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Becoming a Diplomat: A Glimpse of the Foreign Service Officer Life with Atty. Mapula

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

By: Romer Yadao and Archiebald Faller Capila

Atty. Mapula shares with his journey from joining the foreign service to becoming the Vice Consul in the Philippine Consulate General New York.

The road to becoming a Foreign Service Officer comes with it various obstacles that need to be hurdled. Known to most as one of the most complex licensure exams in the country, the aforesaid exam boasts a process that filters thousands of applicants only to announce a handful of passers who will represent the Department of Foreign Affairs in its international relations.

Aside from knowledge pertaining to the landscape of foreign relations, diplomats are also encouraged to know a lot about the law and to apply them in their dealings on a regular basis. Atty. Paolo Marco Mapula is among the few diplomats in the country who have hurdled the rigorous process of becoming a diplomat. How does one prepare for the Foreign Service Officer examination? How does one pass the same? Is it necessary that you are a lawyer before you become a diplomat?

In an exclusive interview with Barrista Solutions, Atty. Mapula shares his journey from joining the foreign service to becoming the Vice Consul in the Philippine Consulate General New York.

Barrista Solutions: What inspired you to become a diplomat?

Atty. Mapula: When I was taking my LLM in Japan, by chance, I watched a documentary about this Japanese man who spent all his life trying to perfect the art of making sushi. For his dedication, his restaurant is one of the most sought-after restaurants in the whole country. He received Michelin stars, and a lot of other accolades for his work, yet he does not stop “dreaming” about sushi. The title of the documentary is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. After watching the film, I felt that Jiro’s dedication reaffirms this je ne sais quoi about the Japanese that I have already noticed before- there is a certain quixotic determination to achieve perfection and a sense of pride in the work that they are doing. I wanted that for myself.

While doing research to figure out what ineffable quality motivates Jiro, I encountered the concept of Ikigai. Roughly, the word means “life’s purpose.” In a nutshell, it promises a sense of fulfillment in the work you are doing if you figure out the occupation that is the confluence of the answers to these four questions: What is it that you are passionate about? What is it that you are good at? What can you do that your community needs? And what is this job that allows you to live comfortably?

I pondered these questions and realized that diplomacy is my ikigai. I realized that I’m deeply interested in exploring the world and its different cultures, and I’m passionate about public service. I believe I have a talent for communicating ideas and for reaching a common understanding with my peers- and the world needs more common understanding these days. The usually unfamiliar vocation of diplomacy seems like a perfect fit for all of these considering that the compensation allows diplomats to live a comfortable life- not extravagant, but dignified.

I still remember the afternoon I had this epiphany; it was the same Fukuoka afternoon I decided that I will switch careers- from a litigation lawyer who has eight years of practice under my belt, into a neophyte diplomat. Three years after joining the foreign service, I am now Vice Consul here in our Philippine Consulate General in New York.

Barrista Solutions: How did you prepare for your Foreign Service Officer Examination?

Atty. Mapula: How do you prepare for an exam that requires one to be familiar with anything and everything under the sun? You would need a lifetime of interest in topics as diverse as World and Philippine History, Micro and Macro Economics, the Social Sciences, Etiquette, National and International Current Events, effective communication in English and Filipino, and even a little bit of Philippine trivia and familiarity with another foreign language. I say it is not easy, there is neither a book nor a reviewer to help you prepare for it. But knowing the nature of the beast helped me prepare.

Confidence is already half the battle; thus, familiarity with the type of questions that will be asked, and knowing what you know and do not know makes it easier for you to prepare for each of the FSO exams’ five stages. For the first stage, the qualifying test, I prepared by taking online practice exams of the more common Civil Service Exams. There is no scarcity of CSE reviewers in any bookstore in the Philippines, and there are even some available online. I just googled Civil Service Exams reviewer and, voila, I was able to take a practice exam. Except for the management part of the qualifying test, which I have no tips for since I did not prepare for it, the other parts were generic. I did well in that exams, so I guess it worked.

The second part is the Preliminary Interview, for which I prepared by dressing well, and by getting into a positive state of mind. The next stage is the crux of the exams- the Written Test. Again, there is no way you can prepare for this test, but it is prudent to anticipate the questions. So I did. I reacquainted myself with Philippine and World History by reading books, I read the articles found on the websites of both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Service Institute, and read some more about the subjects that mattered to both institutions. I familiarized myself with national statistics and current events. And for months, I read the international news section of broadsheets and news magazines. Basically, I prepared by reading and reading some more.

The Psychological Test, for me, is the most difficult stage simply because you cannot prepare for it. God knows what they are looking for. It is either you have it or you do not. I consider myself lucky to pass such a funny exam.

The fifth and final stage is the Oral Test. I did not prepare much for the “debate” part since I do not have a problem speaking my mind in English or in Filipino. I just had the mistake of expecting a formal “British Parliamentary” style of debate; apparently, it is an informal one. As for the “formal dinner” part, I just brushed up on my etiquette and enjoyed the evening- even the part where I delivered an extemporaneous speech under the influence of good wine.

A few months later I learned that I passed the exams. That’s all there is to it.

Barrista Solutions: How did your background in law help you prepare for a career in foreign service?

