Behind closed doors at the Central Intelligence Agency, an elite team of intelligence officers guards the nation's secrets.
A few of them aren't old enough to drink.
"This is one of the few internships where every day, you could be making decisions that affect the national security of our nation," said Michael. "You're the next intelligence officer for the United States. You're not treated like a typical intern here."
Interns as young as 18 and in high school can join the CIA with undergraduate and graduate students. Students can work in fields ranging from cybersecurity to cartography to graphic design.
Although Michael and fellow interns Samantha, Sierra and Nicole specialize in fields that might sound mundane — architecture, finance, human resources and supply chains — everything is more exciting in the national security context, they say. (The interns are identified only by first names to protect their identities.)
"I've been able to attend high-level meetings involving major players both outside the continental United States and within the continental United States," said Michael.
Although designing bathrooms might not seem critical, they are planned to withstand terrorist attacks. His work has brought him to the table with high-ranking officials.
"I've been able to meet with two presidents of two different foreign nations," he said.
"I was lucky enough to get to go to the Pentagon," Samantha said. "You see it on TV, but to be there in person on official business is really cool."
Although the interns said the agency values diversity of experience, most of the intelligence officers, interns included, fit a leadership profile.
"I think that the CIA likes the Type A, organized, motivated type individual, and that's exactly who they attract. I find it funny how similar we all are," Sierra said.
"It's like you've found a ton of people who are exactly like you," said Michael. When he's back at school, a day doesn't go by that he isn't thinking about the agency, he added.
A close-knit community is not the only benefit of interning at the CIA. The agency offers scholarships to financially qualified undergraduates that include tuition assistance up to $18,000 per calendar year; mandatory fees and books; meal allowances during summer tours; transportation reimbursement; health and life insurance; federal retirement plans; and paid time off, both holiday and sick.
Not to mention starting salaries between $29,715 and $49,036 annually, depending on the program.
The interns gush about a sense of togetherness and belonging that makes for an inclusive and invigorating work environment.
"I found everyone to be incredibly warm and friendly," Samantha said. "Everyone wants you to learn because they want you to know as much as you can in the short period that you have."
The interns describe an atmosphere of supportive colleagues eager to teach and support new officers.
"It's very much an atmosphere where they expect you to think on your feet and where they expect you to eventually get the right answer," Sierra said. "They really throw you in."
And with everyone working for the same mission, "it's a very collaborative place to work," Michael added. "In an intelligence setting, in a secret setting, we have to rely on other people's knowledge to be able to do everything that we do."
Veil of secrecy
The cover of opacity under which the CIA operates extends to its interns. They can only tell close friends and family that they work for the agency and must redirect anyone else who asks where they work.
"I try to bore them with finance," Samantha said. "I say that I do accounting, I balance, and then you start to lose them at that point."
Nicole deflects the conversation back to the person with whom she's speaking.
"I've found that if you get someone talking about themselves — 'Oh, what's your internship this summer? What are you doing? How was your vacation?' — it's easy."
The secrecy is necessary because many interns return summer after summer and eventually become full-time intelligence officers.
"When coming to this internship, they described it as a three-month-long interview, and I agree with that," Nicole explained. "They're really trying to shape you for that next step while you're here for your internship."
Most of the interns said that after they applied, they did not expect an offer.
"I put in my application not thinking I would hear anything back, kind of laughing at myself," Nicole said, "and somehow, I ended up here."
Samantha thought because she did not speak a foreign language, she wouldn't be a good candidate. But language skills are not a strict prerequisite at the agency.
"I think a lot of people think they need a language," Sierra said. "You don't have to have it, but maybe a desire to want to learn would be something that would help."
Key qualities of interns
Instead, the agency emphasizes strength of character. Because interns — who can be dual citizens — are trusted with the nation's secrets, they must be trustworthy.
"When they go to hire interns, integrity is probably one of the highest skill sets that they're looking for," said Michael.
Applicants must successfully complete a medical and psychological exam, a polygraph interview and a comprehensive background investigation. Hiding things in the application is a "non-starter," he continued. (They'll find out anyway, he said, so save yourself the trouble).
Applicants must be patient, as well as honest. Even after an offer of employment is extended, each intern must be granted a security clearance. The process usually takes at least a year, sometimes more. Samantha's processing, for example, took two years.
She said watching movies about national security helped keep her motivation up. "Seeing what we've done as a nation and seeing why we're doing what we're doing gives you that little motivation to keep going with the process," she said.
"I think people's fear of being rejected keeps them from applying," Samantha added. "But this is a great opportunity. Take a chance, send in the application. You might end up as one of us."