Christina Hillsberg, BA’06, was a single, successful CIA analyst with a burgeoning career in espionage when she met fellow spy, Ryan, a hotshot field operative who turned her world upside down. They fell in love, married, and soon they were raising three children from his first marriage, and later, two more of their own.
Christina knew right away that there was something special about the way Ryan was parenting his kids, although she had to admit their obsession with surviving end-of-world scenarios and their ability to do everything from archery to motorcycle riding initially gave her pause. More than that, Ryan’s kids were much more security-savvy than most adults she knew. She soon realized he was using his CIA training and field experience in his day-to-day child-rearing. And why shouldn’t he? The CIA trains its employees to be equipped to deal with just about anything. Shouldn’t parents strive to do the same for their kids?
As Christina grew into her new role as a stepmom and later gave birth to their two children, she got on board with Ryan’s unique parenting style—and even helped shape it using her own experiences at the CIA. Told through honest and relatable parenting anecdotes, Christina shares their distinctive approach to raising confident, security-conscious, resilient children, giving practical takeaways rooted in CIA tradecraft along the way. License to Parent aims to provide parents with the tools necessary to raise savvier, well-rounded kids who have the skills necessary to navigate through life.
Finding Myself at the CIA: My Unusual Path to the World of International Espionage
I entered Indiana University (IU) never having traveled outside the United States, and with one main career ambition: to marry and have children soon after graduation. Those seeds for a professional career that were planted after my parents’ divorce, however, began to grow when I started studying Swahili.
I originally applied to IU as my “safety net” school. You know, the school you pick near home, in case you don’t get into any of your preferred choices. I envisioned myself going out of state and had applied to several other universities, thinking I’d study journalism. However, that plan changed during my senior year of high school, when I discovered I had a talent for foreign languages. (I got perfect grades in Spanish and Latin, despite dozing off in many of my classes.) With my older brother’s encouragement and guidance, I chose linguistics as my college major. Couple that with my growing interest in Africa (sparked by a high school research project and cultivated by an unhealthy obsession with The Lion King) and my decision to study Swahili was born. Turns out IU had one of the best African-language programs in the country. Instead of a safety net, it became my target and first choice.
Learning Swahili and taking other courses on topics like African politics and literature sparked a desire in me to truly learn—not to simply study material for straight A’s like I had done up to that point. I couldn’t get enough of my Swahili class—so much so that I took a separate independent-study course, which consisted of reading Swahili novels with my professor. This experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the culture in addition to the language itself. I was also a volunteer language tutor on campus, where I reveled in opportunities to deconstruct the grammar of the Swahili language and help other students understand how it worked. After two years of studying Swahili, I was granted a scholarship to study in Tanzania, which only furthered my interest in Africa, as I fell in love with the people and culture. Time went on and I enjoyed the language more and more. Soon, I started to picture myself joining the Peace Corps, perhaps as the start of a career in the humanitarian aid world. And what better way to reach people and make a difference than communicating with them in their native language?
But life had a different plan for me.
My interview with the CIA was more of a happy accident than the result of any sort of careful planning or long-held aspirations. One of my professors mentioned that a government recruiter interested in applicants with foreign language capabilities would be on campus, and I sent my résumé forward just to see if I’d hear back. I wasn’t even sure that I was interested, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn more.
My mother and new stepfather often told me that they wanted me to consider a future with the federal government, if only for the stability it would provide. As with any independent-minded twenty-one-year-old, that was enough to make me not want to do it. My stepfather was a senior special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and the antithesis of my father. My dad was a sociable, life-of-the-party man who enjoyed his beer, whereas my stepdad was a buttoned-up, rule-following former police officer who didn’t drink alcohol or even caffeine. A lot about him screamed safety, and I suppose it made sense why my mom fell for him. Who wouldn’t want a safe place to land when you’re rebuilding your professional life after twenty-five years of focusing primarily on your kids?
But safety wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for. Nonetheless, when I landed a generic “government interview” the same week as my Peace Corps interview, I reluctantly took their advice and showed up to the interview in my Merona suit from Target and a poorly ironed white button-down shirt.
“Hi, Christina. I’m Frank. We spoke on the phone. I’m from the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Did I hear him right? I had mistakenly assumed this was some low-level, unimportant government entity, since the flyer didn’t specify which agency the recruiter represented.
“Your foreign language skills are very impressive,” Frank said. “And I see you were a Fulbright scholar in Tanzania,” he continued as he looked over my résumé and back up at me.
It turned out that my unique language capabilities were also needed by the CIA. There weren’t many applicants who knew Swahili and Zulu (I studied the latter during my final year of college). They were impressed.
This was a stark contrast from my Peace Corps interview experience earlier in the week, where I was told that I didn’t have any skills. This was about the time it was starting to become trendy to travel to Africa to “help people,” so the Peace Corps was becoming pickier about who they chose. The CIA recruiter, on the other hand, was impressed with me, and there’s no doubt the CIA has always been and continues to be very picky about who it chooses.
Frank went on to tell me about the position. He said I’d have the opportunity to use my Africa expertise and foreign language skills to influence U.S. policy, and I’d even travel to Africa on a regular basis. I could barely contain my excitement. I couldn’t believe I almost skipped out on this opportunity entirely.
A few weeks later, I received a job offer from the CIA, contingent on a background investigation and security clearance. I filled out pages and pages of biographical information, and security investigators began interviewing my family members, friends, friends of friends, and neighbors. Was I a patriot? Did I use drugs? Had I ever hacked into any computer systems? Did I pirate music? Was I a trustworthy person? Thankfully, as a fresh-out-of-college twenty-one-year-old who had only traveled to one foreign country and had very little life experience, I breezed through the process, with the exception of the polygraph examination.
I underwent extensive medical and psychological testing and not one, but two polygraph examinations. I failed my first four-hour polygraph on account of suspicions that I was a drug smuggler, all because of a pot muffin I consumed in Amsterdam and failed to tell them about. (I blame it on the Catholic guilt. That shit runs deep.) Luckily, I had another opportunity the following day. (I later learned that the polygraph is useful only as an interrogation tool, and it’s only as reliable as the polygrapher who is conducting it.)
I passed the second attempt with flying colors, and four months later, I found myself sitting in a room with about fifty others taking an oath to spy for our country. Some of my fellow recruits were motivated to join out of a fiercely patriotic desire to serve their country. Others were thrill seekers looking for adventure. Many were fulfilling a lifelong dream to be like James Bond. Strangely, I was there because of my love of a foreign land.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, check out our Q&A with Christina Hillsberg or purchase her book.
Excerpted from License to Parent by Ryan and Christina Hillsberg, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.