How a High School Work Study Program Launched a Budding NSA Career

October 22, 2020

Like most of us on a first day of work, Marlon O. just wanted to fly under the radar.

Photo of Marlin O.

But for his first day in the National Security Agency (NSA) High School Work Study Program… that just wasn’t in the cards.

“I remember being very shy and just trying to complete my tasks and go home,” he said. “Thankfully, that plan did NOT work.”

He received an enthusiastic welcome (even a little too enthusiastic, he jokes) from his new colleagues, which put him at ease and confirmed that his decision to join the program was the right one.

“I remember being so happy to be there and just ready to work, network and learn as much as I could,” he said.

Marlon was one of hundreds of high school juniors who join the program every year to develop skills in either business, computers, engineering, manufacturing, construction, graphic arts or foreign language.

Growing up in Maryland, Marlon had a wide assortment of hobbies, including basketball, football, golf and drawing. He found the same diversity in the variety of professional disciplines at NSA.

“NSA is like its own community where there’s a job and interest that appeals to everyone,” he said. “The diversity of roles and jobs are seemingly endless.”

Coming from the perspective of a suburban kid, Marlon said NSA can give off a “VIP” feel – large buildings, an endless sea of cars in the parking lot and heavy security. But he found the people inside to be as friendly as good neighbors.

“One of the greatest things that helped my perception of NSA evolve is the amount of help and support I was getting as a new employee,” Marlon said. “Everyone was extremely patient and helpful because they recognized that I was new to this and genuinely wanted to learn.”

One of the things he learned was the difference between cultural perceptions of the agency and reality. NSA, he says, is not as buttoned up and serious as movies sometimes make it out to be.

“A lot of the time NSA is just a fun place to be. People have interesting conversations, [bring takeout] food for the office or just hang out and talk sports.”

The attributes that made him successful in the program, he says, weren’t anything particularly unique, just being open minded and going with the flow.

“I remember moving from one organization to another for the span of a couple weeks, where I had to learn a completely new task, with new people, who communicate and work so differently than the people who I previously worked with,” he said. “Being adaptable and flexible made it much easier.”

After his work study ended, Marlon was accepted into the Bridge Program, which bridges the gap between the high school program and full-time employment. The program paid for his college classes while he continued to work for NSA.

Marlon has now transitioned into full-time employment at the agency as a Capabilities Data Analyzer. He said his ‘eureka’ moment, the moment he knew he wanted to start a career at NSA, happened at one of the holiday parties.

“[At the party] I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’ When you have coworkers who are excited and happy to see one another and truly enjoy being around each other, it turns work from a job to a paid hobby.”

Today, the once scary buildings and intimidating vibe are in the rear-view mirror. He hopes to help others understand that NSA is an encouraging, warm and friendly place to work – but also one that will challenge you.

So what’s his advice to those thinking about a career at NSA?

“Come in with an open mind and ready to learn new things. Be ready for those times where you may need to step out of your comfort zone and always remember that there will always be someone there who can and will help you when you need it.”