The CIA Undergraduate Scholarship program is a financial needs based initiative that offers undergraduate students an unmatched experience in a diverse and inclusive environment.
Undergraduate students, serving as scholarship recipients with the CIA, attend an accredited college or university on a full-time basis, studying a variety of subjects, and work during summer breaks at the CIA. While working at the Agency, students are exposed to intelligence challenges while performing meaningful work that relates to their college major.
CIA.gov sat down with a current CIA undergraduate scholarship STEM student, we’ll call her “Alice,” to find out more about her experiences in this unique program.
Tell us about your path to CIA.
I knew I wanted to serve my country, and for a while I debated joining the military. It wasn’t until high school that CIA came onto my radar—I attended an immersive 1940s spy camp that delved into the history and purpose of the Office of Strategic Services, the father agency of the CIA. It was at that camp that I knew I wanted to join the CIA. I was a little worried they didn’t take engineers, but later learned that I could fit right into the Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T). When I learned there was a scholarship for college students, I had to apply.
Describe your experiences as a scholarship intern at the CIA?
This is a great internship because you’re treated like an employee. No getting coffee or shredding papers or doing smaller tasks; supervisors here know you can already do that. They want to enable you and challenge you, so they put you on teams and give you work that impacts the mission. And with being a scholarship intern, you get added perks like job security and a stipend.
How have you used your STEM knowledge and skills as a scholarship intern?
I’m a computer engineer, and I’ve been able to develop both hardware and software systems that process and analyze intelligence data. For example, I’ve tested systems to determine their value for intelligence collection, as well as written algorithms and constructed systems for deployment. I’ve also had opportunities to work with technology in the field. In any situation, I’m expanding my STEM knowledge because technology hugely factors into mission success.
How has having a STEM background helped you in your position?
I previously didn’t know that CIA recruited engineers. My STEM background has laid a foundation for all positions I’ve held within the DS&T, and many of my project leads have been happy to expand my knowledge further. It has also helped me assist other Agency employees who rely on my knowledge to carry out the mission. I think a better question, though, is how does STEM help CIA? The world is becoming more reliant on technology—social media and communications, electronic systems like computers and phones, digitization of heaps of data—STEM makes sure we don’t fall behind in the intelligence field. We have to be prepared to collect and protect, and a lot of our systems are technology-assisted, if not technology-dependent. It’s neat to develop something that keeps up with the digital world and contributes to the mission of protecting our nation.
What is your favorite thing about your scholarship experience?
The best part is how much the Agency cares about you. You’re their future. The Agency emphasizes the importance of family, which is how they treat you—as family. During my internships, I’m expected to work, but my coworkers also ensure that I learn as much as I can about the Agency and that I know how I’m contributing to the mission. When I’m at school, I know the Agency still cares about me because they also emphasize education. This scholarship is only one example to prove that; for example, the scholarship provides tuition assistance for my STEM education.
What do you enjoy most about working at CIA during the summers as a scholarship intern?
The work itself is challenging and fun, and it’s always rewarding to accomplish a project that impacts the mission, but I like the people the most. All the offices I’ve been a part of have welcomed me and the teamwork I’ve experienced has been unmatched. The mission motivates everyone, so we all want to see each other succeed. The student programs coordinators are also a good Agency resource, and there’s a neat network of students to befriend and rely on for support as well.
What has surprised you about working here?
I was surprised by how a career at the CIA doesn’t necessarily mean doing the same job for 20+ years. Working here provides opportunity and flexibility. It’s okay to specialize in one job, but it’s more common to hop around to different offices and learn new skillsets. Right now as an intern, I change offices every summer. In the future as a full time employee, if there ever comes a time when I want to move on to a new office and do something else, the CIA will help me get to where I want to go. A career here allows for a breadth of knowledge in both my STEM field and in understanding the types of intelligence and how they support the mission.
What advice would you give other students who are thinking about applying to the CIA Scholarship Program?
Definitely apply and if you don’t get it the first time, apply again. Also—and this goes for any CIA intern—don’t get bogged down if you don’t like the office you’re working in one summer; instead, work hard to help the mission succeed. As interns we do several tours. The Scholarship program requires that you do at least two, and tours are a great time to go to an office you wouldn’t normally work in or don’t see yourself working in long term. Doing that lets you network across the Agency, and also lets you see a side of the Agency you perhaps would never see otherwise. You never know what you’ll discover.