Atty. Mapula: The work of a foreign service officer involves a lot of law. Whether you are negotiating a treaty, delivering consular services, or assisting an overseas Filipino in distress, your knowledge of the law will always come in handy. Especially helpful are the following fields of law: Public International Law, obviously; Private International law and Conflict of laws principles; Philippine Family Law, for more than one reason; Administrative Law, for when you are involved in an administrative case (not necessarily as respondent); Contract Law, Legal Technical Writing, even Labor law. One thing’s for sure, you will not miss being a lawyer when you are in the foreign service.

Barrista Solutions: What adjustments do you normally make when you are stationed in a different country?

Atty. Mapula: Around 10% of the Philippine population is composed of Overseas Filipinos, just ask any one of them and you will find similar answers, similar struggles, and similar adjustments. Probably the only difference is that diplomats constantly move from one country to another and that usually presents an additional set of problems.

Being posted abroad is the main allure of the diplomatic profession. You spend your life immersed in the romance of experiencing diverse cultures, living in unfamiliar environments, and meeting people from all over the world. Some are better equipped than others in handling this aspect of the profession. For most, the challenge lies in learning a new language, adjusting to new customs, gestures, and food, and being under a new monetary system. You would have to adapt and adapt quickly, while at the same time you have to have the mental fortitude of somebody who does not mind living away from family and loved ones for an extended amount of time.

Now, you might say that it is not much of a challenge for a casual backpacker like you. But try saying that after you realize that you have not spent enough time in a place, a city, or in a country long enough for you to make meaningful relationships with anyone in the area and then you have to move again. Couple that with the chore of constantly packing things in boxes and moving them in crates or trucks, the trouble in itself makes you not want to own a lot of material things- things that could have been your memento or souvenir of a good time you had in Japan drinking sake with salary men you just met while singing in a karaoke bar on a Friday night, or that sublime moment you spent gazing at the precipice of the Grand Canyon after joining a tour group on a whim. That’s when you realize that you have to adjust to this “new” normal that is your life in the foreign service.

You move, you adjust, you serve, then you move again. The cycle repeats itself. That takes some getting used to.

Barrista Solutions: What essential skills should a diplomat possess?

Atty. Mapula: First and foremost, you would have to be genuinely interested in foreign affairs, and in fostering international cooperation between the country you represent and the rest of the world, which you achieve through mutual respect and understanding borne by a sincere desire to understand the differences and similarities between your respective countries’ cultures, and to find a relationship that would benefit both sides.

In order to be effective in doing this, a diplomat would have to have the ability to communicate with impeccable tact and clarity. A diplomat’s primary job is to build relationships; thus, skill in gaining the rapport of people around you would be invaluable. Much can be achieved when both parties enjoy each other’s company; thus, conversation skills and wit would be a plus.

Last but not the least, a good work ethic and attention to detail is a mark of a good diplomat. A person who has all these traits would find the foreign service a rewarding vocation.

Barrista Solutions: What is your message to all students out there dreaming of finishing law school, passing the Bar Exams and eventually trying out to have a career in foreign service?

Atty. Mapula: I have to emphasize that passing the bar exams is not a prerequisite for taking the FSO Exams. But if you have taken the Bar Exams, then your familiarity with an exam that requires you to write essays in English under intense time pressure will help you in the written part of the FSO Exams. Those who have studied law are also expected to be detail-oriented, and to express ideas in a clear, concise, and accurate manner- same attributes required of a diplomat and that would help you during the FSO exams.

You must take stock, however, of what you really want to do with your legal education. Sure, the foreign service has a veneer of glamour to it that may not be as evident in most areas of the legal profession. Living in far-away lands, attending cocktail parties, and representing the country- these definitely sound like a recipe for a great adventure. You must ask yourself though whether this is what you want for a career or is this just a passing fancy.

The foreign service, if you wish to join it, should be your vocation. As such, you would have to be passionate about the work that we do in order for you to thrive in this occupation. You must be dedicated to the objectives of a diplomat and you have to believe that your strengths are particularly suited for this occupation.

Keep in mind that the foreign service may take you permanently away from the idea of a lawyer that you had when you decided to take up law. The practice of a practicing lawyer is usually tied to the laws in effect within the legal jurisdiction of the Philippines; diplomat-lawyers usually practice international treaty law- a very specific subset of the legal profession. The approach to problem-solving can be quite different too- lawyers are trained to be process-oriented, and adversarial, while the work of diplomat-lawyers is results-oriented, and requires tact, balancing of interests, and a spirit of cooperation. Mastery in one value system may mean weakness in the other.

When all things considered, you still believe that the foreign service is for you, then take the foreign service exams. In fact, I encourage you to take the exam. We need more able lawyers in the diplomatic corps.

Barrista Solutions: What is message to all those who will be taking this year’s upcoming Bar Exams?

Atty. Mapula: Study smart, keep yourself safe and healthy, and keep your head- confidence is half the battle. Have faith in your preparation, you know the answers to the questions.

*Atty. Paolo Marco Mapula is currently the Vice Consul in the Philippine Consulate General in New York. He is a graduate of the U.P. College of Law. He then took his Master of Laws at Kyushu University in Japan.

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