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Flowers bloom on the campus of the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has prepared generations of foreign affairs professionals to successfully advance U.S. foreign policy in an ever-changing world. As the Department has increased its focus on resilience and inclusion as key ingredients to success so too has FSI enhanced and adapted Orientation training to reinforce collaboration and teamwork for new Foreign Service hires.  

Prior to 2020, Foreign Service generalists and specialists received their Orientation in separate courses. The COVID pandemic provided a crucial catalyst to integrate these programs. FSI’s School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS), which manages Orientation, moved quickly in March 2020 to incorporate fully remote platforms for its students. In May 2020, SPAS launched “OR 101,” the first virtual, joint Orientation including both generalists and specialists. The goal was to meet people where they were at such an unprecedented time. 

Although the logistical needs of the pandemic may have prompted the change, integrating specialist and generalist orientation had long been a goal of FSI, based on years of feedback and data from both staff and students. We have now seen the lasting value of integrating FSI’s Orientation training in promoting teamwork and esprit de corps. Foreign Service generalists and specialists across all career tracks now experience the same six-week Orientation together. This allows them to better understand the complexities of actual work at posts where colleagues need to work in unison, maximizing their diverse professional backgrounds. Students learn to appreciate the various roles and responsibilities of their colleagues and see how every team member contributes to mission success.  

“Diplomacy doesn’t happen in a void,” says Petra Zabriskie, SPAS Associate Dean. “Real mission success relies on collaboration across the Department, and the enhancements to our Foreign Service Orientation allow us to better prepare our workforce to turn challenges into opportunities by working closer together.”

An instructor stands in front of a projector screen as she teaches students in a classroom at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
An instructor teaches students at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Adapting Creatively  

Combining orientation classes amid the Department’s historic hiring surge means the size of these cohorts has grown significantly, with classes of over 200 students now the norm. To ensure the same quality instruction for larger groups, classes are broken into “Mission Groups” of about 20-25 students to allow for in-depth discussion in small group sessions throughout Orientation. These Mission Groups are intentionally composed to include career tracks across all generalist cones, and the full complement of specialist roles. Discussions in these more intimate forums also provide opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and create lasting networks and friendships.  

A unified approach to training means that new Foreign Service professionals get a better sense of the Department’s foreign policy goals, structure and culture, and overall mission. They hear directly from Department leaders and interagency partners. The tone is set from the start on the importance of the Department’s core values of loyalty, character, service, accountability, community, and diversity. 

Orientation also prepares students for the demands of Foreign Service life by introducing basic core skills like effective writing and oral briefing, composure under fire, professional conduct, and resilience.

The tactical components of the class have also undergone significant enhancements. Although most of the course is in person once again, students also benefit from hybrid content that makes it easier for them to collaborate across posts, offices, and time zones. Speakers that reside miles or continents away can simply “Zoom in” to share insights with new hires. This enables Orientation to include Locally Employed Staff (LE) from overseas posts, Department of Defense colleagues from outside the DC area, and many others. 

One key opportunity for new Foreign Service employees to engage directly with their LE colleagues, as well as Civil Service employees, contractors, employed Eligible Family Members, and political appointees, comes with the new “State 101: Introduction to the State Department course. This training, the State 101 course, embedded in the second week of Foreign Service Orientation, provides all categories of employees with the mission, structure, and history of the Department. Participants also have an opportunity to practice working together to advance shared goals in a real-world simulation.

Students gather to look at a map at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
Students gather to look at a map at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

Rising to the Opportunities of Modernization

FSI’s approach to Foreign Service Orientation reflects the broader Department mission outlined in the Secretary’s Modernization Agenda. Launched in 2021, the Agenda aims to shape a State Department ready to meet today’s challenges by focusing on critical areas that are paramount to U.S. national security — climate, global health, cybersecurity and emerging technologies, economics, multilateral diplomacy, and China.

While Orientation is not tradecraft training (FSI/SPAS provides a full menu of tradecraft courses for all areas of competence), it provides a strong foundation for foreign affairs professionals to apply core skills to operationalizing the Modernization Agenda.

Modernizing diplomacy starts with modernizing the Department’s workforce. Through the newly revised Foreign Service Orientation, FSI is putting the workforce front and center to better equip them for personal, professional, and mission success.

About the Author: Joan A. Polaschik serves as the Director of the Foreign Service Institute.

U.S. Department of State

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