A career in foreign diplomacy does not center on glamorous parties and VIP events, Ma. Angelina Santa Catalina, director of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) Foreign Service Institute, told The Manila Times.
“Yes, it is glamorous because you have these diplomatic dinners and parties but at the same time, it is a lot of hard work. The responsibility is huge,” she said.
Sta. Catalina is also the board secretary of the board of the Foreign Service Exam. She administers the exam that must be passed in order to enter the foreign service.
The working title may sound glamorous, but the way up to the ambassadorship is a ladder many have failed to climb. The Foreign Service Exam is reputedly more difficult than the Bar Exam.
In order to be a member of the career service, one has to take a three-tier exam that includes a pre-qualifying exam (general conditions of the Philippines, logic, country policy, English comprehension, writing and grammar), a panel interview with at least three career officers and a written exam (critical thinking, foreign policy knowledge, Philippine conditions, society and culture).
According to Sta. Catalina, only 18 percent of some 400 to 1,000 who take the pre-qualifying exam in the past decade passed the level. Of this number, close to 100 percent usually pass the panel interview while they will further be filtered through the writing exam.
The problem with a lot of those who take the exam, the official told The Times, don’t really know how to prepare for it. The department does not offer a review for the exam. Review centers for the foreign service exam takes place in schools like the College of St. Benilde and the Ateneo de Manila University.
“My advice is to just read and read. Read the newspapers. Watch news programs, analysis,” Sta. Catalina said.
After passing the exam, career officers would need to take a three-year training at the institute and learn at least one foreign language such as Mandarin, Russian, Arabic, French and Spanish.
The bulk of the responsibility of a career officer, whether he/she is posted in the consular office or in the embassy, is to address the issues faced by the Filipino community in the host country.
Sta. Catalina said Filipinos abroad should be the primary priority of those officers who are being posted across six continents.
“When you pass the exam and you start your service here, the concept of service for the nation isn’t exactly there yet. After a while, magiging automatic na ang response [to the Filipinos’ needs],” she added.
“It’s not an easy life. But why do I stay? The pay is not that good. I could make more outside. For me, this is a place where you really do service to the nation without being OA [overacting]about it. It’s just normal and part of everything,” Sta. Catalina told The Times.
Filipinos all over the world, the former ambassador to Helsinki said, are always looking for familiar faces, people who can help them with their issues whether it may be their immigration statuses, their travel documents or their labor cases.
Having the power to represent the country in the international community is a “big responsibility,” the official said. “Whenever you say something or do something, you represent the Philippines. And then you think, ‘am I ready to give that statement? Should I do it?’ It’s overwhelming and humbling at the same time.”
“In the long run though, you learn to live with the responsibility and you use the skills you learned to help our kababayans out there,” she added.