Preparing for the Saudi assignment

by Megan Roarty

Stephanie Hallett recently had her first dream in Arabic. The language did not come easily for Hallett, who has been attending intensive language study at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Virginia for the last five months.

But after five hours of class every day, plus an expected two or three hours of additional studying, she is starting to become more comfortable with it.

"It's a complicated language. It's counterintuitive," Hallett said. "But then somehow, it clicks."

Hallett, a Florida native and 27 year-old GW alumna, said she considers Washington her home. She will soon be uprooted and sent to Saudi Arabia, where she will represent the United States government as a Foreign Service officer.

For now, Hallett's full-time paid position is dedicated to learning the Arabic language and about Arabic culture in preparation for her departure to Saudi Arabia. At the end of her intensive Arabic language session in July, Hallett will leave for Saudi Arabia to work at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah - a tall, blonde-haired woman in a Middle Eastern country.

Hallett's job will include issuing visas to Saudis who wish to come to the United States. Hallett said it was important for her to pay her dues as a consular officer in a place where she believes it really matters.

"Most of the 9/11 visas were issued in Jeddah," Hallett said, referring to the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. "Will I give a visa to someone I probably shouldn't have? Maybe. It's a huge responsibility and I think about it a lot."

According to Saudi culture, it is not customary for women to show themselves to men other than their husbands. So, when women come to have interviews and photos taken for their visas and cannot be seen by male consular officers, this poses obvious problems. As an Arabic-speaking woman, Hallett will have the opportunity to spend time with Saudi women in the absence of other men.

Hallett acknowledges there is no doubt she will face hardships in Saudi Arabia. Aside from adjusting to very different standards of a society where women are not permitted to drive or show their faces in public, she will be confined to staying at home or work, and will be driven in an armored car.

In addition, after the December attack on the American consulate in Jeddah, tensions are especially high.

But to Hallett, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

"I'll be exposed to a culture completely different from mine. It's a land of such extremes," Hallett said, waving her hands to generate emotion in her conviction. "I'm going to take advantage of being in the region and travel as much as I can."

Originally a political science and international affairs major, Hallett also participated in women's club rugby and interned at the White House and Peace Corps.

"I built skills that I look back on all the time," Hallett said. "It wasn't just about building my resume, which I started out thinking it was."

After Hallett graduated from GW, she thought she would attend law school. But after receiving the Bender scholarship to pursue post-graduate study at Cambridge University in England, Hallett reconsidered.

"I'm interested in diplomacy, and the true meaning of that," she said.

For now, as she prepares for her departure to Saudi Arabia, Hallett sees more diplomatic work for herself in the future. She hopes to be stationed in Europe for her next assignment, where friends and family can visit. Her ultimate dream is to become an appointed ambassador.

Her advice to near-grads is simple.

"Things fall into place - you've just got to have a little patience," she said. "You find your niche."

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