FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: April 18, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is April 18, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I’m interviewing Dr. Ariel Arhart. Ariel, tell me about your background and your career description.
AHART: Thanks very much for inviting me to participate in this project. I am a public health specialist by training. My area of expertise is sexual and reproductive health, and I have a focus on gender-based violence.
Q: How long have you been an Accompanying Partner in the Foreign Service? And tell me the posts where you and your husband have served, and the dates, and including Washington, DC.
AHART: This will go back to ancient history. I always joke that I had a life before I accidentally married into the State Department. My husband and I met in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1992. And at that time, I was doing refugee work. Later, we both had assignments in Georgia, in the Caucasus in 1994. At the time, I was working for USAID [United States Agency for International Development] as a contractor on humanitarian programs. And we weren’t married yet. After that, we got married and I was sort of inducted into life as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer [FSO]. We went on to India. After India, we went back to the U.S. and did a tour here in Washington, D.C. Then in 2002, we went to Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. After that, we went to Azerbaijan, and from there to India, from India to Albania, and from Albania back to Kyrgyzstan. We have just recently returned to Washington, DC after eighteen years out in the field. I feel like I have been very fortunate in that my professional field has been very compatible with State Department life. I have been able to work in my field, in Public Health, for the thirty years that I’ve known my husband and for the twenty-five years of that time that we have been together as a married couple.
Q: In your foreign postings, have you worked locally and internationally rather than remotely or in the embassy?
AHART: Yes, I’ve done a lot of different things, but all in the field of Public Health. I’ve worked for international NGOs [Non-Governmental Organization], like Save the Children, International Rescue Committee [IRC], and Catholic Relief Services [CRS]. At some of our postings, I worked for the U.S. Government. I worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC] and for USAID. And then I’ve worked for international organizations like the World Health Organization [WHO], UNICEF [United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund], and The Global Fund for HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] and Tuberculosis.
Q: Did you use your foreign language ability in any of your jobs abroad?
AHART: Yes, absolutely. One of the perks of having married into the Foreign Service is that the Foreign Service has been very generous in allowing family members and spouses to take language training, based on the availability of slots, of course. So, I have studied three languages at FSI [Foreign Service Institute]. I took a Russian language course; I did the full 10-month course. I studied a year of Azerbaijani at FSI, and I did a year of Albanian at FSI. I always tell people that it has helped me tremendously in my job search and my ability to work in my field at different postings. It’s a real benefit and at a financial cost to the State Department. So, I always encourage spouses and family members to look into the possibility of taking advantage of foreign language training.
Q: So that really helped you. What are the challenges of having a career while moving around from post to post, including having Washington, DC as a post? And how did you cope with these issues?
AHART: I think there are a lot of challenges. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I think one of the major challenges is that every three years you have to prepare to kind of jumpstart your job search. You have to really get out there and hustle, you have to update your resume, you’ve got to stay current with your skills, and it’s psychologically pretty taxing to have to pound the pavement and look for new employment every three years. It’s a skill that you hone over time, but it can be challenging. I also think that all of us, as you move through life, have to make decisions based on the different life stage that you’re at. When you’re single or newly married, you make certain decisions based on certain criteria. It becomes more complicated as you have children, as your children get older, trying to balance your own career aspirations with issues of schooling for your children, for example. All of those things come into play and are difficult. I will say we haven’t done a lot of postings back in the U.S. In the twenty-five years that I’ve officially been part of the State Department family, we did one planned tour here, and I used that time to go back to school and start work on my doctoral degree. That was how I made use of that time and saw that as an opportunity to upgrade my skills and try to remain competitive in my field. Then I did my field research for my doctoral dissertation when we went back overseas at one of our postings. I think that’s part of keeping your own career on a trajectory; anticipating these periods where you’re going to be moving and thinking about how to best use that time and place to keep yourself moving forward on your career path, whatever that might be for you.
Q: When you were abroad, did you need to get permission from countries where the U.S. has a bilateral work agreement for family members?
