and prolonged uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, CEFAR provided resilience resources to many offices. In the first nine months of the pandemic, its resilience webinars and training reached more than 10,000 participants in 70 domestic offices and 160 posts worldwide.
“One of the best things for my resilience during this never-ending COVID situation has been the resilience webinars hosted by CEFAR,” said a recent webinar participant. “They always provide such great reminders of the importance of self-care and concrete, actionable advice.”
In addition to preparing new officers and those experiencing new situations in their careers, TC’s Career Transition Center (CTC) provides valuable expertise in many aspects of planning for a post-public-service life, including benefits information, estate and financial planning, advice on how personal values might inform later pursuits, and much more. Making informed choices early in a career can ensure more available choices and freedoms later. CTC also conducts retirement planning courses designed for each phase of a public service career.
When a foreign affairs community federal employee retires, CTC is there to help participants in the Job Search/Transition Program determine for themselves what the next phase of their lives could look like and how to get there.
“It’s very rewarding to see the light go on for someone who has just realized that the end of this remarkable career can also mean the beginning of something equally fulfilling,” said CTC Division Director Dr. Catherine McCormick, who has been a master counselor for more than 30 years. “Change, particularly when it involves personal identity issues, as it often does for those afforded the honor of representing America, is a real hurdle for many, and giving your transition proper attention can make all the difference to someone with potentially another 30 to 40 years in front of them.”
It’s impossible to predict what the future may hold. However it unfolds, TC is there to help the Department’s brave men and women and their families navigate the way forward.
Kathey-Lee Galvin is the senior transition program officer in the Transition Center’s Career Transition Center at the Foreign Service Institute.