Melissa O'Dane walked straight past the recruiters for SunTrust bank, didn't stop at the table for Wal-Mart and didn't even glance at the recruiters from other companies and social service agencies gathered at N.C. Central University's spring job fair last week.
She was looking for three tables and nine letters: SBI, FBI and CIA.
O'Dane had come to the right place. Of the 77 companies and agencies represented at the fair, 15 were law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Historically black colleges and universities such as NCCU have become fertile recruiting ground for organizations that haven't traditionally enjoyed the trust of black Americans.
Four decades after FBI agents wiretapped the homes and offices of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and, more recently, after police actions made names like Amadou Diallo and Rodney King well known, attitudes about these agencies are decidedly mixed.
"There are students who believe that every time they get a bad telephone connection the CIA is responsible, and then there are the students who are genuinely knowledgeable and interested in what it is that we do," said Shirley Sulick, a CIA clandestine services recruiter who attended the NCCU job fair.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies have long come to college campuses looking for fresh recruits with foreign language and technological skills.
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Agency ranked among the 30 "most active recruiters" of college graduates this year, according to The Black Collegian. The New Orleans-based magazine monitors the job market and offers career advice to black graduates.
But many of these agencies have also hired recruiters to focus on historically black colleges and universities. Sulick, who is black and a former clandestine division agent, is one of them.
During the Spring Job Fair at NCCU, Sulick saw long lines. About 250 of the 570 students who signed in at the job fair stopped by her table. The constant traffic barely left room enough for a passer-by to grab the recruiting table swag -- lapel pins, CIA division descriptions and bright orange brochures intended to debunk myths about the agency. Sulick estimated that about 75 of the students were seriously interested.
O'Dane, a senior criminal justice major who is black, was ready to listen. She took one of Sulick's cards.
"I'm interested in public policy, particularly foreign policy, and making that an active part of my career," O'Dane said.
O'Dane said she focuses more on the less glamorous aspects of CIA work than on the agency's history.
"I know that you are going to be at some embassy overseas and probably live below your means or what you might like," she said. "But that is a part of the job."
Presence not unusual
At NCCU, the presence of so many law enforcement and intelligence agencies at a single job fair is not unusual, said Johnnie Southerland, director of career services.
The university has worked to build relationships with law enforcement, military and intelligence agency recruiters, Southerland said.
Law enforcement agencies nationwide have long been under fire for failing to attract employees that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Southerland said that while none of the agencies at the job fair said the school's student demographics played a role in their decision to recruit at NCCU, he does not doubt it is a part of the reason they were there.
"Now bear in mind that we have a wonderful criminal justice program, a law school and students who are majoring in public policy," Southerland said.
NCCU, like many historically black colleges and universities, also serves many students -- of all races -- who are the first in their families to go to college.
Such students may be more interested in professional challenges, jobs with clear paths for advancement and the sort of employment security and benefits state and federal jobs can offer, Southerland said.
But while recruiters for the CIA and FBI had high-traffic tables last week, recruiters for police departments and lesser-known federal agencies were not as busy.
O'Dane didn't go near the tables for the Raleigh, Durham or Rocky Mount police departments.
"I don't think I'm cop material. I'm little, I'm black, and I just don't think I have the 'stop, freeze' authority thing in me," O'Dane said.
Cpl. Ronald Goodwin, who is black, oversees recruiting and candidate testing for the Norfolk Police Department. He shared the same aisle as the FBI. He was aware of the agency's appeal with students, but hopeful the students wouldn't overlook him.
"I get the sense that some of these students are willing to hear us out, at least think about all of the career paths that we have to offer," he said.
The Norfolk Police Department is hoping to increase the number of minority officers.
Ronald Broadhurst, who is black and a recruiter for the Raleigh Police Department, has heard from students like O'Dane before. They are leery of the physical danger involved in police work and being the face of local law enforcement -- the "establishment" he said.
"I tell them, 'Look, I've been a police officer since 1979,' and I am safer than they are," he said. "When I leave my house I walk out in a bulletproof vest, carrying a weapon."
Staff writer Janell Ross can be reached at 829-4698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.