The year the world stood still

2020 was not a good year for travel. Neither was 2021. It seems the pandemic that forced the world to take a health pause is going nowhere fast. What did travelers do to fill the gap that was left by the pandemic?

I spent the last two years in California studying French and International Relations in preparation to make the biggest career jump since deciding to commission into the Air Force – entrance into the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program. It is no surprise that working in international relations has been and will continue to be my dream job, but ironically, although I got the job I always asked for, it has not been the easiest path to walk.

THE FORIEGN AREA OFFICER PROGRAM (FAO)

Every armed service has a FAO program. We are a niche career field working with foreign militaries on security assistance initiatives on behalf of the US government. We also serve as attach├ęs, representing our nations militaries at US embassies in nearly every country in the world. It is exciting, challenging and dynamic work. Every branch splits their FAOs into different regions of the world aligning with the 7 continents. My assigned region is Africa. Only .4% of Air Force officers are FAOs and out of that group of specialized officers, only 12% are assigned to Africa. As a part of the program, you need to be able to speak a language in your assigned region, have at least 7 years in the military, 6 months of which will be focused solely on your region, and have a masters in international relations with a focus on your continent. Best part? To get that degree, language and in-region experience, the military will pay to send you to gorgeous Monterey (and around the world) for two years, or more depending on the language, to study.

Sounds Amazing right?

Sure, until you realize that the military never does anything for free. The Defense Language Institute (DLI) is the hardest academic course I have every completed. Imagine going from not knowing a language to being able to converse at a high school level in 9 months. That is what I did in 2020 – learned French, in the quickest, most condensed way possible. And of course, French is not the hardest language – I at least had an alphabet I knew already. Imagine Russian, a year, or Arabic, Chinese or Hangul all of which are one and half years of training. For most of these programs, nearly half of all students fail out of the course.

It was of course my dream to be able to study a language full time, 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. The problem with school as an adult is it was also my job. So if I failed a class, I failed at my job, leaving the possibility of getting kicked out of the military. It was an all win or loose scenario. I also had never wanted anything so much in my life, so when I put all the effort I had into studying only to get B’s or C’s the joy out of learning a new language was quickly sucked out of me.

Yet against all odds, I passed. Looking back, I didn’t perform quite as bad as I thought, though I certainly wasn’t as good as I wanted to be either. The experience really made me respect those of us who are just not school people – how hard is it to try, to work as tough as you can only to get a mediocre result? One of my teachers chuckled at my stress level saying that she thought it was the first time I had actually been challenged – and she is right. I have never struggled so much academically in my life. If you are naturally talented at academics, never take that for granted and give grace to your fellow students who may not be as naturally gifted.

TIPS FOR SURVIVING THE DEFENSE LANGAUGE INSTITUTE (DLI)

DLI is not just for FAOs, it is the language institute for any linguist in the department of defense, or other government branches. The majority of the students going through various language programs are 18 year old’s, straight out of High School, from every branch of service who have scored high enough on their entrance tests to get into a linguist program (which is one of the toughest to get into). The below tips are geared towards these bright young people who have possibly, for the first time in their lives, feel the shock of trying their hardest at something academically. Us older officers can also make use of these tips too, as some of you might be like me, thinking it will all be a walk in the park…

1. DO study your language before starting DLI. I made this mistake taking some advice from another individual. The course does move at an insane pace, so whatever you pick up on your own may be covered by the first week or month, but having even the smallest head start will help you get off on the right foot. Focus on the basics – pronunciation and the alphabet. Any program from Duolingo to Rosetta stone works. DLI also has some excellent free programs on their website.

2. Maintain the same effort throughout the course. I think the biggest mistake people make is to slack off in the first semester when the course is relatively easy. Courses themselves get extremely challenging once you move from basic to intermediate material. By the time you realize you are behind, it is already too late. You need to try to stay ahead of the material as best you can until you hit second semester when the level goes up significantly.

3. Dedicate 2 extra hours a day and 8 hours over the weekend. Then stop. Your brain is just like any other muscle – it too needs a rest. You will hear from your professors to do things in your target language that you enjoy – do that. Listen to music, podcasts and watch movies – I promise you that slowly by slowly it will begin to click. Balance the time required to study outside of class with the time needed to rest so that you are absorbing the amount you need to.

4. Take the extra help, even if you don’t think you need it. DLI offers what they call 0 hour and 7th hour. In most cases it is forced study for those not doing so well – at one point our entire class was in 7th hour. If not forced, just volunteer to do the extra time with the instructors. Request to use the time to do speaking or whatever skillset you feel you need most help on. It literally never hurts – like anything the more effort you put in, the more you will get out.

5. Believe you will make it through. I do not know a single person who went through DLI that didn’t hit a point when they thought they might not see the other side. KNOW THAT YOU WILL. If you are putting in the time required, you will pass DLI. It is designed for you to succeed, failing is in no-one’s interest. Be consistent, put in the work and you will see the other end.

Bonne Chance!