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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From English Teacher to Foreign Service Officer

May 2012—Cha Jones

Have you ever wanted to know what goes on at an Embassy or imagined being invited to an Embassy party to rub elbows with a diplomat? Well, if any of that interests you, then you may want to think about a career as a Foreign Service Officer.

Foreign Service Officers are diplomats employed by the U.S. Department of State. As a Foreign Service Officer you could work at any one of the 265 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world working on the implementation of foreign policy, insuring the interests of the U.S. government abroad, as well as assisting American citizens who are living and working in foreign countries.

As a Foreign Service Officer, there are five different career tracks that you may enter: Consular officer, Economic officer, Management officer, Political Officer, and Public Diplomacy Officer. If you are interested in learning more, please click on the link below. 

From English Teacher to Foreign Service OfficerJoia Starks, U.S. Consular Office in Barbados 

Joia Starks is a 2005 graduate of Hampton University. During her studies, she had an opportunity to study abroad in Mexico with a Spanish immersion program and after graduating from college, she spent 5 weeks studying abroad in Paris. Shortly after she graduated  with a degree in Marketing she moved to New York City and worked in corporate America for a couple of years, but after waking up in tears with no desire to go to work, she realized that she was unfulfilled. She missed being abroad and being in another culture experiencing new things.

So, in October 2007 she actually moved to South Korea to teach English as a second language for a year. It was nothing like the stories that she read in her youth, which is what began her adventures abroad, but it was the beginning of what would actually change her life forever.  

Teaching English in Korea

Joia, describe how you felt when you moved to Korea?
“I was super nervous. I had a lot of anxiety because I had never been to Asia and I didn’t speak Korean and I didn’t know anyone other than one person who I met on Dave’s ESL CafĂ©. I think my friends and family were more worried than I was, but because they were so nervous it made me not as nervous. I was really excited because I was embarking on what could be the most amazing adventure of my life.”

What was the best thing about living in Korea?
“There are so many great things about Korea. I really developed a good core group of friends, both expats and Koreans, which felt like family. We just clicked right away. That made the experience good. I love the food, and the vibrancy of the city. Seoul is a pretty safe place to be and I liked going out on the town eating all night and drinking. If I wanted to go to museums, I was able to do that as well.”

Was there anything negative about being abroad or being in Korea?
Yeah, I think anywhere, there are going to be some downsides. I would say the hardest thing about being and living anywhere abroad is the transition when you are trying to get settled and comfortable in this new place and it’s not yet clicking. So, my first four or five months it was a little rough because I didn’t have my core group of friends, I was missing home, I couldn’t read anything and I could barely go to the grocery store without having a melt-down. So, I think that adjusting in a new place can be a bit of a negative experience if you are just not use to it.”

What was the biggest difference from living abroad and being back home in New Jersey or was there a difference?
“I would say the biggest difference would obviously be the language. I moved to Korea not knowing Korean. Yeah, I had my little travel guide, but when you try to use it, you sound really silly. Another thing is not driving and still trying to get around the city and my little neighborhood and not that I was ever the majority in America, but in Korea I was really a minority and that was kind of difficult at first.”

When you left Korea what was the biggest thing that you took away from Korea, as far as your experience?
Basically, living in Korea is when I decided I wanted to join the State Department. So, it gave me a sense of purpose. I went to Korea wanting to challenge myself and discover new things about myself.  I think I realized that I was cut out for this type of lifestyle and I really wanted to live abroad as a career and find ways to make a difference in people’s lives in a non-traditional way. So, my biggest takeaway was building my confidence and feeling like I set out to do something, I accomplished it, and I have come out with a better sense of who I am and what I am capable of doing.”

Transition from Teacher to Consular Officer

Let’s talk now about you working for the Department of Defense State as a Foreign Service Officer
“I am a Consular Officer, and that basically means that I help out American citizens abroad.  As a Consular Officer we do immigrant and non-immigrant visas and then American citizen services, which is probably the biggest thing we do.

How did you actually get a State Department job?
It’s actually an interesting story. When I was living in Korea I was on my way to house warming party.  I’m standing in the middle of downtown Seoul and I have really no idea where I am going. All that I had was a sheet of paper with some directions and I was about to take a bus when  I see this other black woman on the bus stop. I’m kind of looking at her and I am thinking, “She’s black and I am black and she is probably a teacher too.” Well, it turns out she is not a teacher, she actually worked for the U.S. Embassy there, and ironically we were both going to the same party. So, we became friends and through her guidance I applied for something called the, “Rangel Fellowship,” which is a program that really seeks out talented minority students for the Foreign Service, and it has a sister fellowship that does that same thing called the , “Pickering Fellowship”. I applied for that and it was a lot of hard work, and luck and really great people and mentoring and some disappointment, but I got it and it set me on a path to go to the Foreign Service.

