Dreams of A Diplomat: Dream Deferred

by Just Juan

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?” – Langston Hughes

Back in high school, during my sophomore year, I took an elective course called Black Literature. It was a crash course on the history and works of Black authors and poets from Africa, Europe, and the United States. One of those we learned about was Langston Hughes. I wrote an essay based on his poem “Dream Deferred”. Even as a 16-year-old, I understood the magnitude of the words and how they applied to dreams…the ebbs and flows of them, at least. I understood that dreams sometimes consisted of sky-high expectations only to see them crash and burn under the disappointment of reality or lost opportunity.

At this very moment, I’m dealing with the aftermath of what happened in Washington last week. This is the 6th day of bitter disappointment. Instead of a celebration highlighting my securing the dream job, I’m here on my couch, writing about how I failed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment and how my dream is now deferred.

So let’s break this down. I arrived in Washington last Tuesday afternoon and made sure I was well-rested, as advised, ahead of Wednesday’s assessment. It was a 7am showtime and I rose at 5am, got myself together and took the Washington Metro down into the Foggy Bottom section, and arrived at the oral assessment center about 20 minutes before my appointment. I was looking good and feeling good. After they called me in, I filled out a couple of nondisclosure agreements and got started with the assessment. I started with the case management exercise. It was actually an interesting scenario…in the vein that I had experienced it during my time in Japan. I basically tempered my response to mirror how I responded to that specific scenario, only from a Foreign Service perspective. I had 45 minutes to complete that exercise and it went by extremely fast. I was literally finishing up the last couple of proofreading edits before the clock expired and the monitor came to get me. After a 30-minute wait in the lobby, next up was the competency exam. It was a lot of questions about the facility management field, in general. There were numerous questions in which all of the answers were actually correct but I just had to find the answer that was most correct. The exam was about an hour long and it really flustered me. I was just glad for it to be over. After the exam, I spent another 20 minutes waiting in the lobby ahead of the structured interview. It was during that 20 minutes that the first thoughts on me possibly failing the assessment came to my mind. Absolutely nothing I learned over my career in the Air Force or my 11 months in the Army Corps of Engineers prepared me for that exam. There were a few questions on the exam that were covered in my graduate program courses at the Rochester Institute of Technology but I walked away from that 60-minute session feeling something I’ve never felt before on a test: defeat. I got called in for the 3rd and final portion of the assessment—the structured interview. It was a process that took a little over an hour. And trust me, it all went by fast. I think I did a great job in staying composed and answering the questions appropriately…some with short responses, some with more elaborate responses. I think I sold myself very well as a potential Foreign Service Facility Manager. The assessors—particularly the subject matter expert—had the poker face of doom. He didn’t show anything. I couldn’t grasp if I was doing good or if I was bombing the interview in spectacular fashion. When it was over, I was instructed to wait back in the lobby. I was waiting for 50 minutes and there was no calm whatsoever in those moments. My mind was racing in a lot of different places. Was I a new Foreign Service Specialist candidate? Or did I fail the Foreign Service Oral Assessment? What I knew for sure during that wait of almost an hour was that the memorandum I wrote for the case management exercise was definitely solid. When I got up from that computer, I felt it was the 2nd best memo I had ever written…and the best one I’ve ever written factored into me winning Airman of the Year. I didn’t feel as confident about the online competency exam and the structured interview.

After the 50-minute wait, which felt more like 50 hours, I was called back into the interview room. The lead assessor started with pleasantries about how it was a joy to interview me. Then, she dropped the hammer by telling me that I didn’t reach the cutoff score. She also handed me a memorandum, which I read as she explained what was next. The cutoff score was 5.25 and my score was 5.24. I failed the assessment by the slimmest of margins. The memo didn’t break down my individual scores but did state that I scored at least a 5.25 in the case management exercise and in the structured interview…both identified with a checkmark. There was no such checkmark next to the online competency exam. With me failing by such a slim margin, I’m assuming I scored high on the parts that were checked and very low on the exam. The Facility Manager subject matter expert somewhat hinted that might have been the case when he said “going after that graduate degree will definitely help you” in response to the answer I gave when the lead assessor asked if I would be looking to take the assessment again in the future. I finished up with them, gathered my belongings, and made my way to Reagan National Airport for the flight to Atlanta. It was a total of 5 hours, 20 minutes in the assessment center.

The entire walk from the assessment center to the Foggy Bottom WMATA station, I was silent and emotionless. The entire ride on the Blue Line to DCA, I was silent and emotionless. The entire process of checking in, going through security, and waiting for the boarding call…I was silent and emotionless. I boarded the US Airways flight and took my seat silently and emotionless. I guess you can say that I was in a deep state of shock. My first moment of any kind of emotional disposition regarding the moment was during takeoff when I looked out of the window and saw the Washington, DC landmarks as the aircraft banked south. I took the featured image shortly after. I’m not one to show much emotion in public…and I’m certainly not going to cry in public. You get too many people asking you “what’s wrong” and offering advice I didn’t solicit. When we landed in Atlanta, I was still silent and emotionless. The first words I spoke since thanking those assessors in Washington was when I answered “here” to the roll call for the shuttle to Opelika. I sat in the back of the shuttle and just looked out of the window the entire drive in silence. When I was in the safe and private confines of The Gazelle, I let out a very frustrated expletive before driving home. It was only when I was inside of these 4 walls did I break down and cry. I was so hurt. I must have just sprawled out on the floor for at least an hour, just crying. I felt like I lost my chance.

So it’s been a week since what may be the most disappointing moment of my career. I can’t say that I’ve taken the time to grieve the situation. I honestly just wanted to stay busy and active so my mind wouldn’t draw back onto what happened in Washington. I was in a rental car on my way to check on my buildings in Dothan, Fort Rucker, and the Florida Panhandle on Thursday and Friday. I even drove up to Birmingham on Saturday to do the cold water challenge. The thing about disappointment is that it lingers, even if you keep busy. I’ve been down this road before…being so close to breaking through only to have it ripped away, forcing me to start over from scratch. I was the #1 nonselectee in my Air Force specialty for promotion to E5 in 2008 and 2009. I missed the cutoff by 0.01 points in the latter year. Nobody knows this disappointment better than me. But that doesn’t make it any less comforting. I’m sure this disappointment will give way to depression in some form and I’ll probably have a day or two…or maybe 10, where I’ll really feel the sting over failing that oral assessment. Fortunately, I have people I can be vulnerable with in those situations…my co-best friends.

In the meantime, I have no choice but to throw myself full-on into my work for USACE. For at least another year, I have to continue to be the best Area Facility Operations Specialist I can be. But I also have to get better. I’m definitely going to max out my effort in the FM program at RIT. That’ll help. I’ll also join the Birmingham Chapter of IFMA and look to latch onto the coattails of some of the more technically experienced facility managers in the region. Speaking of IFMA, if there was ever a justification for me to drop the $1500 on the Facility Management Professional credential materials, what happened in Washington certainly was that. I’ll purchase those materials next month and get started on broadening my knowledge of the field. There’s no question that I’ll be back to take that oral assessment. It still is my dream job and now I know where the glass ceiling is for me. I won’t, however, pursue that dream until I know for sure that I’m ready, until I know that I’m walking into that oral assessment center to dominate across the board.

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