Part Two — RPCV Ambassadors talk about passing the Foreign Service Examination


Gina Abercrombie

Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley

Ambassador to Malta (2012-16); (PCV Oman 1980-82)


The majority of the RPCV Ambassadors interviewed for this article said the Foreign Service was not something that they had considered before they saw the State Department in action during their Peace Corps service. But there were exceptions. Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who was in the Peace Corps in Oman (1980-82), did decide on diplomat service as a PCV when she had the opportunity to meet and make friends with some of the younger diplomats and heard firsthand about their work while she was still a Volunteer. That led directly to her taking the exam.

Thomas N. Hull

Ambassador Thomas N. Hull

Ambassador to Sierra Leone (2004-2007); (PCV Sierra Leone 1968-70)

Thomas N. Hull, Ambassador to Sierra Leone (2004-2007), a PCV in Sierra Leone (1968-70), said that reading The Ugly American got him interested in the Foreign Service.

“More than JFK’s appeal to youth to serve, I was attracted to an overseas career by this bestseller, but uncertain if I could qualify. The Peace Corps proved to be both preparation and a stepping stone. My Peace Corps experience convinced me of the importance of good relations with all countries, gave me the confidence to work usefully in a cross-cultural environment, and exposed me directly to the Foreign Service.”

Vicki Huddleston

Ambassador Vicki Huddleston

Ambassador to Madagascar (1997-1999) & Mali (2002-2005) & Chief of United States Interests Section in Havana (1999–2002); (PCV Peru 1964–66)

6)Another RPCV Ambassador, Vicki Huddleston, decided she wanted the Foreign Service while she was still in college. “I took the exam,” says Vicki, “and failed. Instead of the State Department, I went to the Peace Corps which was much better as I learned so much about myself.”

Her Peace Corps service in Peru (1964–66) working on financing housing Co-ops led to Vicki getting a job with a USAID contractor in Peru, and then being transferred to Brazil with the American Institute for Free Labor Development. When she returned to the States, she says. “I talked myself into Johns Hopkins SAIS. No GSE! After graduating, I took the FS exam again, and this time I passed. I had a job offer from USAID because of my Peace Corps housing experience, but preferred State. It was a long road into the State Department, but a good one.”

Gregory Engle

Ambassador Gregory Engle

Ambassador (Togo 2003-2005); (PCV South Korea 1980-81); (PC/CD Ethiopia 2012-14) 

“I passed the written exam for the Foreign Service a few months before entering the Peace Corps, and I took the panel assessment five days before staging,” recalls Greg Engle, a PCV in South Korea (1980-81) and later ambassador to Togo. “That was at a time when candidates did not receive the results of the panel assessment for several weeks. I found out that I had passed in the middle of pre-service training. I was ecstatic, but I also knew that a very long security clearance process lay ahead. I was a military brat and study-abroad student, so I had lots of addresses to check, and by all reports, the Foreign Service security folks checked every one. Knowing that, I settled back into Peace Corps service, and I received my offer to join the Foreign Service a few months after  leaving  South Korea. I guess I was one of the lucky ones: I only took the test once, and the process, while it took time and was competitive, was not all that arduous.

Michael Arietti

Ambassador Michael Arietti

Ambassador to Rwanda (2005-2008); (PCV India 1969-71)

Michael Arietti, Ambassador to Rwanda in 2005 to 2008 had studied International Relations in college and was interested in diplomatic service before joining the Peace Corps and going to India in 1969. “If anything, my Peace Corps experience reaffirmed my interest in living overseas and learning about different cultures. In fact, I took the exam at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi while I was still in the Peace Corps.”

When Michael took his Foreign Service exam in the late Sixties most candidates for the Foreign Service were recent graduate with only BA or MA degrees. Over the years he noticed that this changed. “Many new entrants,” he says, “have higher degrees, including law, and most have worked as professionals for some time before joining State. Many have lived overseas and have good language abilities. They are more experienced than those who joined when I did. Also, when I joined State, just about everyone assumed that this would be their career until retirement. Nowadays, many seem to be willing to give State a try, but are prepared to quit and try something else if State is not what they want.”

James F. Mack

Ambassador James F. Mack

Ambassador Guyana (1997-2000); (PCV Honduras 1963-65)

In a 2002 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy for the State Department’s Oral History project James Mack, Ambassador to Guyana (1997-2000) talks about how he took and passed both the written and oral Foreign Service Exams in his senior year at Cornell University. Having already been accepted by the Peace Corps, he asked one of the examiners what he should do.

“He told me I was a young guy; hadn’t even graduated from college yet; that while I could come into the Foreign Service, I really should go into the Peace Corps first. The Foreign Service, he said, would hold the commission for me until I completed my Peace Corps Service. He said that when I got out, I would be older, more mature, speak really good Spanish, and be much more useful to the Foreign Service. That made sense to me so I said, “fine”! It turned be to be great advice and that is what I did.”

Six months before the end of his Peace Corps tour in Honduras (1963-65) he received a telegram, an old fashion Morse code telegram. “The telegraph operator in Siguatepeque knew everything that was going on,” James recalls. “I received a telegram that said I had been accepted into the Foreign Service to start in the class in January of 1966, and my starting salary would be $7,200. Well, within a half a day the whole town knew this, and that I was going to be making $7,200 a year. That was a huge amount of money for Siguatepeque.”

At the time, Jim’s Peace Corps salary was $75 a month, which is what a high school teacher made in Honduras, and for him quite adequate. He actually saved $25 a month.

At the time, he was embarrassed that people in Siguatepeque knew he would be making so much money in the Foreign Service.

He went to Washington after Honduras and joined the Foreign Service A-100 course for new FSOs. One day when commuting to work along M street to Key Bridge he pulled up behind a DC Transit Bus and on the back of the bus there was a sign that read, “Wanted, DC Transit Bus Drivers, Starting salary $9,900 a year”.

“Then it really hit me, says Jim. “$7,200 really wasn’t that much money in the U.S. I thought that was very, very funny. I wasn’t making a lot of money in the Foreign Service and even back then $7,200 didn’t go very far.”



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  • Chris Stevens had been a PC Volunteer and some years following became a US Ambassador and very soon was murdered. It’s not an easy decision considering that. Chris was a local guy in the San Francisco area and his mom and dad are still alive.

  • I didn’t become an ambassador. My then-wife and I joined the Peace Corps from grad school at the Univ of Minnesota – English and American Lit. We assumed we would return to the academic life after that. We were teachers in eastern Nigeria 1963-65. It was there in Enugu that I first discovered that there was a Foreign Service; in those days there was a small consulate in Enugu. So I took the FS exam there and passed it … and forgot much of what I had studied in literature. I reasoned that literature would always be there and wouldn’t change but in the Foreign Service I was going to act on matters of public policy and national security that would depend to some degree on my analysis and judgment. And that’s the way it turned out.

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