So, did you still have to take the Foreign Service Exam?
“Yes, the program basically sends you to graduate school and you have to study International Affairs., You do that for two years, complete two internships, take the Foreign Service officer exam (both the written and then the oral assessment), and then once you graduate ,you can join the Foreign Service.”

What is the biggest difference, and I know it’s a BIG difference, between when you were traveling and living abroad as a teacher and now, traveling and living as a Foreign Service officer?

“This is like my dream job and so that to me is worth giving up a sense of privacy.”
It’s totally different. When you are a regular Joe Smoe traveling around, you have a lot more leeway with your private and personal life, but now that I am with the State Department, you know you are never really off duty. The things that you say and do, people are watching you. Even in our training they tell us “You are the face of the government all the time and you really have to be careful.” It is a different level of responsibility to be the face, the eyes and ears of the President and the Secretary of State and at end of the day the American people. It’s really a very humbling and daunting challenge, but I guess the trade of f is that I am doing my dream work. This is my dream job and so that to me is worth giving up a sense of privacy.”

Did you ever foresee this coming? Had you not had the chance encounter with the young lady on the bus stop, do you still think that this would have happened for you, being in your dream job?  Do you think you would have followed down this path anyways?
“I would like to think I would have ended up on this path anyways. As I was preparing to leave Korea I was studying for the GRE’s and I knew I wanted to go into International Relations. State Department was at the top of that list, but I also knew that it was a really difficult thing to do, and it’s hard to get into. So, I was trying to build up my skills and my resume so that I could be a good candidate. It might have taken longer, that’s for sure, but I think eventually I would have ended up in this career.”

What are the benefits of actually working for the State Department?
“Oh, there are so many. I’m still pretty early on in my career, but first of all your co-workers are all these really smart people, really fun to work with, and to m e that makes all the difference in the world. It doesn’t really matter what you are doing usually, if you work with people that you like that makes your job better. So, all of my co-workers are pretty ambitious and they speak many different languages, they are traveled and we already come from a place of common ground. That is definitely a great benefit for me, being able to just relate to people off jump.

“I ended up in Barbados for my first tour, but next I could be in Russia or Venezuela. I like the fact that I get to move and do a totally different job every two years.”

The other benefit is that you are living abroad, and there is something for everyone out there. I ended up in Barbados for my first tour, but next I could be in Russia or Venezuela. I like the fact that I get to move and do a totally different job every two years. For me, that is exactly what I need, because after about two years I am antsy and ready to see something new. And then of course, there are the perks of them covering your housing. So, that is something you don’t have to worry about being abroad. Also, the money is good, you get to do work that is making a difference every single day, and that may sound really cheesy, but it’s nice to see that. Because I have been in jobs before that I really didn’t see that, and it makes a difference. “

Great, that brings me to this question; did you actually enjoy teaching when you were living in Korea?
Actually, I really did. Of course, I had days when I was not the best teacher and I know I struggled, but I really loved my kids. I actually have pictures of them hanging on my refrigerator now, because they really made my life interesting and exciting. I got to work with kindergarten all the way to high school kids, and they were all really sweet. I always said, “Even the bad kids in Korea are still really good kids.” So, I enjoyed teaching and I think it would be good, maybe when I am older.  I wish I had known a little more about teaching, I took a 6 month TESOL course, which did an okay job, but doesn’t really prepare you for when you are in front of students. But I loved teaching and I’d do it again. “

What advice would you give another young lady who is trying to make a decision to go abroad, based on your experience, what would you tell them?
If someone is on the fence on whether to do something or not. Well, this is kind of going to sound reckless, but I would say, “Just do it!” Because whatever is holding you back from doing it, probably feels much scarier in your head, what you built up something to be, usually it’s not as bad as you think it is. The mind is so powerful, and you can search the internet and be looking at pictures, listening to stories and reading blogs and whatever. You’re trying to piece together what you think this place is like, but truthfully you’re not getting the full picture. You are only getting snippets. So, if you are on the fence about going, then you just have to do it. Because if I let what people were saying about Korea stop me from going, like i.e. they don’t like black people, you are going to have a terrible time, or you can’t date there as a black women. All of these things that you hear will prevent you from going and experiencing it for yourself.”

