"Do you want to be a part of history?" asked the flyer in N.C. State's Caldwell Lounge. Below that question were the words, "Come learn about life as a CIA analyst." Below that was, "Drop by and chat with officers from the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence."
And below that, in capital letters: "FREE PIZZA."
This was worth investigating.
Since its establishment in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency has held a certain amount of mystique among the public, mostly due to paranoid thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor, The Good Shepherd and Oliver Stone's JFK.
While it's not unusual for the organization to recruit from universities, as a graduate of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at N.C. State, I found it odd that the CIA would be interested in a school where my memories mostly revolve around courses such as Topics in Subversive Film and Elizabethan Drama.
Graduating from college with a degree in humanities can be a terrifying prospect, more so in the current economy. I wondered how many poets and painters would be drawn to a career in the CIA, so I headed to NCSU's Winston Hall on a rainy evening, the kind that is a staple of the aforementioned paranoid thrillers.
And yes, I brought a resume.
Although CIA campus recruitment drives can spark protests—a notable recent one took place at the University of Wisconsin in 2007—the attendees of the NCSU event all seem to have a positive attitude about the organization. Only a few people are there when I arrive, shortly before the event's scheduled start, but the room gradually fills with latecomers.
The group includes undergraduate and graduate students, along with a smattering of nonstudents intrigued by the idea of working for the CIA. Most attendees are majors in international studies or political science, like Paul Florence, a senior who's interested in learning more about what the CIA does. He talks about how friends who've graduated in the last year haven't had much luck in the job market. "They're either going to grad school or doing something completely unrelated to their major," he says. One friend, who received a major scholarship to study an academic discipline, now works at a bank.
The CIA representatives, led by Deputy Office Director Tim Kilbourn, arrive promptly, with Kilbourn carrying eight boxes of Gumby's Pizza. "Is this just a marketing ploy to change your image?" jokes a crowd member.
Kilbourn is quick to let the room know that he believes the people in this room have the qualities needed to work for the CIA. "You wouldn't be in this room tonight if you didn't have energy and drive," he says.
Kilbourn is no human resources officer: He tells us that he once disclosed an incident in the Middle East to President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. He says this with a stack of Styrofoam cups and a two-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew on the desk in front of him.
Given how scarce and low-status postcollege jobs can seem, Kilbourn makes a compelling argument about the fulfillment one can get from working for the government: "This is not banking. This is not insurance. This is not sales. This is not an everyday line of work."
If anyone's heard of the findings of the U.S. Senate's "Church committee" in 1975, which did so much to cement the CIA's nefarious image, no one here is saying anything. This is, however, a well-informed crowd. Though I'm barely able to follow the Q&A, everyone asks smart questions about language training, foreign service, clearance levels and other topics. And Kilbourn is friendly and informative, while conceding, "The most important things I've done I can't tell anybody about."
Ninety minutes and several empty boxes of Gumby's later, the talk ends to positive responses from the crowd. Nevertheless, the odds of anyone from this room making it to the CIA are comparable to those of winning the lottery; as Kilbourn mentions, the CIA receives 15,000 applications per month to fill a few hundred positions, and the lengthy security check means no students will have a job waiting for them when they graduate.
Roy Pine, who finished an international studies master's degree last year, says he applied for work with the CIA after graduation. "It's a bit of a myth that the private sector isn't hiring, but there are tons of government jobs," he says. "They're there, but they're a pain to get."
Later, when I mention attending the meeting to my mom, she reveals that she was recruited herself, back in the 1960s. Though she had excellent grades and an open mind, there was something that kept her from joining the organization.
"The application was 17 pages," she says. "I couldn't get through it."
Given the talent in attendance at the meeting, I don't feel comfortable giving Kilbourn my resume. Instead, I chat with him for a few moments afterward, hoping my overwhelming social anxiety won't arouse any suspicion. He says the CIA isn't talking to UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke. Instead, Kilbourn says, they want to "build a strong relationship" with NCSU's programs and its "diverse, talented" student body. I wonder if N.C. State's perceived political conservatism is a draw, as well. Instead, I ask what he thinks the biggest misconception of the CIA is. His response? "That it's like the movies."
After I leave the meeting, I go through my belongings and realize I've left the folder with my resume behind. I return to the now-empty conference room, but the folder is gone. So the CIA might have my resume after all.
I'm not sure how I feel about that.