This school year, five students from Carver VoTech High School are interning at the National Security Agency.
It marks the first time that Baltimore city high school students are participating in the NSA’s High School Work Study program, which sets them up to work for half a day at the Fort Meade–based intelligence agency, and go to school for the other half-day. The students get paid, as well as a security clearance.
And once you’re in to the Agency, you’re in.
“The bulk of people that go through high school work study program stay affiliated somehow,” said Delali Dzirasa, president of Spark Baltimore–based dev agency Fearless.
NSA didn’t previously recruit for the program in Baltimore city, and Dzirasa learned about it while sitting on a panel with NSA Human Resources Director Kathy Hutson. He began looking at ways to bring the program to Baltimore city.
When she separately learned about the program from another high school student, Aisha DaCosta found that students from other area school districts were participating. Through I Am O’Kah, the technologist who has worked on government contracts also worked to empower local youth. So she made it her mission to spread the word in Baltimore city, giving presentations at several high schools in the fall of 2016.
A year later, five students were accepted. But the effort also revealed one barrier to working at the big employers outside the city.
“Public transportation from Baltimore city to Fort Meade on a good day takes about two hours one way, so you’re talking about four hours round trip for these kids,” DaCosta said. “We knew there was no way they would be able to sustain doing that.”
But Dzirasa said he was resolved: “If we can get these kids an opportunity, we’ll figure out how to get them there,” he said.
So the school, Fearless and and I Am O’Kah raised money, and partnered with HSR Property Group to provide a shuttle for the students.
DaCosta said the program is changing the career outlook for the students so far. Only one student was already on a tech track studying networking. Two of the students were studying cosmetology, while another two were on a culinary track.
“Now they’re like, ‘Wow. I want to do what I need to do to stay at the Agency,'” she said.
The jobs vary from administrative work to some networking that doesn’t touch intelligence functions. While getting a full-time job at the NSA will require a college degree, the program opens up pathways to see toward a career. For the students from West Baltimore, it can also change salary outlook.
“This opportunity — the fact that now these kids from West Baltimore have top secret clearances — that clearance in and of itself can command a 20–30 percent higher salary than if they didn’t have a clearance,” DaCosta said.