Alum Rebecca Richards ’84 (Political Science) visits campus, speaks with class about working at the National Security Agency

University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy (SPP) students met with alum Rebecca Richards

From left: SPP students and Rebecca Richards during a question and answer session.
Photo Credits: Matthew Medeiros / University of Massachusetts Amherst

Political Science alum Rebecca Richards ’84 met with a full room of students from the University of Massachusetts School of Public Policy (SPP) to discuss the policy implications of her work as Director of Civil Liberties and Privacy for the US National Security Agency (NSA). Richards' visit to campus on October 4 was sponsored by the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence program.

The crowd of more than 25 students in the PPA 614: Professional Seminar ranged from undergraduates enrolled in the Accelerated Master of Public Policy (MPP) program to nontraditional students working towards a graduate degree. Over lunch, Richards explained her career path since graduating from UMass.

Richards encouraged students to take risks and to be open to opportunities and used her own path as an example. While her original career goal was to join the US Foreign Service, she realized after an internship that it wasn’t what she wanted and pursued graduate education in preparation for business work in the private sector, but then ended up in the privacy office at the Department of Homeland Security in its earliest days. After the extensive leaks about intelligence monitoring from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Richards was hired by the NSA as the agency’s first Director of Civil Liberties and Privacy.

“There’s real opportunity in privacy and civil liberties at the NSA. There were protections in place and the agency was not talking about them because it is part of the intelligence community, and discretion is how they operate,” said Richards.

After joining the NSA, Richards was part of a number of initiatives to create greater transparency. For example, after the Snowden leaks, the agency distributed information for employees to help them explain their work at the agency. Richards explained moments like that were a cultural shift from the agency’s decades-long approach of not publicly acknowledging anything about its work.

During a series of questions from attendees, Richards reflected on a variety of topics – including advice about careers in public policy.

“Internships are an awesome opportunity wherever they might be, whether nonprofit or government agencies,” explained Richards. “They help you think about what makes you enjoy your job, and to compare that with what you think your career goals might be,” she added.

While she recommended networking as a way to find jobs, Richards noted that she personally finds it difficult. 

“Think of it as a skill to learn, and not something you need to naturally be good at doing,” she said. Richards also noted the importance of the skills learned from synthesizing a larger amount of facts down to a two page summary paper. Concluding her talk, she talked about what privacy concerns are most pressing at this time.

“Be active as citizens. We’re in a real place of change, and having a healthy, civil, debate is important,” Richards noted. “The moment when we’re not engaging with one another is when we should be concerned,” she added.

Read more about SPP degrees available here.

-- By Matthew Medeiros for the UMass Amherst College of Social & Behavioral Sciences