Detours column

[DETOURS] Mid-life career change

Nonito Cabrera
[DETOURS] Mid-life career change

Art by David Castuciano

‘All it takes is a moment of self-reflection and a tiny bit of desperation to muster the resolve to pursue an inevitable path’

Editor’s note: Sometimes we think we’ve found our calling in life until an opportunity comes along. But if it came at a time when you think you’re not supposed to be starting over anymore, it could be scary to take the plunge. In this essay, Nonito shares how he navigated a sudden career change. Get to know his story. You, too, can share your life’s greatest detours. Here’s how. 

I never really had a chance to figure out what I wanted to do in life before I was thrust into college.  

I always thought I wanted to be a writer, but for some reason or another, I ended up taking a course in consular and diplomatic affairs. Such a specific course always cued a double-take from people. “Sorry, consular… what? What will you do after? Oh, so it could be pre-law? Will you become an ambassador someday?”, I would often get asked. 

I then found myself in a lucrative writing job a few months before I graduated in 2011, and before I knew it, I was a jaded, cranky, and frustrated burnout, having been stuck in a cycle of research, literary commissions, and writing positions for nearly a decade since. I was fairly good since I had a constant stream of projects. Whether it was something that gave me a strong sense of fulfillment was another matter.  

I shuttled and cycled from one writing job to another until the restlessness and longing for self-fulfillment drove me to take a master’s degree in international studies, which was easy and steady at first. It then plunged me into thesis limbo for a very long time. I always found writing and expressing myself easy, but I just had to concede that the rigor and discipline of academic life were not for me. I had the ideas, but I could not articulate them.

It was a serious case of writer’s block, and for someone who has sailed through any type of writing, it was scary and demoralizing. It was all I knew, and it was sobering to realize that I was paralyzed and unable to churn out anything substantial. I was ready to throw in the towel, drop out and live the rest of my life regretting that I bit off more than I could chew. I was unhappy and I felt stuck. What was worse, I had all these classes that stopped me from traveling and I was miserable.


Things took a turn for the bleak and desperate when my plans to migrate to a different country fell through. I already had all the papers, documents, and forms ready, but I was far too scared to take the plunge. I already went through the trouble of procuring the forms, and it was all going to end up in the trash. At that moment, I saw a call for applications for the Foreign Service Officers’ Exam (FSOE), so I decided to Hail Mary a last-minute application with transcripts, certificates, and credentials that I scavenged from my discarded migration documents.

Back in college, the FSOE was considered a logical next step for those embarking on a degree in diplomacy and international affairs. We were all trained to study and prepare for the exam, much like how a law student trains for the bar. They say it is the most difficult exam in the country, with the breadth of knowledge that it covers: history, current events, economics, and foreign languages, among others.

I got called to take the exam and passed, and the rest, as they say, is history. In between the exam’s many rounds, I finished my M.A., bringing closure to a period of my life where I learned to accept my limits and acknowledge my blind spots. In 2019, barely weeks after my 30th birthday, and a few months shy of the COVID-19 pandemic that changed the world as we know it, I assumed my post as a foreign service officer IV at the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

It has been over a year since I swore into the government service, and I am thrilled to use my skills, training, and competencies to serve the people. It is a job that takes me to places, and if not for the COVID-19-pandemic, I would have racked up serious mileage from official travels outside the country. Finally, a job that was paying me to do something I always wanted to do. Also, had it not been for a secure and stable government job, I would have still been out there, freelancing amid economic collapse brought about by the pandemic. It turns out all those years of working from home (or coffee shop, or just about anywhere, really) was to prepare me for doing my work for DFA from the safety of my home office. At least for now.

Sometimes, all it takes is a moment of self-reflection and a tiny bit of desperation to muster the resolve to pursue an inevitable path. The path to foreign service had always beckoned for me; I was just too busy drifting around rudderless to notice. –

Nonito Cabrera is a Principal Assistant at the Department of Foreign Affairs. He loves to cook and entertain and hopes to introduce people to Filipino cuisine in his future foreign posts as a Foreign Service Officer.

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