Take it from Someone Who Almost Quit: NSA’s Co-op Program is Worth it

March 18, 2020

Jenaye M., NSA Network Engineer

It took several interactions with NSA employees at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) before Jenaye M. finally realized she was meant to attend the Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) at NSA.

A fellow student initially told Jenaye about the Co-op Program, and a few months later, that same student spoke in her sophomore colloquium class about the opportunity. Later that week, Jenaye attended a career fair banquet and sat right next to an NSA employee, and the next day at the career fair, she ended up speaking with an NSA employee her roommate had just been telling her about.

“Things like this don’t keep happening by accident,” Jenaye says, explaining that she finally applied to the program, which would allow her to rotate between attending school and working at NSA. 

She made it through the application process but got off to a rocky start when she began in January 2015. On her first day, it sleeted, and the North Carolina resident didn’t own an ice scraper. She also struggled being so far away from home and didn’t love her first assignment.

“At one point, I had considered not coming back. It was just a lot, but I had to look at the benefits and weigh my options,” she says. “It definitely wasn’t worth not coming back.”

Jenaye stuck it out, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in May 2018, and is now a full-time employee at NSA. She easily ticks off the benefits of the Co-op Program now that it’s behind her. First and foremost is being able to gain real-world experience, something you can’t get in the classroom, she says. Second, the 52 weeks she put into the Co-op Program counted toward her work experience, yielding a higher salary when she started full-time. Lastly, she’s already been contributing to her retirement fund for three years, she says.

“Being able to come in as a student but be treated like a full-time employee, that was pretty unusual,” she says. “I got the opportunity to see some things that I would like to do and some that I would not like to do – which is just as important.”

Working as an analyst in signals intelligence was her favorite experience while rotating through different offices in the program. She also had the opportunity to do reliability qualification testing, analyzing products being used in the field.

“The experience you get here is unique. There is a lot of specialized work that you cannot find in corporate America,” she says. “Your daily job contributes to protecting the national security of our country, which includes providing technical support to military members out in the field. It’s a gratifying feeling when you can help your country every day.”

That is one of the reasons why Jenaye decided to come back to NSA after graduation. She’s now in the Information Technology Development Program, and will rotate through various departments, gaining experience in network engineering. NSA is also paying for her to work toward her master’s degree.

“It helps mold you into what a great employee looks like,” she says of the program.

Jenaye also appreciates the work-life balance and the culture at NSA.

“Being a new graduate, there is a learning curve here, but there are tons of people to help you get to where you need to be – to where you can be successful in the agency,” she says. “There are a lot of A&T alumni here, and the networking is amazing.”

And if you don’t like what you are doing at NSA, you can change jobs without having to change employers, she pointed out.

“There are so many different avenues you can take, the options are limitless. Regardless of which field you are looking to pursue, there is guaranteed to be something here for you,” she says. “You can even work overseas or spend time working for other intelligence agencies, such as the FBI, Secret Service or CIA.”

Jenaye encourages other students to take advantage of the many student programs at NSA.

“How many people have the National Security Agency on their resume before they even graduate college?” she asks.

NSA is taking applications for the Co-op Program now through March 31, 2020, from college sophomores and second-semester freshmen. There is a program for STEM students who are majoring in Computer/Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Cybersecurity (technical track) and another program for language students who are majoring in Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Farsi or Korean.