Nothing makes you feel old quite like walking around your alma mater campus. The buildings and landscaping look the same but the students look decidedly younger than you ever recall looking at that age.

I’m still holding on to the last glimmer of my thirties – far from having earned the right to say “get off my lawn” convincingly or reminisce about the times we walked to school uphill both ways in the snow. But each time I visit my alma mater, Washington D.C.’s American University, I feel the passage of time more acutely. I think about what I would have told my then-self and, most of all, what a bizarre experience undergraduate life is like in D.C.

Washington, D.C. – or “The District,” as locals call it – has long been a city that runs on college student interns. These legions of recent kids do more than fetch coffee and make copies, and they can be found in just about every corner of government, including the intelligence community. By virtue of their proximity to power, not to mention their ability to access sensitive spaces and information, it isn’t uncommon for interns to hold security clearances or at least require a favorably adjudicated background investigation.

That reality puts into perspective some of the outrage from the political class over last year’s news about alleged leaker Jack Texiera holding a Top Secret/SCI security clearance in his early twenties. After the talking heads told us how much they were shocked – shocked! – that this could happen, they went back to their offices and probably asked a young twenty-something to brief them on a classified meeting. Right or wrong, that’s how D.C. has always operated.

I know a thing or two about that from my own experience. Three months after graduating high school, I was interning at the White House. At age 19, I was on the payroll, and a year later I was hopping around the annual Easter Egg Roll in a bunny suit. Meanwhile, I was living in a college dormitory, attending classes crammed into two days a week, and doing what college students do at parties on weekends. Was it odd waking up in the morning after a night of revelry, putting on a suit, and trekking down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Absolutely. Am I the only one with an undergraduate D.C. experience like that? Not by a mile.

This straddling of two worlds makes for some mind-bending experiences, “I know what you did last weekend” moments, and very little sleep. But it also brought to life my political science classes in a way no lecture ever could and created lasting friendships forged by shared experiences. In retrospect, some of those experiences seem almost quaint. Those were the days and places when the Blackberry was “cool” (was it ever, really?) and the prevailing wisdom was to not be caught in a photo holding an alcoholic beverage, lest you consider one day running for office.

Sadly, today’s undergraduates have a lot more to worry about, including the internet that never forgets a post, tweet, or “like.” But some universities are doing their best to educate students on how to navigate all of this. That includes my alma mater’s career center, which has hosted talks by security clearance professionals, and George Mason University, which sponsors a formal “Clearance Ready” program similarly designed to help demystify the process. Young people seeking information about security clearances may wish to start by inquiring with their school’s career center or exploring the educational resources here on ClearanceJobs.

 

 

This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Although the information is believed to be accurate as of the publication date, no guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Laws and government policies are subject to change, and the information provided herein may not provide a complete or current analysis of the topic or other pertinent considerations. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/.