When Kara Swankowski ’12 was in fifth grade, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came to speak at her school.
Kara’s dad, a special agent with the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, arranged that visit.
“I always thought my dad had the coolest job,” said Kara, adding that he “got to travel the world and see so many amazing things.”
Fifth-grade Kara in Purcellville, Virginia, thought maybe she’d be a veterinarian someday. Little did she know that a dozen years later, after graduating from University of Lynchburg with a degree in communication studies with an emphasis in communication and social influence, she’d follow in her father’s footsteps and work as an intelligence research specialist with the same agency.
As Kara describes her job, “I assist special agents in conducting investigations related to visa and passport fraud. I also analyze and use investigative techniques to interpret fraud trends to identify indicators associated with U.S. travel document fraud, and human smuggling and trafficking trends.”
Kara’s career with the U.S. government started with a summer internship during her junior year. Her dad suggested that she apply for a position in his agency’s clerical program. “At that point, I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to take, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to apply,” she said.
She spent the summer before her senior year working for the DSS Training Center’s Office of Information Systems Management. In addition to gaining real-world experience, she earned college credit. “Applying for that summer program was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said.
After completing her internship and graduating from Lynchburg, Kara started working full time at the DSS. Despite her family connections to the agency, her faculty advisor, Jimmy Roux, said she “had to deliver” to get the job.
“She was above average,” said Dr. Roux. “She’s smart, credible, and professional, and that was what was required for her to get the job.
“The internship was one thing, but she had to do the work, put the work forward, to get the interview. She’s an outstanding person. She’s very deserving and has worked very hard.”
Kara’s work has received attention from higher-ups in the government. This June, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General gave her its annual Collaboration Award. According to a press release, Kara was honored for her instrumental role in the investigation and prosecution of Leonardo Silva, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer. He was charged with using false information to cause two prominent Mexican citizens to lose their visas; the victims were competitors of businessmen who had given him free airplane flights.
As an analyst assigned to the case, Kara examined evidence used to advance the investigation, helped special agents with search warrants, and worked with various agencies to make things right for the Mexican citizens and their visas.
In choosing a college, Kara said one reason she chose Lynchburg was its century-long commitment to the liberal arts. Unsure of her career goals at the time, she said she wanted a “well-rounded education.”
Five years into her career, Kara says Lynchburg was the right choice. “The communication studies major prepared me for my current job by teaching me to effectively communicate with all types of people, whether it be with a peer analyst or having a conversation with the Inspector General,” she said.
“Being a communications major, I learned the contexts and settings in which people communicate — intercultural, group, organizational, sociopolitical, interpersonal — which helps me analyze and determine why and how criminals may be operating.”
She said her “ripped from the headlines” job can get pretty exciting. “Every day is different and I work with some great people,” Kara said. “We are all working toward the same mission and it’s great to feel like you are making a difference, even if it’s just a small one.”