A swimming pool and a warm breeze wait just outside the sunlight-filled classroom, but Max Robinson easily commands his students' attention. "The stuff in green stands for plants," he says pointing to the multicolored floor plans of an office building on the board. "I've always noticed that the more important you are the more plants you've got in your office."

Eighteen men and women respond with nods and laughter. But soon Robinson is back to business -- in this case, the goings-on at an American embassy in a mythical Latin American nation dubbed San Bronico. The embassy is besieged daily by hundreds of visa-seekers.

The hypothetical situation, as Robinson tells the class, has gotten out of hand, but a new Foreign Service officer named Jim Martin thinks he has a solution. It's complicated to be sure, involving new filing techniques and employe switches. But Martin is determined to sell the idea to his boss, Robert Peterson, a conservative officer overly concerned with "bad press."

"What kind of guy is Peterson?" asks Robinson, a six-year veteran of the Foreign Service.

"He's an ad man," offers Janean Mann, 37, a former journalist and legislative aide on Capitol Hill, after studying a profile of Peterson. "He likes physical order. Martin is going to have to appeal to that," another student says. Other suggestions are drowned out by laughter and shouts of "Charts, charts!" "Paper solutions."

Although debate in this classroom often turns humorous, these students have a serious testing ground ahead of them: In the next weeks and months, they will arrive at their first assignments as Foreign Service officers.

The trip here is meant as a breather for them and 20 other colleagues in the latest Foreign Service class -- five days a week for the last month and a half, they have studied, discussed, and sometimes acted out what just might happen when the government lands them anywhere in the world from Mali to Madagascar.

Three years old, the retreat also reflects new directions in the Foreign Service as it adjusts to an influx of women and minorities and updates and relaxes its training methods. Even back in the and relaxes its training methods. Even back in the confines of the austere government building in Rosslyn, where most of the Foreign Service Institute's training goes on, the informality of the retreat remains.

FSI instructors say that this class, as has been the case with other recent ones, comes close to fulfilling the goals of the new Foreign Service. Women make up 30 percent of the group and minorities about 25 percent. Only a little more than half the class are white males. Ten years ago, a group of the same size could claim only 10 percent women and 8 percent minorities, with the rest fitting the Foreign Service stereotype of young, white and male.

Part and parcel with increased affirmative action efforts has been the Institutehs goal of classes characterized by a broad range of ethnic and social backgrounds, by a diversity of educational and work experience, and by varied reasons for joining the corps of diplomats. The service has also taken steps to compile a more mature and cross-culturally sensitive class by raising the average age to 29 from 24 five years ago.

The efforts to vary the ranks of officers and modernize training methods comes in the wake of the Foreign Service Act, passed in October 1980. Intended to raise wages and alleviate persistent problems of low morale, the act put into writing many of the goals of the new Foreign Service as it tries to change its reputation and its reality.

"There used to be the image of the Foreign Service as all0white, all-male graduates of the Ivy League, recently out of college," says Eugene Schmeil, deputy director of orientation for "A-100," as the training program is called. "But it's been State [Department] policy to diversify the service, to democracize it, so that foreigners see that the U.S. consists of more than just white males from the Ivy League."

At first glance, Frank Collins III looks like the typicl career diplomat of 20 -- or even 10 -- years ago. His short red hair frames a blue-eyed WASP-ish countenance.And he's dressed for the part in white button-down shirt and a seersucker suit.

Even Collins' reason for joining the service seems to fit the old mold: "I'm not a super flag-waving patriot," he says in measured tones, "but I am motivated by a strong sense of service for my country."

Yet, his unusual background is typical for the new Foreign Service. Born in Munich, where his father was stationed as an Air Force officer, Collins grew up in several European countries. At the University of Virginia, he received his B.A., M.A. and PhD in Latin and Greek studies, and after graduation, Collins taught Byzantine history at Ohio State University. Althouth he says he has always thought of himself as an American, Collins was only naturalized as a U.S. citizen 13 years ago at age 21.

If it weren't for the Foreign Service, Clyde Howard, 27 -- hardly the wealthy Ivy Leaguer of the service's last generation -- would still be working in a welding factory in Arizona. An English major at a small northern New York college, Howard worked for a year after graduation at a publishing company, checking references and proofreading. "It was dull," Howard laughs, "so I looked into the Peace Corps." After a two-year stint in Liberia, Howard found work in an Arizona factory.

Howard argues that the desire to be an ambassador -- an often-cited motivation behind diplomatic careers -- played no role in his decision to join the corps.

Other members of the "A-100" class acknowledge, however, that the "ambassador route" drew them to a career of diplomacy. And Janean Mann is one of them.

