I participated in two of the more unusual aspects of A-100 this past week. Last Friday, I took my full Italian language exam and then we started this week with out off-site retreat known simply as "The Woods." (It is actually the name of the resort. While it is wooded, the actual location is not nearly as nefarious as the name suggests).
One of the most important aspects of the Foreign Service is speaking a foreign language. Every entry-level officer (ELO aka junior officer) is on language probation until they receive a passing score. A passing score varies based on the agency, but the scoring system is uniform throughout. In general terms, a '0' is no ability. A '1' is tourist ability (can ask where the restroom is, read a menu, etc). A '2' is will allow you to have basic conversations. A '3' is "professionally fluent." You can talk about most things, but may not be able to converse outside your areas of expertise. A '4' is full fluency. You understand it all. A '5' is the equivalent to an educated native speaker. They also use '+' to designate when a person is in between levels. So a 2+ is almost, but not quite a 3.
To get off language probation, you have to get a 3/3 (a '3' in both speaking and reading) in a world language. World languages include Spanish, French, Italian, German, etc. For harder languages - generally those with a non-Roman alphabet - you have to get a 2/1 (a 2 in speaking and a 1 in reading). Superhard languages, such as Korean, require a 2/0. IF YOU FAIL TO GET OFF LANGUAGE PROBATION WITHIN 5 YEARS, YOU WILL BE KICKED OUT OF THE FOREIGN SERVICE. So, it's a big deal.
In order to see whether we speak a language already and/or how much training we will need to get to the required proficiency, they test us. (Since so many people speak 'some' Spanish, we all had much shorter conversations with the tester. My Spanish was so bad, I got a 0+).
Friday, after lunch, I went up for my Italian test. For those of you who don't know me, I've lived in Italy for about 18 months total. I spent 6 months immersed with an Italian host family a decade ago. The rest of the time I either lived, studied or worked with other Americans, so I would spend as much time speaking English as Italian. I also took one year of intermediate Italian in college.
The test was broken down into two parts - speaking and reading. The speaking part is broken down further into three sub-parts. The first sub-part is a general conversation between me and the tester. (There are two people in the room with you. One speaks to you in English, the other speaks to you in the testing language. They are both native speakers of the language and they both grade you). It lasted about 5-10 minutes. I think I did fairly well on this part.
For the second part, I had to speak at length about an issue. They give you five possible topics and you pick 1. You get a few minutes to prepare and then you talk about it for at least 5 minutes. I was not very good at this part. I picked a topic that I knew some things about, but I did not know the vocabulary for this topic. I should have chosen another topic that I would have had better luck with the vocabulary.
The third part is a general translation. I am required to ask the tester about a subject in Italian. He answers for about a minute or 90 seconds. Then, I would tell the other person what he said in English. This turned out to be my best part. I got a subject that I was fairly familiar with. I could anticipate what the tester was going to say, because he was echoing general sentiment about this topic.
Overall, the speaking part went better than I expected. I would grade myself at either a '2' or a '2+'. I should get the official results some time this week.
The reading part did not go as well. It is broken down into two parts. In the first part, I got a sheet of paper with six very short items on them. I had 6 minutes to read them all. After that time, I had to explain to the two testers, in English, what they were about. I knew what one of these things said. Some of the others I had a general idea and a few I was clueless about.
For the second part of the reading, they gave me 5 newspaper articles. Each one was probably about 20 column inches or so. I had to choose one of these. I then had 7 minutes to read the article. When they returned, I had to explain to them about the article. Then, they picked one of the remaining four articles and I had to do the same thing. The long articles went better than the short ones, I think, because I could get at least get the gist of the article. But my vocabulary and grammar are awful. I would probably grade myself at either a 1+ or maybe a 2.
This language test is important for me, but not that important. If I am sent to a language post, they will train me in that language - likely to a 3/3. I don't think I am exposing anything by telling you there were not any Italian language posts on my bid list. But, in the future, they may see that I have some Italian language skills. I may get a posting there and would require less training than someone starting from scratch.
(UPDATE: I got my official results today. I got a 1+/1+. That was a bit worse than I had hoped for on speaking but about where I expected for reading.)
One of the parts of A-100 you hear the most about is "The Woods." People will talk about it before you go, then former A-100 people will ask you about your experience in The Woods. It honestly sounds much cooler than it turns out to be. Essentially, it is a team building and leadership retreat.
You are split into teams (each one named after a large embassy) and over two days you are given 5 tasks. They each have their unique challenges and are fun if you let them be. Quite a few of them are creative tasks. You really get to know your team pretty well during these tasks. And many personality traits become quite prevalent - for example, everyone in my group knows that I am overly competitive now. My only complaint about the group was that I actually knew most of the people in my group. For much of A-100, you sit in alphabetical order. So I know most of the As, Bs, and Cs in my class. For some unexplained reason, most of my team was from the beginning of the alphabet.
I did get to know more people outside of the official activities. And really, the social aspect of The Woods is the best part. I tried to sit with different people for each meal, so I got to know more people this way. After we finished with the group activities on Monday, everyone headed to the bar for a bit. We took a break from the bar for the Follies. The Follies were really quite hilarious - much funnier than I expected. After the Follies, it was back to the bar. One of the coordinators brought a Karaoke machine.
I probably drank one or two too many, but so did most of the group. As far as I know, no one did anything too damaging. There were no walks of shame and everyone made it to breakfast the next day. I did hear about a few falls and at least one 2 AM drunken phone call to a spouse, but that was the extent of the damage. Many people looked a lot less vibrant on day 2 than they did on day 1, but we still made it through the day. (At least one person insisted that the entire retreat was just to see if we could make ourselves get up on the second day after a night of drinking, an important diplomatic skill).
The most important thing at the Woods actually happens behind closed doors. Our CDOs (career development officers aka the people who tell us where we are going) come to the Woods to make assignments. I have been assigned to a post somewhere in the world - only I have no idea where it is. But, it is only 9 more days until Flag Day!