A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Interview With A USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Diplomat

USDA FAS Foreign Service Officer Scott Sindelar embassy beijingThe U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) is very much an under-the-radar career opportunity for Americans who are interested in trade promotion and living overseas. Compared to the other Foreign Affairs Agencies, the FAS is quite small. At the moment, there are only 166 FAS Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) but they serve all over the world in 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries.

FAS officers provide reporting on overseas agricultural trends and U.S. agricultural export possibilities. They promote U.S. agricultural products and work on other issues such as food security. So far this year, we’ve interviewed a diplomatic courier and FSOs from the State Department, USAID but I wanted to talk to someone from the FAS to give readers a better understanding of what they do. Scott Sindelar, who is currently the FAS Minister Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has been a member of USDA’s FAS since 1987, has served in China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Africa during his distinguished career. I spoke to Scott about how he joined the FAS, what the lifestyle has been like for his family and the pros and cons of the Foreign Service.What was your background before you joined USDA?

I joined USDA in 1987, so I’ve been here for more than 25 years. I’m 56. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I graduated from college in 1979 and I went to The Phillippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up staying four years. I moved back to Minnesota after that and there was some culture shock. Being in the Peace Corps back then was very different then what it is now.

There was no email, no Internet. We sent letters by regular mail. I was there for two years before I talked to my parents on the phone.

the philippinesDid you get married while you lived in The Philippines?

Yes, I did, in 1982.

Almost everyone I know who was in the Peace Corps got married while they were overseas.

I know, it happens all the time.

And how did you become a member of the FAS?

I went to graduate school and got a masters in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. I saw a poster there before I graduated about the Foreign Agricultural Service. The recruiter came through and I learned about the Foreign Service. I delayed about 18 months before interviewing – I worked at Auburn University – and then ended up at USDA.

Do you need a master’s to get into the FAS?

At that time, the minimum requirement was a master’s in agricultural economics and some overseas experience and if you had farm experience that was a plus. When I joined, in my class there were only a few people who had actually grown up on a farm. Now, you still need a master’s degree, but it can be in international business, development, marketing; it has to have some economics in it, but we’re casting our net wider now.

So a master’s in say, phys ed wouldn’t work?

No.

Does it help if you speak a foreign language?

It does.

shanghaiDid you go right overseas?

I was hired initially as a civil servant, then you can choose to move laterally into the Foreign Service, but you have to have at least 18 months working in Washington in a regular professional job as an economist or marketing person. If you choose to try out for the Foreign Service, that’s a rigorous process – there’s an examination, a series of oral interviews, and if you have foreign language capability, that’s where that comes in.

We had partnerships with different agricultural sectors – the American soybeans Association, the Wine Institute, the Washington Apple Commission. Those are non-profit trade association groups. Congress gives us money to work with these groups to do market development overseas. So my first job in Washington was assisting with that program, then I was a wheat analyst for a while.

I’m sorry, did you say wheat or weed?

Wheat!

And what countries have you served in?

I did Chinese language training for my first overseas assignment and went to Beijing. I served there from ’91-’95. In ’95, I went to Bangkok, and was there until ’99. Then I worked in Washington for three years and in 2002, I was assigned to Shanghai on a one-year gap assignment. Then I went to Tapei in 2003 through 2007. And in 2007, we moved to Pretoria, South Africa – I covered all of Southern Africa in that job and in 2010, I came back to Beijing where I am now a Minister Counselor.

You do four-year tours?

Typically. We’re assigned on a three-year tour with an automatic extension for a fourth year if we request it at the end of our first year.

old beijingChina is nothing at all like it was when you first arrived in 1990. It’s much easier to live in China as a Westerner now, I imagine?

I was in Beijing 20 years ago, I was in Shanghai ten years ago, so I’m back every ten years or so. But yes, compared to the way it was here in the early 1990s, it’s much easier to live here now in terms of the lifestyle. But it’s also a bit more complicated. China has grown up quite a bit – so there are traffic problems now.

Back in 1990 most of the traffic was people on bikes, I imagine?

