FBI courts local students

Published 10:20 pm Thursday, May 5, 2011

Outreach program: From left, Shannon Greene, Jessica Cooper and Fletcher Stephens were among the Suffolk students who attended a community outreach program at the FBI Norfolk office on Thursday.

Seven high school and college students from Suffolk learned Thursday that the FBI isn’t as sneaky as everybody thinks.

The students were among a group of community members who visited the regional FBI office as part of a community outreach program done by the Norfolk office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The students learned about what the FBI does, what it takes to become a special agent and how to help law enforcement spot terrorist plots. They also got an inside look at the office’s gun vault and discovered how the FBI is working to prevent terrorist attacks — its No. 1 priority.

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“Our first mission is to prevent another terrorist attack from happening,” said Vanessa Torres, a community outreach specialist with the Norfolk office of the FBI. “We like to measure our success by knowing that we are foiling many terrorist attacks.”

Roughly 30 people attended Thursday’s community outreach program at the office. The division also conducts outreach programs in the community, speaking to groups about what the FBI does.

The FBI’s main priorities are counterterrorism, counterintelligence and cyber crime. It works closely with other agencies, including local police departments, to share information pertinent to their missions.

“9/11 taught us a lot of lessons,” Torres said. Various agencies “all had the information they needed in their own little circle, but they weren’t sharing it.”

The terrorist attacks nearly 10 years ago changed the way the FBI does business, Torres said. The agency’s priorities changed, and even the community outreach program shifted focus. It had previously centered on drug awareness.

But then, Torres said, “We realized a lot of us didn’t even know who our neighbors were.”

The community outreach program now attempts to educate the populace on what the FBI does, what kind of training its members go through and how ordinary citizens can help the agency accomplish its mission.

“Through our outreach, we are preventing another 9/11,” Torres said.

To become an FBI special agent, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen between 23 and 36 years of age when applying and have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university and three years of full-time work experience and or a master’s degree with two years of full-time work experience. In addition, special agent applicants undergo an intensive, 21-week training course.

However, people with a degree in certain areas, such as computer science or law, can escape the years of work experience requirement. So can people who score a three or better on the Defense Language Proficiency Test, especially if their language is Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish or Vietnamese.

FBI officials also told the students how to watch out for potential terrorists — be wary of anyone sketching a bridge or large building, or taking photos of it from all angles; be suspicious of anyone asking unusual questions about the police and fire response in a certain area or buying large amounts of hazardous substances; and watch out for people who appear nervous or are sweating profusely for no reason.

In general, the rule to follow is “If you see something, say something.”

The students said they enjoyed the program.

“I’ve learned they’re not as sneaky as everybody thinks they are,” said Shannon Greene, a senior at Lakeland High School.

Some of the students said they are considering a career with the FBI.

“The FBI has a decent salary,” Chris Lewis said.

“It’s a good career opportunity,” said Jessica Cooper, a King’s Fork High School student. “It keeps you fit and you don’t have to sit in an office all day.”

Fletcher Stephens, a King’s Fork student, also came to glean information about a possible career path.

“I got a lot of helpful information,” said Fletcher, who wants to be a special agent one day.

Robert Stephens, the facilitator of the Community Action Coalition, was responsible for getting the word out to many of the Suffolk students as part of a partnership between the coalition and the FBI.

“This is part of our partnership to build community relations,” he said.