Part 4: Fulfilling a Dream
On a cold Friday afternoon behind the FBI Academy field house, new agent trainees are shivering in a single-file line waiting to get blasted in the face with oleoresin capsicum—a substance more commonly known as pepper spray.
When it’s Liz’s turn, she waits with her eyes closed before the instructor asks if she’s ready. There’s no count to three or warning noise. Before she knows it, her face is burning. To pass this test, Liz has to open at least one eye, attack a punching bag, and defend herself from an assailant who’s trying to take her pistol out of its holster.
Amidst the chaos, Liz manages to subdue her subject, and the excruciating exercise is over.
It’s one of the final tests at the Academy. Up to this point, more than 800 hours have been spent in and out of classroom learning what it takes to become a special agent. Trainees have worked together, studied together, and sweated together to complete one of the most challenging experiences of their lives. Now, it comes down to one last event: receiving their FBI badge and credentials on graduation day.
“The graduation is a moment you’ll never forget.... You’ve finally reached your dream of becoming a special agent of the FBI.”
Kellie Holland, unit chief, FBI Training Division
It’s a crisp morning in January as hundreds of people file into the auditorium at the Academy. Friends and family members—who have made their own sacrifices over the past five months, with plenty more to come—take their seats and wait in anticipation for their loved ones to officially become special agents.
After being sworn in, Liz makes her way to the wings of the auditorium with the rest of her classmates. Clad in suits, they’re all now standing in line, waiting excitedly for their turn to go on stage and complete their journey at the Academy.
“The graduation is a moment you’ll never forget—standing up there, raising your right hand, repeating the oath, and then walking across the stage to get your creds and your badge,” says Kellie Holland, a special agent unit chief with the FBI’s Training Management Unit. “You’ve finally reached your dream of becoming a special agent of the FBI.”
Like the rest of her classmates, Liz couldn’t take her eyes off the shimmering gold FBI badge and credentials she now held in her hands. She made it. Now she will head to her first field office in Chicago, where her career as a special agent begins.
“I’m really excited to get things started. I feel like I’m going into a big family right away,” said Liz. “I’ve already been in contact with my squad mates, and I feel prepared for this next transition. It already feels like an extension of the training I’ve received at Quantico.”
The Learning Never Ends
While the graduation ceremony serves as the culminating event for the new agents who have spent countless hours preparing to serve the country, training never stops. As Supervisory Special Agent John Woodill puts it, special agents in the field are constantly striving to improve their tradecraft as they move from assignment to assignment. Individuals assigned to public health cases, for example, must understand the complexities of the industry and the types of violations that may occur.
“There’s no success for any individuals who remain locked into certain mindsets as they go about their careers. Lifelong learning is absolutely essential—otherwise, things could get dangerous if you don’t stay on your game,” said Woodill.
Following graduation, new agents report to their first field office, where they’ll be on probation and are assigned a training mentor. Over a three-year period, agents must reach specific checkpoints and objectives before they can operate more independently in investigations.
“After about three years, new agents will begin to get their real sea legs under them,” says Holland, who served in the field for over eight years as a special agent before eventually becoming a unit chief at the FBI’s Training Division. “In my experience, I felt like I got my bearings at that point, and it took me the next few years to fine tune my skillset.”