Spy Kids

Imagine being a New York college senior these days: You’ve sat through class during some of the flushest years in history, daydreaming about your future net worth, and now, on the eve of graduation, the city has been attacked, the country is at war, and there’s frighteningly little demand for your HTML skills. Sometimes it seems as if nobody is hiring, much less recruiting.

With all this in mind, Trudy Steinfeld, director of career services at NYU, made a slight adjustment to the fall job fair. “I invited the FBI to come on by,” she says. “They haven’t come in the past, but it seemed like a good idea. They were very into it, like, Oh, yes, that would be great, we’re so desperate for people.”

Students were very into it, too. “The FBI’s table was mobbed,” says Steinfeld. “They must have seen hundreds of people.”

Shari, a 21-year-old senior majoring in information systems and marketing, was one of the first in line. “They were looking for people who spoke Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi,” she recalls. “They were very nice, saying you’d make $40 an hour. When I said I spoke Farsi, they were very eager to get my résumé.”

Shari gladly handed it over. “They called me, like, right away, saying I should come take a test to be a ‘linguistics expert.’ I already had an interview with Pricewaterhouse, and asked if I could reschedule. The FBI said no, but then, like, guilt-tripped me into coming in.”

Such interviews have tended to be preliminary meet-and-greets, with few probing questions. But a number of NYU students had some questions of their own, like What about drugs? According to job seekers, the FBI said “No weed in the past three years, and only fifteen times total in life” – which reduced the applicant pool considerably.

Indeed, one tends to think of NYU students more as clove-smoking Tisch beatniks fiddling with a super-8 in Washington Square than as would-be federal agents. But being a spy doesn’t seem quite so spooky to students now; it’s about protecting home turf, not (just) stirring up trouble in Central America. And it’s one of those rare government jobs that offer both stability and – who knows? – maybe a shot at international intrigue.

“I think it would be fun to be a spy,” says Greg Shill, a 21-year-old senior at Columbia. “But my strengths are more in intelligence analysis.” A history major concentrating on the Middle East and America, Shill has applied to the CIA and the National Security Agency, which specializes in making and breaking secret codes. “I considered consulting or journalism, but after September 11 my priorities shifted,” he says. “I mean, our defense system is so pathetic. It was pathetic that those planes weren’t shot down. I’d like to help improve things.”

Who wouldn’t? But just what sort of undergrads are best suited for a career in espionage? “We’re in dire need of not just Arabic speakers,” says FBI agent Joseph Valiquette, “but also this one language I hadn’t heard of until recently. It’s called Pashto – I think it’s with an o, but it might be a u, and I think they speak it in parts of Afghanistan.”

Tom Crispell, a spokesman for the CIA, which has received 30,000 résumés since September 11, ten times more than normal, says the agency is also seeking language expertise. “As for the clandestine service,” he adds, “the ones who go overseas, you’re talking about a very specific individual, someone who’s been out in the working world for a while, who hopefully has lived abroad, who can assimilate well. It’s difficult to find these qualities in a 21-year-old. But that’s not saying there aren’t exceptions.”

Still, even a promising candidate like Shari doesn’t see herself going into this line of work for the long haul: “I think they would just brainwash me – I mean, they sort of have to. But it would be cool to be able to say, ‘Hey, I worked as a linguistics expert for the FBI.’ Think about it. If you have FBI on your résumé, no company would ever doubt you as a person.”

Spy Kids