So what’s it really like to work in the Consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany? I would give you the tell-all now, but unfortunately, it seems you don’t have the proper security clearance to learn of such information.
All jokes aside, probably the most common question I get when I meet people and they’ve found out I’m working at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin is, “So what do you do there?”
That’s a good question. The Consular section is a special section, mostly because the work can be so diverse, but also oh-so very boring. On any particular day, an intern here never knows what (or who) they’re going to encounter. But a few things are a safe bet, especially now that I’m the only remaining American intern.
My morning starts at 8:10 am, sharp. If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that this is preceded by an hour-long commute across the city, and if I’m lucky, I’m dashing in the door with a coffee in my hand (but who knows when I’ll actually catch the time to drink it). Applicants to our non-immigrant visas section, or NIV, begin to file in at 8:15 every morning, and I am their first point of contact as an American with the Foreign Service, taking their fingerprints before their visa interview. We see all 206 nationalities at the Consular section in Berlin, of all ages, and all purposes of travel. I get to practice my German skills often, especially with older applicants who may not speak English very well, and sometimes I even get to exercise my Spanish!
During the summer, a large chunk of our applicants are students applying for their visas to go study abroad in the U.S. But we also get a lot of the “B” visa – the vague tourist visa – which can be a tricky one, because even though applicants may say they’re traveling to the U.S. for tourism, they can sometimes be masking their true intentions. That’s where our Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) come in – they’re responsible for conducting interviews with the applicants to make sure that everything checks out. With the current administration in the U.S., it has been incredibly interesting (and admittedly, frustrating) at times, because we are the first line of implementation for the recent travel bans that have been contested in court and signed into law recently. These policies are changing literally every day, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re up-to-date on memos from Washington and the almighty “FAM” (basically the Consular section’s rule book). I work right next to the FSOs conducting their interviews, so I get to hear all of the decisions, approvals and denials alike. For this job, it’s important for me to be quick with the computer to take applicants’ fingerprints, and even quicker on my feet, running to give applicants’ passports (every three or so) to the employees and interns doing intake that morning.
What’s my favorite passport so far? Probably Switzerland’s. Or New Zealand’s.
Have I discovered countries that I never knew existed? You betcha. Anyone ever heard of Eritrea? I hadn’t.
When NIV appointments finish up – about 11:15 or so in the morning – I head upstairs to American Citizen Services, or ACS, where I remain for the rest of the day. I help with data entry for that morning’s applicants, which ranges from routine passport renewals, to reports of births abroad, to emergency passports for those who have had their passport lost, stolen, or damaged. Just today, I had to quickly print an emergency passport for an arrested American citizen in Germany being extradited to the U.S., and they needed the passport to get on the plane tomorrow. We deal with these arrest cases in ACS, as well as hospitalizations of American citizens in Germany. Sometimes that’s interesting. Sometimes that’s just down-right frustrating.
Afternoons are typically consumed with printing and distributing emergency passports – yep, I actually get to make passports – and completing mail-outs for passports and CRBAs (consular reports of birth abroad) that have been made and sent back to post from Washington. Sometimes I’m interacting with a lot of American citizens for this work, and sometimes I have no interaction at all, depending on what day it is. Overall, though, the work in ACS can get quite stressful and intense, and it definitely has kept me on my toes more than once, when the ability to think on my feet and make quick decisions was crucial to providing our services to American citizens to the best of our ability. Learning to work well with everyone, agreeable and not-so-agreeable alike, has also been crucial for my professional development at the Embassy.
If I’ve learned one thing while interning at the Consular section, it’s that while the day-to-day tasks can sometimes feel menial, monotonous, or just utterly exasperating, the work done here is some of the most important and underappreciated work that U.S. Missions do abroad. We are the largest providers of customer service between the U.S. and the rest of the world, and we put a face to the U.S. government for those who have never interacted with the U.S. before. For that, I’m so proud and grateful to have the opportunity to be part of that representation.
I said it a year ago after finishing my internship in Albania, and I’ll say it again: people are emotional. People are unpredictable. People are difficult. But I’ve never felt a joy quite like helping those same people travel the world through the United States Foreign Service.