In the midst of a period of tense diplomatic negotiations, the State Department announced some good news this week: More candidates took the U.S. foreign service exam on Sept. 29 than in any year since 1988.
"While we are focusing on the difficult issues that are confronting our country since Sept. 11, I think it is a tribute to the American people and the vital role of this department that 12,807 people took the Foreign Service written exam," deputy State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker told reporters at a Monday briefing.
The spike in test-takers--an increase of 63 percent over 2000--is not a direct result of patriotic sentiment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, since people had to apply to take the exam earlier in the year. Still, Foreign Service officials are encouraged that applicants did not skip the test in large numbers because of concerns about the safety of overseas postings.
"The big question was what would people do after Sept. 11," said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents Foreign Service officers. "No one knew what would happen after the print and television images of our embassies in Indonesia and Pakistan surrounded by mobs. I think it bodes very well that a large number of people took the test."
The Foreign Service exam consists of a written portion--which was given Sept. 29--and an oral exam, administered later to people who pass the initial test. Typically, only about 500 applicants out of 12,000 will receive placements as Foreign Service officers, Naland said.
Naland credited the efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell for increasing interest in the Foreign Service exam. Powell, he noted, has made the recruitment of career diplomats a priority following a decade in which the number of Foreign Service officers has dwindled due to budget cutbacks and attrition.
"He has obtained the resources to advertise the Foreign Service exam and openings in the department, and he has been talking in the media about the crucial role of diplomats in building the coalition against terrorism," Naland said. "So we had been very hopeful that this new prominence would have this kind of result."
Powell has backed a three-year effort to increase the size of the diplomatic corps, beginning with 360 new people who will fill existing vacancies and provide reinforcement so that active Foreign Service officers can return home for specialized training.
In addition, the State Department will begin offering the written exam twice a year next year--rather than the traditional once a year. The department is also working to accelerate the process of getting successful applicants posted overseas.
Reeker said in his briefing that the proportion of minority test-takers increased from 23 percent last year to 31 percent this year. The department set new records for African-American and Hispanic test-takers, while the numbers of Asian-American and Native American test-takers increased by 47 percent and 100 percent, respectively.