How do you navigate life’s challenges, stay true to yourself and create the life you really need—not just the one society says you should want? Rowena Caanen ’17 is helping to provide some answers.
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Christine Sweeney ’07: A Bridge in Intelligence
Christine Sweeney ’07 never imagined that a double major in English and theatre would lead to a career in the CIA.
But in the summer of 2006, Sweeney was about to board a plane at Heathrow Airport in Britain where she had been studying at the University of Oxford, when she learned that all outgoing flights from Heathrow had suddenly been canceled.
The reason: A terrorist plot to detonate explosives aboard multiple aircraft headed for the United States. The incident later became known as the 2006 Transatlantic Aircraft Plot. It was a life-changing moment for Sweeney. “I think I always knew what the CIA was and what it did, but I didn’t really appreciate the impact of intelligence until I had that personal experience that hit a little too close to home,” she recalls.
Back at Smith, she did do some research on careers in intelligence and when she saw a post for an editor’s job at a Department of Defense agency, she thought it was kismet. “Through the experience I had returning from the Smith study abroad program, I was motivated to find out about the field of intelligence,” says Sweeney, “and it was through Smith that I actually entered the intelligence community.”
Today, Sweeney is a production manager for the CIA’s Directorate of Analysis, where she leads a team of multimedia producers to distill the often highly complex international intelligence and reporting from agents and analysts into easily understandable, timely, accurate and nonpartisan assessments and visuals for the nation’s decisionmakers. It is imperative that these individuals can glean the information they need in a brief amount of time. “There are a lot of important competing priorities in the country,” says Sweeney, “and legislators are limited on time and the number of issues they can look at in one day.”
Here, Sweeney talks more about her position at the CIA, her time at Smith and her best career advice.
‘We don’t create policy, we inform policy’
I work at Langley at CIA headquarters, where I manage a team of production officers, which includes graphic designers, editors and cartographers. We work with CIA analysts to make sure their assessments are clearly and concisely put into the appropriate medium—electronic assessments, hard copy papers or briefings, for example—with the right visual aids, like graphics and maps. We send these materials to policymakers and other leaders in the country, who use this information to make critical decisions about national security and international relations. So, we don’t create policy, we inform policy.
‘A critical bridge’
I work with extremely smart people who are leading experts in their fields, and it’s crucial to be able to translate their expertise in a straightforward and accessible way, both in language and in images, to their intended audience, be it an elected official, an experienced counterpart or an educated generalist. I think what my team does provides a critical bridge between really important intelligence data and the people who need to know that data to make the decisions about national security and international relations that we rely on every day. Even on my most stressful days and in the highest-pressure situations, that’s something that brings me a lot of personal fulfillment.
A truly nonpartisan approach
I think there’s a perception outside of Washington, D.C., that everyone who works in the government is political, but the reality is that the CIA—and the intelligence community in general—is nonpartisan. Certainly, we all personally have our own individual politics, but when we’re at work, as CIA officers, we are unbiased. The Agency offers extensive training on how to write and brief and think critically without allowing our own biases to get in the way. It’s something that I am consistently impressed by. My team plays an important role in the CIA’s objectivity by providing assessments that are free of language or images that would lead policymakers to make an unsupported connection or arrive at a particular conclusion.
Rising through the ranks
I’ve been with the federal government for 12 years, and I’ve served in many different roles involving strategic communications, digital strategy and production. I’ve also worked on video and mobile projects, created a metrics program and learned how to develop employees and strategic plans as a manager. I’ve had some really cool rotational assignments. For example, I got to travel domestically and internationally with President Barack Obama as part of his National Security Council communications team, and I’ve also worked at the FBI’s office of public affairs. Next, I’m starting a new job at the CIA in public affairs. Each assignment has advanced my knowledge of the agency and my skillset.
‘A certain kind of freedom’
At Smith, I developed my critical thinking, leadership, and communications skills, which I use every day in my job. Smith taught me how to advocate for myself, how to speak up, how to collaborate and how to avoid groupthink. I also think that Smith gives a certain kind of freedom that’s unusual even for college. I was able to chart my own academic course—for example, I designed two of my own classes in subjects I wanted to explore more. I took advantage of the study abroad program, had a job on campus and held leadership positions in extracurricular groups. And I was able to complete a double major and graduate in three years, which, as a student who relied on scholarships and loans and financial aid to afford my education, was something that was really important to me. I accomplished all these things not just because I worked hard, but because I was in an environment that was extremely supportive and encouraging and enabled me to maximize my potential.
My career advice for Smith students and alumnae is to be confident in your abilities and be open to unusual career paths. I think if you had asked me about the CIA when I first started at Smith, I would have thought your question was for a government major or an international relations major, but the truth about the working world, once you get out there, is that any successful company wants to hire a diverse array of people with different backgrounds and skillsets. The trick is not just finding a job description that perfectly matches your experience and abilities, but finding an organization or a cause that you really believe in and then figuring out how to plug in your skills to help their mission. Focus on your strengths and then figure out how you can apply them to advance the causes that you care about.
All statements of fact, opinion or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author's views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.