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FBI working to reduce 'shockingly low' number of agents with diverse backgrounds

At Seattle University, a two-day FBI Practicum aims to expose more students from diverse backgrounds to the career opportunities that the FBI has to offer.

SEATTLE — On Seattle University's campus, students were taking part in the FBI practicum. It is a two-day course that exposes students who are already studying crime and justice to what the FBI does on a daily basis.

On the morning of Feb. 4, Special Agent Stephanie Shark covered topics that ranged from Domestic Terrorism to Diversity within the FBI.

"They have really worked hard to talk about it. We used to not talk about it," said Shark, referring to the Bureau's lack of diversity.

Debi Dorfsman, who has been with the FBI for almost 20 years, has seen the problem too.

"Historically, the FBI has been predominantly all white males," Dorfsman said. "If you don't see yourself in an organization, people don't feel there is a place for them in the organization." 

FBI data shows out of roughly 13,600 special agents, fewer than 5% are Black. But the number is rising. More women are joining, too. 

Approximately 19% of agents identify as a minority, according to the data. That number does not reflect the U.S. population. That is why the FBI says it is prioritizing the recruitment and retention of diverse, qualified talent. 

More figures from the FBI show that in fiscal year 2019, 23% of new agent class attendees were minorities. In fiscal year 2020, 24% were minorities. In fiscal year 2019, 36% of applicants were female. In fiscal year 2020 and 2021, 37% of applicants were female.

"Yes, the numbers for minority agents is shocking low. However, they have risen over time. The one area that not only didn't rise, but dipped in the past decade was the number of female special agents. The FBI has been unable to break the 19% max number. By the end of 2020, the percentage of female agents reached almost 21%," said Shark.

"When I started, I rarely saw a female agent at the table. I look every time and I am finally starting to see it," Shark continued.

The FBI says the practicum course, which has been offered at Seattle University for more than a decade, is helping to recruit more diverse applicants.

"I do think it opens doors on a number of levels," said Professor Jaqueline Helfgott, director of Seattle University's Crime and Justice Research Center.

“We've had lots of students who've been successful, but they need that extra sort of help and connection with a real person to be able to help them move forward in that direction," Helfgott said.

She says that's what the practicum has done in the past, and current students hope it continues.

“I am half Indonesian and I can speak the language, and so I think it would be interesting to kind of use what I know in the FBI and make it more diverse," said Azzia MacDonald, a senior at Seattle University.

Special Agent Shark said she never thought the FBI was a possibility, until someone recruited her.

"And now I am here, looking for those future people who look like me, who don't see themselves in the FBI, but we see them as our future," Shark said.

The FBI also works to recruit students through an Honors Internship Program and a Collegiate Hiring Initiative.

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