Like many people, Heather Wirkus loves crime shows. And, like many, she dreamed of being an FBI agent.
For a while, she thought she was doing the next best thing: teaching Forensics at Staples High School. She helps students learn criminal investigative procedures and lab techniques. They work on case studies, discuss ethical issues, and listen to guest speakers.
One of those speakers inspired Wirkus to take another step. Now she’s really done the next best thing: She took the intense FBI Citizens Academy course.
She’s eager to spread the word about what’s she learned. And to inspire students to consider some of the many FBI career opportunities.
The Citizens Academy course meets every Thursday for 3 hours, at the field office in New Haven. It normally takes 6 weeks.
But after Wirkus’ first class in February 2020, COVID struck. The program was shut down for 18 months. It resumed in September.
Entering the Citizens Academy entailed more background checks and clearances than she needed to get her teaching job, Wirkus says. Because she was entering a secure facility, she could not bring any technology. Her car was checked for bombs — just like in crime shows.
Once inside, Wirkus and her fellow students had many eye-opening experiences.
They learned about human intelligence gathering, domestic terrorism, violent gangs, cybersecurity, crisis negotiations, SWAT teams, public corruption, civil rights, human trafficking and victim assistance programs.
Wirkus was the only teacher in the group. Her classmates came from all walks of life, and all over Connecticut.
All were there for the same reason: to learn more about the FBI, then build relationships in their communities and workplaces in ways that special agents can’t.
So what did she learn?
“Everything!” Wirkus says.
Her main takeaway, though, is that the general public sees only “the outer shell” of the FBI. “We don’t realize how many layers there are to protecting our nation.”
The FBI offers a high school version of its Citizens Academy: the Future Law Enforcement Youth Academy, for 20 teenagers around the state each year. Wirkus is encouraging her students to apply.
She’ll never be an FBI special agent. For one thing, the maximum age to apply is 36. For another, she loves her job as a Staples Forensics teacher.
But now, as she does it, an FBI Citizens Academy certificate hangs on the wall.