What advice would you give to someone who is teaching and is content, but not actually following their passion at this time, but would like to be in their dream job? 
I would say to really reach out to people who are doing what you think you want to be doing. What really matters is making connections. So, if you know someone, have a friend of a friend, or there’s a forum, such as, Women of Color Living Abroad, then make connections. For one, that provides motivation for you to do what you want to and maybe step out and take that risk, and two it keeps you connected to what is happening in that industry. So, if you want to be a Master Scuba Diver, then get on a forum and talk to people who are doing what you want to do. I can’t stress that enough. It is really important that you maintain contact and connections with people who are doing things that you want to do. So, throughout my travels I would talk to people and ask them, “What are you doing, what do you want to do, do you know about this, or can you tell me about that?” I think you have to just stay inquisitive and stay connected to your passion even if you are not doing what is your passion from day to day.”

What are three adjectives that you would use to describe your Expat Experience?
“Comical- I have some funny stories living abroad, dynamic, and exhilarating”

Ok, finish this sentence. Living abroad has…
“Living abroad has been the best decision I have ever made.”


  1. Just do it indeed!

  2. I truly appreciated reading this. I have an undergrad in Public Policy w/an emphasis in Education. I was just considering what I wanted to do in grad school and this is definitely helping me zoom in. Thanks alot.

    1. Thanks! Follow your dream you can do it! We need more women who look like us to make it in these fields!

  3. Great interview

  4. I am going to college this fall to study International Relations and just seeing another woman of color doing exactly what I want to do is inspiring and reassuring =) Thank you!!!

    1. I am glad that this post helped, please continue to follow us and please feel friend to join our FB group.

  5. What a great story! I'm only in the beginning stages of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (I passed the exam & am now waiting to see if I am invited to DC for the Oral assessment), but I actually think I met that black FSO when I was living in Seoul, Korea. She issued me an emergency passport after my visa was stolen!

  6. Hi Cha,

    You have a very inspiring story - thank you for the sharing this! My wife and I are at the point in our lives where we want change...we want to do things that matter and fill our lives with new experiences. We feel we can accomplish both by living abroad and either teaching english as a foreign language or working as foreign service officer...at the moment, I'm leaning towards the latter...and then I came across your story where you did both!

    Even though I'd prefer to be an FSO, I'm still planning to get my TEFL certification, since it'd be good to have anyway, perhaps as a back up... may I ask if you have any thoughts or advice to share about both TEFL and FSO?

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks Johnny for reading the blog!

      However, I was the interviewer and not the interviewee. I did however teach abroad and I manage this blog. Joia was the one I interviewed and yes she did go from ESL teacher to FSO and I am sure that you and your wife can do the same. I think that there are many options out there and the journey can take you anywhere, but I think you should do your research to see what will be your best fit for you. Teaching can open the door to many different things and help you save while you think about what you want to do, so don't rule it go. But as you can see you can do both. Again, thanks for reading and we hope that you continue to stop by and find more information that will help you in the future.

      Good traveling,


    2. Hi Cha,

      Thank you for the advice and taking the time to respond. I will continue to explore my options and reach out to as many people as I can. I think your blog is a great resource! And yes, I realized after posting that Joia Starks was the subject of the interview... my mistake. May I ask if you're able to put me in touch with Joia?

      Thanks again!

    3. Not a problem and you can contact Joia at https://www.facebook.com/joia.starks, she is a very approachable young lady.

  7. Wow inspiring! I am a Korean American and have been living in Korea for the past decade. I attended both undergraduate and graduate school here and seoul and. majored in international cooperation.

    Can I have more information about this diplomat party that you mentioned? I should definitely check it out.

    Also as a diplomat can you choose your country of choice? Since I speak Korean the obvious choice would be to work in Seoul.

    Also did you happen to take the FSO exam in Korea?


  8. This was a great entry. It is amazing how many different opportunities there are out there for people who would like to live overseas and not teach English. Thanks for a new perspective.

  9. Your hair is amazing :D
    Its so difficult for me keeping my natural hair that most of the time when travelling it's in plaits,

  10. Hi everyone!!

    Joia here...I'm sorry I hadn't checked back frequently to see your responses. But thank you so much! As Cha said, you can find me on Facebook - Joia Starks - and I have an old blog from my teaching days, too. It's called The Seoul of Black Folks. I haven't updated it much since being in Barbados, but it chronicles my teaching adventures :)

    Hope everyone is well!!


  11. “Living abroad has been the best decision I have ever made.”

    Awesome to hear it. Almost everyone that has done it, says the same thing.