AHART: I did. I would say this is an area that I think is really important for the State Department to provide family members with up-to-date and good information during the bidding process so that people really understand some of the hurdles that they’re going to have to cross in order to work when they get to the post. And the time to learn about that is not after your spouse has been selected for their post. I’ll tell you that as a young person early in my career, I had no idea about the bilateral work agreement. I didn’t know what that was, and I had already been in the work world for almost ten years. I was shocked when I discovered that you need to make sure there’s a bilateral work agreement before you jump off and bid on a country. So, I think it’s really important that people know about that and understand what the ramifications are. I didn’t need legal approval for any of my employment until my husband reached a certain level of seniority in the State Department. And again, I think that’s something that is really important for family members and spouses to understand as you move on in your career and your spouse is also moving on in their career, that the issues surrounding the potential for a perception of some kind of conflict of interest that you will eventually need this approval. You will need approval both from the ambassador in the country and in some cases, you’ll need legal approval from the State Department, and your spouse will have to recuse himself/herself from working on whatever sphere you work on. So, for example, in my case, I was working on HIV AIDS. And so, my spouse had to formally file paperwork to recuse himself from having any involvement in policy and programming related to HIV. That’s another kind of information piece that I think is not insurmountable, but it’s something that family members and spouses should know about upfront before the bidding process so that they’re prepared, they know what they need to jump through those hurdles to make sure there are no glitches once they get to post.
Q: Very useful point. You’ve talked about how the State Department helped you in terms of language. Were there any ways, besides what you just mentioned, in which the State Department impeded your career, or other ways that they may have helped you? For instance, some people have Professional Development Fellowship Grants, or they are involved in the Global Employment Initiative [GEI] or are other kinds of programs provided by State.
AHART: I did take advantage of the career support consultant who is available (through GEI) to provide coaching and different kinds of support to spouses and family members in their professional development. That was helpful for me when I was shifting away from working on U.S. Government-funded projects and trying to branch out and do more consultancies with multilateral organizations. I needed to learn how to position myself as an independent consultant. So that person was very useful, and I appreciated that the State Department had that resource for me to set up an independent consultation with her. She gave me a lot of good tips on how to deconstruct my experience and rework my resume so that I could make a little bit of a shift in terms of what kind of jobs I was competitive for, so that was helpful. In terms of hindering, I would say the State Department has really made a lot of progress in terms of trying to support dual career families. At the end of the day, the State Department’s primary responsibility is to their employees, not to the spouse. I think that’s something you have to understand; nobody owes you a job. As a professional, I will be honest that the process of having to ask for permission or apply for the legal waivers was sometimes a little frustrating. It’s not insurmountable, but as somebody who has worked very hard to develop professionally, the whole idea that somehow an organization that I don’t work for has that kind of oversight of my professional development was not always a welcome feeling. I understand why, but I think that it’s a source of frustration and can be a little bit demoralizing sometimes for a lot of spouses in the field, in my experience.
Q: What are some of the resources that you or other EFMs [Eligible Family Members] that you know have used? I know, some people use Facebook groups. Have you had experience besides what you’ve mentioned with other resources for continuing your career?
AHART: The number one thing I really keep coming back to is language training. I really encourage people to look seriously at that. The State Department also offers the online continuing language training, which I’ve done as well, and that’s been very useful. It’s not a formalized program, but I’ve always found that talking with the CLO [Community Liaison Officer] and approaching people within different departments at the Embassy when you first get there, people are very willing to talk to you and help you develop a network of professional contacts in the country. This has been a very useful way to land on your feet when you get to post and begin to do a lot of informational interviews. That is a strategy that I’ve used in the in the past.
Q: What is your best advice for EFMs, regarding having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner?
AHART: I think it’s important to recognize that at different life stages, you’re probably going to make decisions about your career based on different criteria, and that’s normal and expected. I think it’s really important to have open and honest conversations with your spouse during the bidding process and really think about what your expectations for your career are and can those be satisfied at the post that you’re going to put on the list during the bidding process. That’s the time to do it, not after the decisions are made. In my experience, people who are happiest are the people who made those decisions in a collaborative, joint way with their spouse. Another recommendation is just do as much homework as you can in advance before you bid on a post about realistically what your job prospects are in your field in that setting, knowing about the bilateral agreement, what kind of hurdles you may have to jump over in order to keep your career going, and then always looking for ways to take the forward steps in your career to remain competitive. If you can financially swing it, when you’re back in the States, you might use that time to develop a new skill, go back to school, get an additional degree, or land a job that’s going to give you new skills and experience, so you’ll remain competitive when you go back out to post.
Q: Excellent points, Ariel. You are really an example of someone who has had a stellar career using your background, your education, and your acquired language skills to be able to really contribute to countries where you’ve served in the area of health. Thank you so much for this interview.
AHART: Bonnie, thank you so much for including me in this project, and good luck with the remainder of your work.
Download a copy of Ariel Ahart’s interview transcript below.