According to her classmate, Mann "knows more about the Foreign Service than anyone around." She played a role in drawing up and pushing through the Foreign Service Act of 1980 while working for then-Rep. John Buchanan (R-Ala.). "I know the Foreign Service life," Mann says, tilting her mop of blond hair to one side."All of my friends are in the service. And I've traveled a lot," she says. "Been to 40 countries in all."

John Jones, a black man in his 40s, says "wanderlust" sparked his decision to leave a comfortable home, a successful law practice and a "good life" in the United States. Jones is one of the class' six students to enter the Foreign Service through a special affirmative action program. He is also one of 14 married people in the group. "My wife is excited about it," the father of two young children explains. "This fulfills our dream to travel, to get out of the United States and see the world."

"I'm taking a cut in pay," Jones says. Most entry level officers will receive between $17,000 and $28,000 for the first year. "But my work was getting boring. The service seems exciting to me, maybe because I'm a real history nut."

This class of "A-100" has examined and reexamined their reasons for joining the service -- as well as their hopes and expectations of it -- since the day the program began. Part "rap sessions" and part strategical planning, classes are decidedly informal even in the midst of the most serious discussions.

The topic is ethics and the class immerses itself for three hours in discussions of six case studies, outlined in detail in a 50-page package of articles and stories. First on the list is "The Ambassador White Affair," based on the removal this year of Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador. The career diplomat was removed from his post and later resigned after he spoke out strongly and publicly against administration policy in the wartorn Central American nation -- a move contrary to the Foreign Service oath which pledges public loyalty and private dissent.

"I happen to agree with White's ideas about El Salvador," begins Henry Levine, a 30-year-old Brooklyn native who spent three recent years in Taiwan teaching English and learning Chinese. "But what he did was wrong."

Several students raise their voices in objection.

Levine continues, "Someone would have to show me that his comments would have had less impact had he resigned the day before he made them." More raised voices. "I just don't know how you can run a State Department if people can speak out while still employed," Levine concludes.

"It takes a lot of guts to resign," junior officer personnel director and FSI instructor Charlie Magee says to laughter and applause.

The class moves on to the next ethical study -- this one suggested by Magee and taken from personal experience.

"You're going to get a lot of bribes as visa officers," Magee begins. "Say that one day a sweet, cute little old lady enters your office and applies for a visa. You hope that everything is fine with her papers, and luckily everything is. So you issue her papers and you say goodbye. But as soon as she's out the door and down the hall, you notice that she's left you a warm, delicious-smelling apple tart. What do you do?"

"I really think that a Foreign Service officer has got to be like Caesar's wife," says Renee Tiorac. "She's got to be above all suspicion."

"No, eat the damn thing. It's not going to hurt anyone," counters Bill Jones from another corner of the room. His voice is joined by choruses of "Eat it, eat it," until the class erupts into rowdy laughter.

"It was delicious," Magee says, smiling wryly.

Even as the students thrash out ethics and policy matters, however, FSI instructors work at lowering the recruits's expectations of the service. Letters from recent graduates line the wall in the orientation headquarters. "Cut the session on place settings, wine glasses and the proper method of holding one's butter knife," begins one tongue-in-cheek letter from Beirut. "Instead, use the time to learn how to handle submachine guns."

"In this course, we want to give our students an encyclopedia of the Foreign Service experience," Schmeil explains. Part of this effort is achieved through a series of courses entitled "Anthuria IIX." Another mythical nation, Anthuria is in ferment. The ambassador is kidnaped (though just for 45 minutes) and a few weeks later, the vice president of the United States is visiting. "We do this exercise to introduce the class to the day-to-day workings of an embassy," Schmeil says.

So involved with the workings of Anthuria are the members of "A-100" that a group of them wrote the country a national anthem. "We hail to thee Anthuria, Our own, our native land," the first verse begins. "World leader in malaria, v.d., typhoid and sand."

"I think we encourage a sense of humor -- maybe not consciously -- but we do like people to understand that they're part of a large bureaucracy and in one of these, no one is indispensable," Magee says. He adds also that the students are "as varied in their politics as the rest of the population."

Magee remembers that when he joined the service 20 years ago, jokes and informality were rare commodities."But it's interesting," he says. "Today we're still looking for the same kind of career diplomat." He lists off the characteristics of "the ideal officer": bright, dedicated, disciplined, loyal to U.S. foreign policy, with a sense of adventure and intellectual courage.

"I'd say this class comes pretty close to that," Magee smiles.

"Except I think that there's more of a questioning spirit now. And certainly a better sense of humor."