Absolutely. Bicycles and buses. It was nice. It was a bit of a hardship post because pollution was bad then and it’s bad now too. You couldn’t get a lot of the amenities then that we can get here now but the pace of life was different and it was still an older China, so the city itself was a little more interesting.

They hadn’t demolished all of the old hutongs then.

Right. Now we have lots of five-star hotels and wonderful restaurants but it’s not as exotic as it may have been at that time. If you’ve never been to China before though, it’s still exciting.

China doesn’t have the dual pricing system where foreigners pay more for things any more, right?

Oh yes, that’s gone. Even as diplomats, there are fewer restrictions on our travel now than there were 20 years ago. We used to have to get approval to go places. Almost anywhere. In order to go to Annhui Province, for example, we needed the permission of the local foreign affairs office and they would make the arrangements for our meetings. We couldn’t independently set up our own meetings. And they would accompany us on meetings too. Now, if we want to go look at the corn crop somewhere, we just go.

Not to Tibet though, right?

Places like Tibet are more problematic, or Xinxiang – places like that, they want to know what we are doing there.

How many FAS FSOs are there in China?

We have 12 FAS officers in China.

So there are only 166 FAS FSOs and 12 are in China?

We are the largest FAS post.

US Army IraqFAS operates 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries but do you have offices in the most dangerous places that are unaccompanied posts, like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

We serve in all those places.

The State Department has had a hard time staffing some of those posts. Is it the same at USDA?

My number two here did a tour in Iraq. We have a deputy director arriving in Shanghai next summer who served in Afghanistan. We haven’t had a problem staffing those hardship and unaccompanied posts as State has.

Is that mostly because of the hardship pay and danger pay incentives?

I’ll give people credit for wanting to serve in places like that. My deputy here wanted to go. It’s an opportunity and a challenge. And he was in Baghdad in 2002-3, a particularly tough time in Baghdad.

Do you have kids?

Yes, two boys. My oldest son is 24 and he lives in Washington, D.C., my youngest son is 18 and he will graduate from the International School in Beijing next spring.

How did your kids cope with all the transitions from one school and one country to the next?

We have a very good Foreign Service family and I’m proud and grateful for them. My wife has been working as an eligible family member for years. And that’s a great opportunity for spouses. She’s been able to work toward a pension and it’s been fulfilling for her. My kids have never complained about the lifestyle. They’ve usually been ready to move on to each next post and they’re excited to get to the next place.

Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye to friends but they became accustomed to it.

And FAS FSOs get the same perks as State Department FSOs – free education for your children, free housing and so on, right?

Yes, it’s the same. We’re a Foreign Affairs Agency, so those benefits are the same.

bangkokHave the travel opportunities been a big selling point of this career choice for you?

Absolutely. Every place we’ve served in has been a hardship post, so we get R & R leave and have used that to travel. We probably never would have had the chance to travel to Australia and New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia. When we lived in Bangkok, we traveled all around Thailand.

What types of jobs has your wife been able to get at the various posts you’ve served in?

She’s mostly worked in consular jobs. She has tenured status as a civil servant at the State Department as well. But she’s also worked as a General Services Officer on procurement. She did some interesting work in Bangkok with extraditions. She’s had a fascinating time. Most spouses could make more if they stayed in the U.S., but if you balance the lifestyle out it makes it pretty attractive.

What’s been the most difficult part about this career choice for you?

Separation from the rest of your family and friends. The long distances can be challenging. We’ve missed I don’t know how many weddings, graduations, funerals. If you’re close to your extended family or you have a good network of friends in the U.S., that can be difficult. It’s easier today thanks to Skype and Facebook and the ease of communication, but it’s not the same was being there. You can’t always be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But if you have a family then your own nuclear family has an opportunity to grow stronger together.

And what’s the most rewarding aspect of the FAS for you?

The work gives you the opportunity to experience the world. Very few other careers do that. I’ve always felt that embassies are great communities; if you need support, you have your colleagues. If you want to get out and explore the country, you can do that.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credits: USDA, Jonathan Kos-Read Telmo32, US Army and Archangel Raphael on Flickr]