Dreams of A Diplomat: La Atenas Suramericana

by Juan Thomas
630 views 5 min read

“Bogotá, Colombia…Facility Manager…AnJuan Thomas” – Flag Day moderator

Today was the most pivotal day so far in my young Foreign Service career. I found out where I will be heading in my first overseas posting as a Foreign Service Facility Manager. If you’re good at Spanish, you probably guessed it from the title. If you’re a great student of geography, you guessed it from the Colombian flag in the featured image. If all else failed, then there’s the epigraph. And if you’re at this point and still don’t know, then this is it: I’m going to Bogotá, Colombia.

This morning, we had an all-hands Zoom videoconference in which all 158-204 Foreign Service Orientation students and anyone within eyesight of their web cameras, the FSI Orientation staff, the assignment officers, and some dignitaries were in attendance. Even though it was a virtual ceremony, it was actually well put together. It all started with some words of encouragement from an ambassador. Then, there were a couple of awards issued out: the Glenn Munro Award to the outstanding generalist in the Orientation and the honor of Class Speaker to the top specialist. For a moment, I actually thought my interactions and enthusiasm over these last 3 ½ weeks would’ve landed me the honor of Class Speaker so I had a speech ready to go for the moment but it ended up going to one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. Both the Glenn Munro Award winner and the Class Speaker were from my mission group so that says a lot about the people I’ve been orienting with over the last month. After the Class Speaker gave her remarkable speech, the assignments were announced. Of course, I was wired in…as was Mercedes and even Ashton. The moderator called out the assignments in random order so that really built the suspense of the moment. One by one, the Facility Manager assignments came off the board until I realized via the process of elimination where we were going. Exactly 100 names into the announcement and 11 names after the 8th Facility Manager position was called, the 9th and final Facility Manager position was called. There was a brief cut on the Zoom video to our reaction as I hugged Ashton, who was holding the small Colombian flag.

So it’s official: the Thomas family and The Book of Juan will be heading to Bogotá. Officially, it was my top choice as it was #1 on the bid list I submitted to the assignments officer a couple of weeks ago. In actuality, it was my true #2 as I preferred to go to Africa. Mercedes—and more importantly, Ashton because he ended up being the determining factor—won out on this assignment. Nevertheless, we’re all going to South America…the first time on the continent for me, the first time living outside of the country for Mercedes, and the first time out of the country for Ashton. I’ll have to learn Spanish so I’ll be around in the DC area until at least late spring. Even though Colombia fringes on being a 3rd world country, Bogotá is considered a low equity post and it’s likely that I’ll end up in a hardship location the next time out but I’ll worry about that down the road.

MY EXPECTATIONS FOR BOGOTÁ. Now that I know where I’m going, I suppose I’ll lay out my expectations. First, there are my professional expectations. It’s been a long road to get to the Foreign Service. And now that I’m here, I do want to stay for a while…like until at least 2040. That won’t be possible unless I achieve tenure. As an entry-level Foreign Service Specialist, I have 4 years to get tenure and while it’s not a major concern for those on their very first tour, I want to do all that I can do to make that an easy decision for the tenure board. I don’t want this to be a situation where my ascension is in the hands of the system like it was with me getting promoted to staff in the Air Force. I can control my effectiveness as a Facility Manager and it’s my intent to roll into Colombia with Bret Hart ambitions…to be the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be. Training and growing pains on the job may humble me on that but until that time, that’s the goal. Also on the professional front, I want to make a serious attempt at jumpstarting an IFMA chapter in South America. If one looks at the map, there is no chapter on the continent. In addition to my colleagues at Bogotá and my counterparts at other posts regionally, there are a lot of other facility managers on the continent. This could be, at best, a legacy thing for me. Think about it: a kid from the projects of Birmingham who grew up to unite a legion of Facility Managers in South America. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to complete Item 37 of the bucket list and engage in some form of diplomacy. Overall, I just want to learn down in Colombia. From what I hear, I’m going to be working with a great team and the mission down there is very fast and efficient. Elsewhere are my personal expectations for Bogotá. Overall, I just want to enjoy the experience as I have all the other times I’ve lived abroad. However, I can’t ignore the financial aspect of this move. One of the things I’ve hated about moving back to the DC area was the super expensive cost of living. It definitely wears on you…mentally and financially. The good thing about this assignment is that the biggest cost—housing—comes off the board. That’s a huge savings for me because it’s something I won’t have to worry about at all in Colombia: the government provides housing for us…and it’s not slouchy either. The opportunity to travel around Colombia and South America is a personal goal of mine. Items 3 and 11 on the bucket list can only be completed in South America. There’s also a chance that Items 5, 6, 20, 54, 57, and 72 can also be completed in South America…and that doesn’t include the aforementioned Item 37 and a visit to Machu Picchu. I would absolutely love for my wife and son to find their own niches in this assignment. They are going to be making huge sacrifices in following me around over the course of this journey and I do want them to enjoy it. Hopefully Bogotá will be everything it’s advertised as and more for them. On the physical fitness front, I want to run a 6-minute mile. That will already be a challenge for me as my fastest mile has been 8:13 and that was when I was 27 and still had great ankles. But considering Bogotá is 8675 feet above sea level, this will be a tough goal for me. More than anything, I just want to enjoy my time in the South American Athens, which is what La Atenas Suramericana translates to.

I can’t wait to get to Colombia. It’s a long way between now and early summer but I still got what’s left of Orientation, the specialty tradecraft school, and language school to keep me occupied.

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4 comments

Neely Moldovan August 4, 2021 - 5:31 pm

Very cool! Can’t wait to hear about it!

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Stephanie August 4, 2021 - 7:01 pm

Ooh, I’ve never been to South America before, that’s so exciting! Good luck there, I would have to brush up on Spanish as well as I don’t remember enough from college.

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Kate August 5, 2021 - 4:38 am

Ooh, I’m jealous – Columbia is on my bucket list! Good luck with your posting – looking forward to hearing how it’s going!

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Melanie williams August 5, 2021 - 6:37 am

Sounds like you are going to have an amazing time. We don’t plan on international travel now until 2023, due to covid, so very jealous.

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